Thursday, June 3, 2010

Communicating the Vision

Growing up, I was often reminded that, to achieve a significant goal, "you have to make a plan and work a plan."  In other words, you first need to have a clear vision of what you're trying to accomplish and an understanding of the steps that will get you there.  You then need to work the plan, completing all of the small but difficult tasks that, collectively, get you across the finish line.

At least with respect to downtown, I think it would be hard to dispute that the City of St. Louis has made a plan and is working a plan.  Continuing the enormous successes of the last decade (including $4.5 billion in downtown investment), the public-private Downtown St. Louis Partnership is now implementing Downtown Next, a new ten-year revitalization plan.  The plan is ambitious in its vision and scope, yet appropriately focused on the human-scale needs of an increasing residential and worker population.  Recent financing developments on several major projects (including Park Pacific, The Laurel, St. Louis Centre, and One City Centre) all point to the plan moving forward as intended. 

In the context of this monumental public endeavor to rejuvenate an urban core, though, I would add one other component to my childhood mantra:  you have to communicate the plan.  Turning around the City--any city--requires community acceptance and buy-in of the plan, and a significant change in public perception resulting in a critical mass of increased density.  As part of downtown's marketing effort, it is critical to maximize awareness of downtown's recent successes and future plans, and to convey the message that a thriving urban core will act as a rising tide that raises all ships in the St. Louis region.

The point of this post is not to suggest that the City is doing a poor job of communicating those very things.  The Partnership appears to have expended a considerable amount of time and money on marketing efforts, including their Excited About Now and Downtown is Alive campaigns.  Downtown events and programs, including the farmers' market at the Old Post Office Plaza and the Riverfront Times Music Showcase, seem to get a fair amount of press.  Social media such as Twitter and Facebook appear to be widely used by City leadership, the Partnership, and local media to communicate positive developments directly to members of the public.  I am not a marketing expert and cannot really speak to the efficacy of these efforts.  It does seem to me that more could be done to reach a broader audience--a topic ripe for future exploration, but again, not exactly what this particular post is about. 

Instead, I wanted to address a related issue raised by Matt Mourning in a recent post on his excellent Dotage St. Louis blog.  Matt notes the "dissonant chord" among bloggers and some other St. Louisans who feel that bloggers, at best, do not take enough concrete action, and at worst, negatively affect urban progress in St. Louis by focusing on feel-good issues rather than the real problems facing the City.  At the risk of coming off as completely self-interested (as a newbie blogger myself), I would like to explain why I think this is so wrongheaded. 

Like Matt, I believe that a key purpose and effect of writing about the City is to get people excited--about its neighborhoods, its people, and its future.  It's about sharing with others where you think the City is (or should be) heading, and how it can best get there.  In that regard, I think that writings by people who love the City and are interested in the revival of downtown help to communicate a vision, critically supplementing the City's efforts to communicate and implement its more formal, comprehensive plan.  Like laughter, positive energy is contagious, and helps to improve public perception of the City--a critical component of its ongoing rejuvenation.  Dampering that enthusiasm in any way only diminishes the City's ability to work the plan (which I believe is worthy of our support).

Of course, many things about the City (and any other city) are not positive, and there are major areas for improvement on serious issues.  Nonetheless, I don't think it's fair to say that people shouldn't write about the particular issues that are important to them, simply because others believe that those are not the "key" issues affecting the City. Everyone has different interests, and not every person can be expected to tackle or be primarily motivated by socioeconomic issues such as crime, poverty and education.  In any event, none of these urban issues exist in a vacuum, and it seems misguided to think that these problems will not be positively affected by the increases in population, revenues, development, jobs, and civic pride that will continue to accompany downtown's revival.

The argument also seems to present a sort of false dichotomy, in that I don't really see that bloggers are doing nothing more than writing.  Surely, many writers also are directly involved in concrete actions that are making a real, positive difference in the City.  As one prominent example, some of the most well-known local bloggers (including Alex Ihnen of Urban STL, Paul Hohmann of Vanishing St. Louis, and Rick Bonasch of STL Rising) are part of the ongoing City to River effort to remove the section of Interstate 70 in front of the Gateway Archgrounds and replace it with a new, at-grade Memorial Drive.  The group has taken an active role in pushing for what would be a transformative reshaping of downtown, including creating designs, publishing testimonials, meeting with key political and business leaders, and initiating advocacy efforts in the community.  It is too early to say what the result of the City to River effort will be (although it appears to be gaining ground), but whether successful or not, it is unfair to characterize its proponents as "mere bloggers."

Even for those who chose to do nothing more than blog, who's to say that that is inappropriate?  Presumably, people choose to write for many different reasons.  For some, it's what they have time to do; constraints imposed by their professional and/or personal lives do not permit them to do much more than type and circulate occasional thoughts.  For others, writing may simply be what they're good at, and the way they find that they communicate and contribute most effectively.  Some people might wish they were more involved in City matters on a day-to-day basis, but for reasons beyond their control find their current professional lives unaligned with those personal interests.  And for some, writing and the accompanying research is a method of educating themselves on urban issues, such that these "mere bloggers" of today may become the critical thinkers and community leaders of tomorrrow.

I have to believe that the viewpoint referenced by Matt is not widely held, and that most people who care about St. Louis appreciate the overall positive impact that many local bloggers are making on our community (just to be clear, I'm not referring to myself here--I'm new to the scene and take zero credit).  I wouldn't even take the time to address the issue here except that, again, I believe spreading a positive vision of the future of St. Louis is such a critical component of overall revitalization efforts. 

Of course, a "vision" is not a "plan."  None of this is to suggest that I think anyone--including myself--should be comfortable with merely posting a thought every now and then (or even every day) if they are reasonably able to do more.  As Matt says, there is always more work to do.  Particularly where people with a shared vision can join together to speak with a louder voice and coordinate specific efforts--where they can implement a plan rather than just communicate a vision--they should do so.  I, for one, am actively looking for ways to become further involved in St. Louis issues beyond just this site, and I'm sure that many others out there are as well.

Nonetheless, simply communicating a positive vision of St. Louis's present and future isn't nothing.  I happen to think it has the potential to go a long way toward changing "hearts and minds" in the community.  As with any major turnaround, the unthinkable becomes the thinkable becomes the inevitable.  St. Louis is already well on its way down that path, and continuing--and amplifying--the positive commentary can only help get us across the finish line faster.

So I say, keep it up folks . . . let's hear some chatter out there.

1 comment:

  1. Your posts always seem well thought out and revised. I enjoy the chatter too.