More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time … but only if they’re allowed to. ~ Stuart Brand
Several years ago I read book called “How Buildings Learn” by Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. The premise of the book was that a building whether it’s a house, a factory, or an office building, should be designed to adapt with its inhabitants. As a family goes through the different stages of its life, so should its home. If it can’t then the family will have to pack up, move and find a new home more suitable to its current needs. Such is the same for businesses.
Unfortunately this is not always the case. In fact, normally it’s not the case. Brand vilified vaunted architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright because his buildings, especially his houses, were built for one specific family at one specific time of their life. If anything in this family’s life changes … their residence wasn’t appropriate for their needs since it couldn’t adapt.
We can take this same principle and apply it to communities. Inevitably communities and cities change over time. Detroit is a dramatic example of this. The auto industry moved out from the city’s core leaving vacant blight in it’s wake with no evolutionary strategy. And unfortunately, unlike a family, a community can’t pack up and move down the street or to the next town. Its stuck where it’s at, abandon buildings and all.
But it doesn’t need to be like this. There are three main impediments to a community’s adaptability; individual design of its buildings, zoning laws and mindset. I believe the first two can be overcome with a little effort. A building, with imagination – can be converted into something more appropriate for the community’s needs at the current time. Zoning laws can be changed, maybe not without a lot of kicking and screaming … but they can be changed.
The third impediment, mindset – is not so easy though. Adaptation and evolution can either be embraced and helped along, or it will come on its own terms. And in the latter, it’s often not pretty. Again we look at the example of Detroit. Once the decline of the Big Thee American auto industry started in the eighties, the city (and especially the auto unions) turned a blind eye to it. “This can’t be real. Nobody’s going buy those foreign cars. We’ll be back bigger and better than ever.” Detroit did not embrace the enviable. Now we see what happens when evolution comes on its own terms. It’s pretty much like a real life version of the four headless horsemen in the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” (On a positive note, Detroit is finally making some headway on revitalizing itself by recognizing the the past isn’t coming back).
“Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s easy to do the same old thing the same old way, day and day out – and just expect the world to take a break from change. But it doesn’t work that way anymore than expecting the world to stop spinning. This reluctance to change and except new ideas is the core reason for any generational gaps we’ve had in past, have now or will have in the future. The older generations want things like they were, and the younger generations want things like they’ll be. Well, let me tell you – there ain’t time machines, so we’re not going backwards, at least in time (attitude maybe). For a community to prosper, or even survive – it needs to embrace adaptability. It can hold on to its heritage and history, and it definitely should. But it has to take that heritage and bring into the future and make it relevant to not just generations of the past.
This embrace has to take place with the local presence, the locally owned businesses and commercial property owners. It has to happen with the city policy makers and planners. Adaptability requires being on the pulse of the community, recognizing where its resources are and maximizing them. That’s the advantage local businesses have over the box stores and the national chains. Locally owned businesses can adapt immediately, while the latter change course like the Titanic. In fact that’s the prime advantage a local business has over an “out-of-town conglomerate.” They can’t compete on price. But they can compete on relevance.
But there’s more to adaptability that just changing product mix or revising hours or even sponsoring local events and sports teams. It’s about changing one’s mindset from the old fixed location “brick and mortar” two-year lease – to none of the above. Imagine if you had never known a world where a business was committed to a fixed location for a fixed time period.
What if a business could adapt: come and go, and move around according the to needs of its clientele. This stretch of the imagination is the foundation of the “Pop-Up Community.”
You ever walk around an old downtown area and see all the buildings with nothing in them. It’s not like the downtown is dead or doesn’t have potential, a new potential – it’s just not be utilized or maximized. What if a business could go into one of those buildings for two months and then pack up and leave. And then another business, of a different type would come in a couple of months later for stay three months and leave. It may not be a two-year lease for the building owner. But then again the building owner isn’t getting the two-year lease anyway. Plus having the building occupied, generates traffic and revenue for neighboring businesses.
This is “Resource Maximization.” And this is what communities will need to do to prosper in our “warp speed evolving future.” And the people navigating this “warp speed.” are the younger generations. These “kids” want flexibility to grow with “trial and error.” And a two-year lease in a fixed location just doesn’t cut it. This is the main reason for the boom in “office hubs” or shared office space in recent years. I belong to one in Los Angeles. It works perfect for me since I’m only in L.A. a couple of times a year, but for a month at a time. When I’m there, I pop into The Hub LA, and do my thing, network, attend events or just socialize.
That means, above all, that they are able to live in a community that is a collective expression of their social being and their social ideals, rather than being an obstacle to them.
If a community truly wants to move ahead then it will have to position itself to attract these young entrepreneurs and their crazy ideas, whatever they are. On that note, I’d like present my idea of the next evolution of community, or I call Community 3.0, and the “Pop-Up Community” is a big part of it.
How to Create Your Own “Pop-Up Community”
- Customer focused: Be where are the customers are and when are they going to be there.
- Permissive zoning laws: Flexibility will create more business for everyone including neighboring businesses, thereby raising property values.
- Special permitting processes for pop-up and temporary businesses: Make it easy for small low capital businesses to operate legally by cutting the red tape.
- Walkability: Pop-up businesses encourage geographic consolidation therefore access via foot rather than automobile. The less time in a car … the more time in a store.
- Specific pop-up business network loyalty programs: Having a common loyalty marketing program operating under consistent rules will bind this nomad community together and make it more stable and more likely to be less transient. These programs can also take the form of cooperative promotions.
- Co-op ventures between property owners and tenants: Rather than relying on old the “fallback” of the two-year lease with set rental rates, property owners should participate in the success of their tenants’ businesses.
- Street activity: Create a fun, festive environment including visual art, performance art, food carts, etc. which will draw people to an area. This increased traffic (by foot) can only help all neighboring businesses.
- Pop-up educational opportunities: Make everything, everywhere a learning experience. “Label your community.” Every building, bridge and park has a story just waiting to be told and passed on to the next generation.
- Encourage community entrepreneurialism: Rather than just focus on attracting big business – a community should grow its own through their own start-ups. The nurturing process should happen on all levels including the chamber, colleges, tech schools as well as co-op ventures with existing community businesses.
- Office hubs: Pop-up and temporary ventures need not be limited to retail. A community should have multiple micro co-op office space hubs with shared facilities, such as meeting rooms, kitchen facilities and technology areas to make it easier for fledging entrepreneurs to succeed.
I’m all for nostalgia, and I’m definitely for keep the flavor of community’s Main Street. But ’70s suburbia and all it’s physical constraints … not so much. I believe a community’s value lies in its past, its present and its future. The art is to balance and synthesize the requirements of the three. That takes flexibility. And a “Pop-Up Community” provides the flexibility to do that.
Steve [Jobs] felt that most people live in a small box. They think they can’t influence or change things a lot. I think he would probably call that a limited life. And more than anybody I’ve ever met, Steve never accepted that. He got each of us [his top executives] to reject that philosophy. If you can do that, then you can change things. If you embrace that the things that you can do are limitless, you can put your ding in the universe. You can change the world. ~ Tim Cook
Maybe it’s time to let our cities and neighborhoods climb out of that ‘small box.’ It may not change the world … but it may very well change our communities.