Decline Isn’t Inevitable

The Maturity Curve.

I’m a big fan of urban affairs blogger Aaron Renn.

His “Urbanophile” blog is a must read if you care about cities, regions and economic development.

Recently, he wrote about “Maturity Curves”, which I’ve become familiar with relative to product life cycles.

The curve starts with an incubation period that leads to a growth phase followed by maturity and then sadly decline.

Think of products like the iPod: Apple launched the device; it quickly gained traction; then it matured and stabilized before inevitably declining only to be replaced by the newest hot thing.

Mr. Renn believes– and I agree –that the maturity curve also holds true for cities and institutions.

They hatch, grow, mature and then decline.

But is decline inevitable? Or can you intervene to make sure that you either remain stable or in a healthy, sustainable growth phase?

I believe you can ward off decline, but it requires vigilance, self-awareness, a certain degree of fear and a willingness to iterate and innovate.

Let’s take a look at some local cities and institutions to show how the maturity curve works but also how decline might be avoided.

Boca Raton is an interesting case study.

From the outside looking in the city has an awful lot of positive attributes—great schools, universities, a terrific private airport, tons of jobs, beautiful parks and some strong arts and cultural institutions. But there seems to be a lot of angst over the direction of the city’s downtown, especially the nature of new development.

Proponents of growth point to the need for new development to create critical mass downtown while those who worry feel that the scale of the new development threatens to change Boca forever –and not in a good way.

It’s an age old argument that could lead to a type of “decline” if not addressed.

Boca has a tremendous amount of what a friend of mine calls “depth” so it would be hard to imagine the city declining in a way that it becomes blighted, but decline can be measured in other ways as well.

A polarized community ripped apart by divisive politics, infighting and nasty fights over projects can weigh down a community’s momentum over time. Social media gives fuel to the divisions. A cursory glance at some Boca related pages on Facebook sheds light on some of the flashpoints.

The debate brings back memories for those of us who have been through the growth debate in Delray.

When Delray Beach was split over Worthing Place (a six story mixed use project) in the late 90s, the city embarked on a Downtown Master Plan process in 2001 to forge a common vision for how the downtown would evolve.

An outside agency—in this case the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council—was brought in to facilitate a process that encouraged community input from a broad range of stakeholders. What emerged was a consensus blueprint that addressed hot button issues including height, density and even race relations.

While the Master Plan process did not eliminate differences of opinion nor prevent controversy, the plan was embraced by a large cross section of the community and enabled projects to be green lit or voted down based on whether they fit the vision forged by the community. And that’s the key isn’t it: a vision forged by the community and implemented by elected officials, city staff and agencies.

Whenever I see communities slide into the muck, it’s often because the community has been cut out of any meaningful discussions on the future.

Delray got in trouble when we failed to realize that visions age and need to be renewed to reflect changing times and changing populations.

The hard feelings magnify when civic leaders fail to defend or understand previously adopted visions. What follows is often Monday morning quarterbacking in which past visions and strategies are questioned and disparaged. This really doesn’t serve a productive purpose. Assigning blame is hardly ever a tonic and rarely productive. What is productive is renewal.

Cities decline when visions dry up and aren’t refreshed and or replaced. You can’t fly safely without a net. It’s just that simple.

Delray’s Downtown Master Plan was hardly perfect, but it worked and it was implemented. It was incubated by hundreds of people who engaged in the process, we saw planned growth (downtown housing, the development of mixed use projects, investments in infrastructure, a race relations process that extended the downtown to I-95 etc.) and some maturation too.

Here’s a refresher summary. Delray’s Downtown Master Plan championed the following:

–A gateway feature to let people know that when they exited the interstate they were entering a special place and that the downtown extended from I-95 to A1A.

–The notion that design was more important than density. Rather than be caught up in numbers, the community should embrace well designed projects that look good and feel good in terms of scale, architecture, function and fit.

–A mix of uses was important and there was a need to break out from a sole reliance on food and beverage. Offices, retail, housing and entertainment uses were important to create a year round economy and a sustainable downtown.

But aside from policies that encouraged housing, sidewalk cafes, walkability and mixed use, the Master Plan process and past visions processes gave rise to a philosophy as well.

Here are just a few tenets:

–Complacency is a killer. When it comes to the downtown and other parts of your city, you are never done.

–The downtown is the heart of the city and you can’t be a healthy community without a healthy heart.

–You can and must do multiple things at one time—work on your downtown, focus on your neighborhoods, preserve history, invigorate other parts of your city, encourage sports, culture and art.

—Even though you don’t directly control schools, cities should take an active role in education.

So how do we avoid decline?

Cities decline when bedrock principles driven by personal preferences and priorities take precedence over values forged by the community.

That doesn’t mean that these values are written in stone and can’t be changed or amended over time. Indeed, they should be.

But that requires effort, engagement and a replacement of values, goals and visions.

When downtown Delray began to flower as a result of visioning and investment made in the late 80s and early 90s before taking off in the early 2000s, there was scant competition.

Downtown Boynton didn’t exist and while Boca was always a strong neighbor its downtown was also pretty much limited to Mizner Park and before that a failing Boca Mall.

Downtown Lake Worth wasn’t much competition at the time, there wasn’t a whole lot happening in Pompano or Deerfield Beach and West Palm’s Clematis Street was in a boom bust cycle.

Today, all of those cities are investing, have great restaurants, amenities, events and a fair amount of buzz.

We are not alone anymore—there is really good competition coming from nearby cities.

I don’t mean to take away from the achievement that was the redevelopment of the downtown because it was a remarkable turnaround, but in those days there was not a lot of competition and so we attracted consumers from neighboring cities and from our western neighbors who now also have options including the Delray Marketplace.

If we don’t realize the changing landscape we risk decline.

Today, there are tons of great restaurants, activities and events happening throughout the region.

If we become complacent and or give away what made us special, we are at risk.

The maturity curve affects cities, just as it affects iPods, Blockbuster video and cherished institutions such as Old School Square.

We need to wake up a little scared every morning and stay one step or two ahead of the competition.

Failure to do so, can be fatal. No city, product, company or institution is bullet proof.

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