Stop Moving Your @$#{@% City Hall!

Want to Kill Your Downtown? Move Your Customer-Facing Functions Away

I’ve traveled to and met with hundreds of small municipalities. Almost none of them are as fully occupied and vibrant as they once were There are a ton of historic factors for this that I won’t bother to mention here.

While there are a lot of factors a retail establishment control over their success (product, customer service, marketing), there are two factors that drive where a store decides to open and then are largely out of there control once they’re in place: visibility and foot traffic. These factors are also the two over which the Town has the most influence.

So let’s say our town of 5,000 residents is lucky enough to also own the water utility, which has 3,000 customers. In the communities I’ve asked, approximately 15-20% still come in and pay their bill; some are still as high as 40%. Not even counting new and departing customers who may come in to establish or close an account, our small town is driving 600 people per month into Town, (hopefully) getting them out of their cars and potentially performing some other activity while they’re there. When you move it out onto the bypass at the old bank that has that cool drive-through, what’s going to replace that activity? We’re unknowingly trading a newer building for a downtown recession.

A community’s size is not a prerequisite for this insanity. The City of Columbia, SC with 133,000 residents and 375,000 customers just moved their primary collections (as well as most other customer-facing activities) way from their Main Street, reducing foot-traffic downtown by more than 1,000 people each day.

Before you take advantage of that great deal on that building with all that space, consider carefully: am I trading some short-term convenience for the long-term health of my community?

International Design in Gov’t Day (Code for America Summit Day 1)

Ever since I organized the first two National Days of Civic Hacking in Columbia, SC (HackforSC), I’ve wanted to go to the Code for America Summit.  In previous years I was using all my travel budget on Voterheads and startup-related matters.  Now that I’m no longer working on that project and am instead fully focused again on providing services and code to local government, I saw this as a chance.  I’ve also been both irked by the design decisions I was seeing in the local government software my customers were using as well as grappling with the complexities of user interface design for several tools I’ve been working on for my clients, so the opportunity to attend both Code for America and the first International Design in Government Day this side of the pond was too good to pass up. 

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When Global Goes Local: City and County Governments Tackle Climate Change

(Originally Posted at

To many of us, climate change feels like an overwhelming, global issue.  International organizations host world forums to determine what steps countries should take to help lessen what many consider to be the negative impacts of development on the earth and environment.  The recent Paris agreement, for example, took years to plan and long, hard negotiations to finalize.  So you may wonder: what can be done, or is being done, by local governments in terms of climate change? Continue reading

The Data-Drive City 1a: What First?

When Eric explained his goal to apply the data lens, my first thought was “Dammit, that’s so good why didn’t I think of that?”

At our next lunch however, it was time to get to business.  Data is great, but data without purpose is like window shopping on Ebay: ain’t nothing good is gonna come of it.  Charles from GIS, who had joined us for our occasional trip to our amazingly authentic and spicy local Thai buffet, discussed some very cool work he was doing looking into intersection safety around the city.  While we briefly went down that path, Eric had recently read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City and the multiple potential data-based questions about low-income rental evictions described were intriguing to both of us. Continue reading

Oh Public Transportation, wherefore art thou?

As I return from a trip to San Francisco, I reflect on how different my transportation needs and experience are between there and my home base in Columbia, South Carolina. This was the second of two work-related trips this year, and was a relatively long one of two weeks. During that time, including vehicular weekend trips, probably 70% of my segments were on mass transit, while during any period of time back home, none are. I find it strange, especially given that I grew up in with mass-transit as my default mode of transportation from childhood through high school, that my behavior is so incongruous.

This is a common conundrum for many transit planners across the Southeast, and one with which I empathize. Given my upbringing, why don’t I take transit more? At the same time, as I observe our local buses, I generously estimate most of them operate at less than 10% capacity: I’m clearly not the only one. So, I thought I’d deliberately walk through the mental calculus I’ve gone through in the past to see if I could figure out what it would take. Continue reading