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?
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.
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 →
Note: I attach an article I wrote for Practical Law about municipal finances. The kind people there have given me permission to share the article in my personal writing, and in exchange I will encourage you to take a look at the resources offered by Practical Law. Their existing content is probably the most useful resource of which I am aware, and they are diligently building new content for the state and local government lawyer. It’s a great tool and I hope you will explore it.
There is an enormous variation among the states on the specific laws applicable to municipal finances, but so far I’ve seen nothing to disabuse me of the notion that cities don’t have much latitude in how they raise, spend, and borrow money. There are probably lots of good reasons to narrow the options available to city government, from low voter turnout in city elections to (arguably) greater incidence of corruption at the city level to the possibility of disruptive urban economic protectionism. But I remain convinced that cities need more local flexibility in fiscal matters. Continue reading →
Crazy stuff is going to happen in the cities of the future. P.D. Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age considers some of the possibilities in a section called “Futuropolis.” He describes “fantastic cities equipped with moving pavements, travelators, airships and aerial taxis landing on the tops of skyscrapers, personal jet-packs, computer-controlled vehicles, vertiginous glass skyscrapers, and even bioluminescent trees to replace street lights.” That all sounds pretty stupendous, so here’s hoping. Continue reading →
Even when in possession of good and useful data, humans behave irrationally. City government is itself given to irrationality, particularly when politics is involved. Given that the purpose of this series (here and here, so far) is to explore how best to gather, analyze, and apply data to city government, what to do about this persistent irrationality? Continue reading →
We love data. Especially “big data” that fits neatly into spreadsheets and generates impressive graphs. We call some of those graphs infographics, or infauxgraphics, but even that witticism hints at an underlying discomfort: Data can be cool and interesting without being useful.
This note is the first in a proposed series about making data useful. My own occupation and curiosity is in city government, so the notes will consider the questions attendant to using data to make better decisions there. For the last four years, I have tried to do so in my own organization, the government in a city of 41,000 people in South Carolina. I have not had any outstanding success, and I would certainly not call myself an expert. But I have learned. I plan to ask questions, encourage comments, welcome communication, and adapt. I hope that people from inside and outside city government will find the series useful, and will consider participation worth their effort.
In short, I am trying to start a conversation about the data-driven city. Continue reading →