Why Plans Fail: The 5 Pieces of Neighborhood Revitalization Infrastructure


Do you ever wonder why the grand visions of many neighborhood plans fail to materialize?

Have you heard neighborhood residents and stakeholders complain of planning fatigue?

Residents Burn Old Neighborhood Plans in Kansas City in 2015 (by Jason Parson)

Residents Burn Old Neighborhood Plans in Kansas City in 2015 (by Jason Parson)

I’ve recently been thinking about why plans fail as I work in a number of urban areas where there has been extensive analysis and planning, but little execution and implementation. After 15 years of working in urban neighborhoods around the country, I have a new theory.

The #1 Reason Neighborhood Plans Fail

There is a problem with one of the 5 Pieces of Neighborhood Revitalization Infrastructure.


As you can see from the awesome graphic above (shout-out to former Mosaic team member Sophie McManus for being my muse on this analytical framework), there are 5 pieces of neighborhood revitalization infrastructure:

• Hard Infrastructure;

• Planning Infrastructure;

• Enabling Infrastructure;

• Implementation Infrastructure; and

• People Infrastructure.

The core insight of this analytical framework is that comprehensive, sustainable and equitable neighborhood revitalization requires certain infrastructure to be implemented. This infrastructure is not just the physical infrastructure (e.g. streets, sidewalks and water systems) which is discussed most often, but also other types of infrastructure as well.

There are two types of neighborhood revitalization infrastructure problems

1. Pieces of neighborhood revitalization infrastructure are missing or weak; or

2. The pieces are not working well together.

Let’s discuss.

Hard Infrastructure. You’ll notice that I use the word “infrastructure” in a way that’s broader than you’ve heard it used in the past. Oftentimes, the term “infrastructure” is used in the neighborhood context to mostly refer to what I call “hard” infrastructure. Hard infrastructure are those critically important support mechanisms that are physical and tangible such as:

• Pedestrian-focused improvements like sidewalks, streetscapes and lighting;

• Transportation investments like streets, BRT or DC’s newly running streetcar;

• Data, telecommunications and technology infrastructure like the groundbreaking improvements being made by the City of Leandro; or

• Better bicycling infrastructure and improved small-scale public spaces.

And yes, sewer, sanitation and water systems also count as necessary hard infrastructure.

Running water in a bath tub in Flint, Michigan. Can you revitalize a city if its’ water looks like this? Source: DigitalJournal.com. (by Ron Johnson)

Running water in a bath tub in Flint, Michigan. Can you revitalize a city if its’ water looks like this? Source: DigitalJournal.com. (by Ron Johnson)

Planning Infrastructure. My definition of planning infrastructure includes the plans themselves, the government’s planning staff and planning process, and the community engagement and input that is an important part of any neighborhood plan. I won’t take a lot of time to explain planning infrastructure—most neighborhoods and cities are clear on what it is and why they need it. An awesome example of a city positively leveraging new planning infrastructure is the City of Detroit’s use of its Detroit Future City Framework Plan, and hiring of thought leaders like its planning chief Maurice Cox. Planning infrastructure is helping to move the great American City of Detroit forward.

The final three pieces of neighborhood revitalization infrastructure — “Enabling,” “Implementation,” and “People” infrastructure — are the pieces of revitalization infrastructure that are most often overlooked or under resourced. I have found that those three can be the supportive glue that makes the difference between a vision that is implemented and a vision that remains, well, just a vision.

Enabling Infrastructure. Enabling infrastructure are the supporting analyses, resources and systems that allow revitalization investments to happen. It is the “back office” of neighborhood revitalization because it helps doers get things done, but it is not an implementer itself.

Enabling infrastructure has three key roles:

1.  Supports the implementers by making it possible or easier to execute on a vision (e.g. Prince George’s County, Maryland’s Expedited Transit-Oriented Development process);

2.Incentivizes implementers to execute in a way that actualizes a specific vision (e.g. Detroit’s geographically-targeted use of federal blight removal funds to stabilize certain neighborhood markets so that developers focus on those areas); and

3. Helps the implementers overcome market-based challenges to executing a vision (e.g. DC’s density bonuses to support citywide affordable housing requirements).

Here’s a quick list of enabling infrastructure for neighborhood revitalization:

• Land Use and Zoning Regulations

• Data, Data, Data

• Market and Feasibility Analyses

• Government Organizational Structure & Capacity

• Political Support and Coordination

The support and coordination of your elected officials and government staff might be the most important enabling infrastructure. It’s hard, if not impossible, to get things done if you don’t have the coordinated support of your government staff and local elected officials. That’s a micro example of revitalization infrastructure not working together: Government staff advocate for one thing, but the elected official is championing something entirely different.

Examples of Weak or Missing Enabling Infrastructure. Oftentimes, a neighborhood will have a great vision and plan, but the enabling infrastructure isn’t in place that would mandate, incentivize or support making that vision a reality.

Missing Enabling Infrastructure: Pipe Dreams. You may be surprised at how many municipalities don’t have the raw data necessary to make smart infrastructure decisions. For example, not only does Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi and other cities have a problem with lead pipes, they often don’t know the location of the pipes with the most lead contamination. It’s hard to make decisions with a better probability of success without the underlying data and analysis to buttress the decision. Data and analysis (e.g. market, development or fiscal impact analyses) can also help you convince stakeholders that you’re not making arbitrary or biased decisions, and that they should support or co-invest in your revitalization efforts.

Weak Enabling Infrastructure: Land Use Codes Not Useful. Do your land use codes and zoning regulations make it difficult or even impossible to build dense, mixed-use development? Or, do the codes not give the proper incentives or mandate the implementation of the neighborhood vision? For example, I’ve seen cities where the zoning codes allow for denser, higher-rise mixed-use development on a site, but also allow a land owner to do a one-story McDonald’s with street frontage surface parking. What do you think gets built on those sites? The vision of a walkable, vibrant, mixed-use place dominates the vision in the plans, but the actual land use codes don’t enable the vision. The enabling infrastructure exists but is weak.

Implementation Infrastructure. Implementation infrastructure are the supporting tools that help the doers in neighborhood revitalization execute on the vision. Have you ever seen a neighborhood plan, backed by analysis and political support, still not happen? The culprit might be missing implementation infrastructure that is needed for proper execution of the vision.

Here’s a list of the most important implementation infrastructure for neighborhood revitalization:

• Implementation Strategy—Champions (Who will support the plan & support the doers?)

• Implementation Strategy—Priorities (Where will we focus? Why? What will we do first, second & third? Why? When should we see results? How will we measure success?)

• Municipal Financing Tools & Programs (How will we close financial gaps? Do we have tools and programs that match our revitalization goals? Do we have the latest tools?)

• Public Private Partnerships (P3s both as a delivery tool and a financing tool)

• Organizational Capacity (Public, Private and Non-Profit sectors must all be capable)

What’s the difference between enabling infrastructure and implementation infrastructure? One example would be the difference between the land use and zoning codes in a City and the City’s implementation of those codes through its permitting and approvals office. Many cities will announce visions for green infrastructure, but not have enough staff (or appropriately-trained staff) to actually approve infrastructure projects and investments that fit their green vision.

People Infrastructure. People infrastructure are the mindsets, mechanisms and programs that support the people in the targeted neighborhood or urban area. This is the fundamental idea behind “People + Place” strategies—there must be people infrastructure in place to help people benefit from the place-based strategies being implemented. People infrastructure are the connective tissue that leads to more equity in the revitalization of our urban areas.

Here’s a quick list of some of the people infrastructure for neighborhood revitalization:

• Job and Skills Training Programs

• Small Business Training, Funding and Support Mechanisms

• Non-Profit and Community Member Capacity Building Initiatives

• Social Services Support

• Equity and Inclusion Decision-making Lens

An example of people infrastructure in action is a project we worked on with the City of Detroit’s Economic Growth Corporation. The City was implementing a place-based retail storefront strategy on a major thoroughfare called Livernois (you don’t say “Avenue” in Detroit by the way). The core of the idea was to pick a key section of the Livernois corridor and fix up the storefronts that were vacant and/or blighted. The next step was to place in those storefronts local small business owners who could try out their business ideas in a brick-and-mortar setting. It was a classic pop-up retail placemaking project. Here’s an infographic I created on how to manage a pop-up retail placemaking project if you need some guidance.

April Anderson inside of her store in Detroit (by the author)

April Anderson inside of her store in Detroit (by the author)

A big challenge was identifying local small business owners who had a viable business idea, and marrying them (figuratively speaking) with the appropriate storefront location. We helped the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation secure philanthropic ArtPlace funding for the project, create the evaluation process and understand what infrastructure needed to be in place to support the small business owners. One great result of the program was to bring April Anderson to Livernois to open her business called April’s Good Cakes and Bakes.

Not only did April’s cake business idea work in 2013, she’s recently won a competitive prize to expand her business into ice cream! The City has expanded the work of the small business pilot on Livernois citywide. Detroit’s Motor City Match program now awards $500,000 of matching grants each quarter!

Conclusion. If we truly live in the golden age of cities, and we agree with Harvard’s Edward Glaeser that the city is one of our greatest inventions, then we must also believe that getting neighborhood revitalization right is imperative for our cities to succeed. Neighborhoods bring such diversity, authenticity and life to cities, that we cannot ignore the critical infrastructure they need to be revitalized comprehensively, sustainably, and equitably. We all want the same thing: To go from groundbreaking visions to actual groundbreakings. Let’s all join together to put the 5 pieces of neighborhood revitalization in place so we can get things done.

This blog entry was originally published here.

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