Making Your Region Distinct is Public and Private Work


Nearly forty years ago, Jack Trout and Al Ries introduced the concept of positioning into the realms of marketing, public relations, and by extension, politics.  To position your product, issue, or candidate is to transform the way key audiences view your product, issue or candidate in the context of the competitive arena.  Today, positioning for regions and the communities that comprise them is more important than ever, as capital grows increasingly mobile and local governments receive less and less support from state and federal sources.  As with products and candidates, regions must differentiate themselves from the competition, and this requires action by the private, public and civic sectors.

Marq_univ_2 Saturday, October 6 was the final day of the national conference of the Trust for Historic Preservation, held this year in St. Paul.  I attended a lecture by Ed McMahon, Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute, titled “The Dollars of Sense and Place.”  McMahon’s fundamental points:

• Forward-thinking development can bolster community differentiation and consequently a region’s competitive advantage.

• Differentiation creates dividends for business, neighbors and the environment – not one or the other.

McMahon’s perspective is largely physical, and he spoke persuasively about the necessity that a built environment reflects regional and local character, and shows a commitment to aligning both public and private investments with its uniqueness.  What does all that really mean?

Uniqueness:  The Physical

Relatively new housing subdivisions in Middleton, Wisconsin and Manassas, Virginia are distinguished by street width – twenty-four feet in Middleton versus forty feet in Manassas. The additional sixteen feet of street width in Manassas increased the cost of the houses between $5,000 and $7,000 each.  The volume of stormwater runoff from conventional asphalt is sixteen times that from the meadow on which the houses were built, increasing costs that the community will be forced to address in the form of public mitigation programs, likely using tax revenues.  And, McMahon noted, the narrower street employed in Middleton is four times safer than the wider streets due to the traffic-calming qualities of narrower roadways.  Why bear this chain of private and public costs with no benefit in return?

A joint study by the Urban Land Institute and the American Landscape Architecture Association summarized in Lloyd Bookout’s 1994 book, “Value by Design” found that investments by developers in site planning, mature foliage and landscaping increase returns on investment by five to fifteen percent.  The study also found these measures improved the absorption rate of units for sale and increased the likelihood of approval by planning and elected officials.

Isolated examples?  Perhaps.  But the underlying point here is that private initiatives and public planning should take place in a context of maximizing benefits and minimizing costs for the region, in the form of return to investors as well as return to the public.  Otherwise, as in Manassas, the public costs create drag for the region and hamper differentiation in a competitive arena.  This is the reason that major rating agencies consider the ability of regions to reach consensus on major issues as a criterion for evaluating municipal bond issues.

Regional Positioning Requires Private and Public Alike

With good reason, much discussion surrounds how to measure the productivity of particular public investments.  What has made and continues to make places distinct, however, is both private and public investment.  The immense potential for history to contribute to a sense of place doesn’t distinguish between public-sector and private-sector initiatives – see the previous post on the Minneapolis Mill District as one example.  Tourism is a very significant economic base for many of the United States, but positioning and differentiation are about more than attracting visitors – they are about attracting and retaining new residents with skills and entrepreneurial perspectives to join existing boosters in making a place unique. For regions fully to invest in and differentiate themselves to thrive in a competitive environment, public regulation and private investment must be viewed as two oars in the same boat. 

And don’t forget to row in the same direction.

Photo:  Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Flickr

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