For two years, I’ve been interviewing civic leaders for a podcast. I look for two kinds of people to interview. Most are leaders who’ve accomplished something strikingly successful in their communities; a smaller number are people who, through their experiences, have learned a leadership skill that’s valuable for others to know.
The format is simple. I introduce the leaders. We talk for about 15 minutes about their successes or skills, and I close by asking them for advice: If someone from another community asked how to take on a difficult project or master this skill, what would they say?
In the 23 interviews I’ve done to date, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what civic leaders do and how they think. I’ve learned that most of their work isn’t heroic or visionary. It’s more like project management, as they move from one meeting, planning session, or presentation to another.
I’ve learned something about the motivations of these people. They seem driven to accomplish something meaningful, and communities offer an ideal stage for these achievements because civic projects often end with things you can reach out and touch—buildings, roads, and parks—things that will endure for decades. This concreteness and sense of permanence appeals to civic leaders.
And finally I’ve learned that despite the long hours of unpaid labor, the tedium of public meetings, and stress of occasional conflict, many of these people consider civic work an escape from their regular jobs. One civic leader told me away from the microphone that his project, which had occupied him for a decade and a half, was, outside of his family life, “the most fun I’ve ever had.”
These are valuable things to know. It explains why cities are undergoing a renaissance these days. Somehow cities have learned to attract and harness the work of these leaders more effectively than in the past. And it assures me that this isn’t a phase. People will always seek meaning in their lives, and if cities continue offering a stage for these seekers, they’ll be successful.
Interesting as all this was to learn, though, it wasn’t why I started the podcast. I’ve actually been looking for something else: the structure of civic progress.
This is an old interest of mine. In fact, I started this blog four years ago so I could think out loud about civic progress, how it worked, and how we could make it work better. Along the way, I’ve made some stabs at a grand theory. A few years ago, I created a map of community change showing step by step how leaders moved from awareness of a need to a widely accepted solution.
Most of the map still seems right to me, but I’ve learned from the interviews that an important element was missing. You can’t, I’ve come to understand, view civic progress simply as a process. You have to see it as a system as well; one that, in the right circumstances, can be mobilized as a process. Leaders, then, have three responsibilities: Make sure the system is healthy, learn how the process of civic progress works, and know how to transform the system into a campaign for community improvement.
And what is the spark that mobilizes the system into a process? I call it “the opportunity.” It’s not the same as a need nor is it necessarily a solution. It’s more like a path to the solution. If civic progress were a sport, we’d call it an “opening” the hole in a line of scrimmage that a running back sees, the pass a point guard makes to set up a score, the moves a chess master sees that lead in five turns to checkmate.
If this sounds confusing, bear with me. It’s harder to understand the opportunity in theory than in practice, and the interviews offer plenty of examples. Maybe the best was in my interview with Cathy Woolard, the former Atlanta city council member (and, later, council president) who stumbled across a transformative project called the Beltline and saw, in an instant, how it could solve many of Atlanta’s transportation and land-use problems.
Here’s how she describes that moment of insight: “It was literally the right day, the perfect council member, the perfect district, for me to be able to look at (this idea) and know immediately what the benefit would be to the residents of my district in particular.” Because she saw the opportunity offered by the Beltline and figured a way through a maze of political and bureaucratic processes, Woolard was able to move this visionary project from grad-school planning thesis to urban reality. Today the Beltline, a circle of trails and parks around downtown Atlanta, is being built, and the sections that are open are wildly popular with cyclists, runners, and strollers.
You can see another opportunity in the interview with Scott Tigchelaar, a movie studio president who talked the small town of Senoia, Georgia into turning itself into a permanent film location. What triggered this, he said, was the sale of some land in downtown Senoia. Over the years Tigchelaar had used the town for movie locations (if you watched the 1991 movie “Fried Green Tomatoes,” you’ve seen Senoia). He feared a new owner would put up something that would ruin the town for movie shootings, so he approached the mayor and council with a deal: Create new design and zoning laws, allow us to buy the land and build some appropriate new buildings, and we’ll bring you a steady stream of movie productions, along with tourism opportunities. (It worked. Filming goes on year-round in Senoia, tourists flock there to see where their favorite TV shows are filmed, and the town has a host of new restaurants and shops.)
And then there’s John Turner, the businessman who helped restore a river through downtown Columbus, Georgia and, by doing so, turned a slow, muddy stream into roaring whitewater. Some had speculated as far back as the 1970s that Columbus might have world-class rapids beneath its downtown dams. But it wasn’t until Turner and others learned 20 years later that those dams were failing that he saw the opportunity to tear them down and create the longest urban whitewater attraction in America.
Opportunities arrive, then, when a long-felt need (to change land use and transportation in Atlanta, to preserve a small town’s unique economy, to do something about a neglected river) is connected with a sudden change in the environment (a visionary plan drops on a council member’s desk, tracts of land are offered for sale, old dams show signs of failing) and a way forward is seen (master the transportation planning process, get the city council to agree to design standards, gain government approval to remove the dams and alter the river).
And who connects these things and sees the way forward? Leaders do.
In fact, this is probably the most creative thing that leaders do in cities. Like great business innovators (think Steve Jobs) or talented politicians (think FDR or LBJ), great civic leaders see paths that are hidden to most of us and connect things others hadn’t put together. Not all civic leaders can do this because it takes a special mind to see an opening to success and a strong will to push an entire community through the opening.
If you’re not that kind of leader, don’t despair. There are other things civic leaders do that are critically important, such as tending the system and managing the process of civic progress. I’ll talk about these leadership roles in future posts.
For the time being, though, keep this image in mind: Civic progress is neither a system nor a process; it’s both. And the door between the two is the opportunity. Trust me on this. I had 23 great teachers who showed it to me.
Photo by lau.svensson licensed under Creative Commons.