Last week, longtime Arlington County Commissioner Chris Zimmerman unexpectedly announced his retirement from the County Board. He is always the smartest guy in the room, and his departure is both a loss and a time for serious reflection.
Something feels shaky. Sure, development is still booming and people still want to live and work here, but Arlington is not immune to changes that are both underway and predicted. The federal budget, demographics, the role of the military, views on home ownership, and the mass upheaval of how people work may indeed hit Arlington harder, not softer, than anywhere else.
It’s time to stop beginning every sentence with “County leaders made a bold decision 40 years ago,” and move on. Instead, what will the region look back on and say “Wow, what they did in 2014 was really smart?” It’s time to stop looking at vanity metrics like how many Millennials live here and how many Metro stations we have and start asking hard questions.
What does that look like? I don’t know. But here are some tips on how to get there.
A Giant Community SWOT Analysis – Why should businesses have all the smart tools? Imagine a community-led Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats exercise. Everyone here needs to be on the hook – residents, businesses, tourists, students … everyone. This is a good way to get people invested in both problems and solutions. You can't point out a weakness without also offering what you like best. Let the whiners hang out in the comments section of ArlNow.
Vision – Let’s get serious about 40 years from now based on what we learn from the SWOT. Portland Oregon did this back in 2007. Instead of automatically updating their Comprehensive Plan, the city embarked on a two year quest to articulate a shared vision. The Portland Plan was approved in 2012, a full five years after the quest began. But every step was a case study in genius. My favorite: steering committee members had to apply for the job, thus allowing fresh voices (as well as respected elders) to the table. Second favorite: they gave grants to non-profits instead of consultants or staff to do the outreach for them.
Retool the Arlington Way – I know many civic leaders have been working on how to get more people involved, particularly with use of social media. But if we are going to hack civic participation, we need to hack what matters. The official neighborhood positions are made at neighborhood meetings. I am willing to bet that the bylaws that govern those votes were written in the 30’s and 40’s, long before the internet. This exacerbates the tendency of having votes dominated by “people with time.”
The New Skill Set– The corridors turned everybody in Arlington into planners. But we are moving from addressing corridors to addressing a network of neighborhoods – and away from installing smart growth to maintaining it. We need to articulate The New Skill Set. What we know about metro station areas will not apply to arterials, but what will? What do residents need to learn as we move from land development to economic development? How do we collect input from renters in a way that is as meaningful as homeowners (fellow homeowners – I am looking at you). How do we enhance smart growth in areas where sidewalk installations have become an unwitting symbol of the tension between young families and older generations?
Most of all, taking a time out and asking these questions is not a sign of weakness, but strength. Thoughts?
Image: Portland Oregon