On Saturday,  I spent the afternoon at a Washougal City Council workshop intended to revisit the cities economic development plan, with a specific emphasis on the downtown core.  The following post is a summary of my thoughts over the last few days.  There is more to come, and this is not intended as a comprehensive answer, but more of an invitation to discuss how  a city develops it’s sense of communal identity and the part citizens play in the process.

Ask a politician what economic development means to them and they’ll likely use terms like ‘standard of living,’ ‘economic health,’ and ‘productivity.’   While these may be accurate in a technical, definitive sense; they aren’t very helpful in explaining the true purpose of economic development and thus contribute to it’s shortcomings when applied to real situations outside the walls of government and academia.

The term community development gets a bit closer to what should be the true purpose of economic development, but it too fails; mostly in its assumptions.  Principally, that the stated goal of community development usually involves some increase in monetary or wealth metrics for the people it’s trying to benefit.

Perhaps we can define both economic and community development with the simple goal of maintaining a place where citizens have the opportunity to live, work, and recreate sustainably, without the need for significant external contributions.

A sense of community isn’t something that can be created…it has to be cultivated.  The society we live in today is the harvest of seeds planted by previous generations.  Want to maximize current ‘economic development?’  Easy, pursue big box retailers and neighborhoods full of McHouses; suburban sprawl and strip malls are key ingredients in “The Geography of Nowhere.”  If you’d rather live in a place with a vibrant social environment that supports a healthy work / life balance it takes a very thoughtful approach, considerations about the present and future impact of decisions must be weighed, with certain short term sacrifices being the cost of a healthy community.  Success requires a  focus on careful planning, execution, and maintenance that yields  the rewards of a well tended community.

The role of government in both economic and community development is greatly overestimated.  A government’s ability to influence economic or community development extends only to it’s ability to be either be a help or hinderance.  It is ultimately the purview of private citizens to decide where they will live, work, and recreate.  The stance that local, state, and national governments adopt on that right,  for both current and future citizens, will determine it’s long term effectiveness.  Even a city bestowed with a wise and benevolent government, intent on cultivating healthy economic development, will fail in its efforts if the reaping of their developmental sowing is not performed by the community as a whole.

Sometimes, success comes down to what we choose not to do.

What are you willing deny, to have a community worth living in?