Community leaders typically resist comparisons to other communities. They prefer not knowing if their community is rated lower than a neighboring or competing city or town. As much as people believe that comparisons are unfair; every city and town is always under scrutiny. Everyday there are businesses seeking a new location, a family looking for a new home, a grant making authority deciding if a place is worthy of their funding, or an investor that wants to minimize the risk while looking for the best return on his or her money.
Resistance of inevitable comparisons is basically self-defeating. How else can we find out what will make us better? Our sense of competition is not something that should be discouraged, rather we should look at comparisons of our place (city, town, downtown, industrial area, mall, or village) against the standard set by others as a tool that if used properly can help us shape better communities, improve the delivery of services, and craft the message that tells our story. “Best practices” and “lessons learned” are born of comparisons, comparisons that call attention to planning and development actions that work well, and that should be replicated or adapted. It is not about trying to stay out of the bottom or knocking another off the top, it is about always looking to do better. Some actually prefer not to be on top out of a fear of falling.
Personally I am a downtown development enthusiast. I cannot go someplace without having to walk the downtown area and judge – making comparisons- what works or does not work, and how I can take good ideas back and see if they can work in Brockton.
Comparison not only helps us see the successes of our communities and others, but also sheds a light on problems. We all would like to think problems belong to the other communities, but by comparing our community to another, we may be able to avoid making costly mistakes.
Even comparisons within a community can prove beneficial. For example, in Brockton we have a four-mile stretch of Main St. Within that stretch are three distinct neighborhood commercial areas, Campello (the oldest section of the city), Downtown (the core business district), and Montello. Each has its own unique character, each has its own potential, and each has its own challenges. What may work in Downtown may not work in Campello or Montello. We can only learn that by taking a good look at each and making valid comparisons before planning the first improvement. Beyond improvements, comparisons serve as an early warning which can allow us time to correct a problem before it escalates and becomes costlier to correct.
As community comparers, we should always be on the lookout for the “positive deviants” that exist with our own communities as well as other similar or not so similar cities and towns. Positive deviance is a strength-based approach which is applied to problems requiring behavior and social change, it is based on the principles that communities already have the solutions. They are the best experts to solve their problems. Communities have the ability to self-organize and have the human resources and social assets to solve an agreed-upon problem. Sustainability is the cornerstone of the approach.
It is easy to resist comparison, especially when proposed by another. Resistance, in the end supports ignorance. Dare to compare. Our communities will be the better for it.
Michael Gallerani, is the executive director at Brockton 21st Century Corp., Brockton, Mass.