Starting Wrong - The Amazon Mistake

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   The 20 cities that are finalists for Amazon's HQ2 are starting out with a classic error of 20th Century thinking, and it is a mistake with colossal implications which may reverberate in the winning losing city for decades. It’ll be the “winning losing” city because while it will win the competition, it will be at risk of losses bigger than the win because winning a single big prize like HQ2 dims focus on the many small but fundamental things cities need to do in order to prosper in the 21st Century. If cities don’t get the small things right, One Big Thing like HQ2 won’t save them. If they do get the small things right, they may eventually have some home-grown Big Things no matter where HQ2 goes.

   238 cities originally pursued HQ2, and there will be one winner among the 20 cities on the shortlist. Several cities on the list are already coughing up multi-billion dollar incentive package proposals for Amazon, which is racing Apple and Google to be the first trillion-dollar company. So chances are good that no matter how much inducement money (or corporate welfare, if you prefer) the winning losing city forks over to Amazon, the relative cost to the city of those billions will be greater than the relative benefit to Amazon. There’s a cause founded last week by Richard Florida that asks competing cities to support a non-aggression pact. Nearly a hundred high-profile urbanists are signatories to the cause, and I’ve signed the petition on because this is a right first step.


   But the real questions (especially for the other 237 cities) are these: how have we become such suckers for pursuing the One Big Thing we’re very unlikely to get, and what should we be doing instead? We’ve been sold on the efficiency of bigness since at least the 1920s, captivated by the marketing slogan “we’re growing bigger to serve you better.” But somewhere along the way, we haven’t just made it easier for big things; we’ve actually exterminated most small things. In agriculture, that came in 1971 when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz began bellowing “get big or get out!”

Starting Small

   What is the starting point of building a stronger city or town that we’re more likely to sustain long into an uncertain future? Anyone familiar with the Original Green knows there are four foundations of sustainable places: they must be nourishableaccessibleserviceable, and securable. These are physical characteristics. But the societies that inhabit them must also embody certain foundation characteristics if they hope to be able to keep inhabiting those places long into that uncertain future. Two of those characteristics are a good education system and a strong middle class. Improving the education system and a growing middle class are two really big things, but the starting points are small things, most of which cost only tiny fractions of the sacrifice of luring One Big Thing.

Spending Small But Leading Large


   Amazon’s 237 losers shouldn’t just slink off and lick their wounds and then forget about it. Instead, they should use the experience as an opportunity to ask this question: “Are there things we can do that cost a lot less than landing Amazon, but that will have better long-term benefits?” As unthinkable as that sounds with the Titanic focus on the One Big Thing, the answer is probably “yes” for most of them. But here's a crucial caveat: All measures described here, while inexpensive enough to risk occasionally sounding silly, can only work if they have a serious champion in your town. Otherwise, the inertia of the status quo will ensure that none of them happen. So find that group or that person who’s willing to stand up to business as usual, and is strong enough to stand up to one or more of your city department heads, otherwise you’re wasting your time. There are two types of people in the world: those who can tell you why something can’t be done, and those who get stuff done. The latter type is harder to find, but you must have at least one of them. Here’s what they need to work on:


   Good schools are essential to towns that can be sustained long into an uncertain future. Unfortunately, quality of education is not a problem solved by simply by throwing more money at it. Studies have repeatedly shown that there is not a strong correlation between education spending and high achievement. Outliers abound. Techniques suggested here focus on what has been the hardest nut to crack with education: fostering a culture where education is valued more highly, and which gives kids hope.



   Few characteristics of a society are stronger indicators of long-term stability than a robust middle class. But unlike the recent past when many families remained in the middle class for generations, it is now a more tranient status in the US and abroad. There are faster paths to wealth today than ever before, and disruptive events such as the Great Recession move millions quickly down and out of the middle class. Rebuilding the middle class is now, more than ever, a continuous challenge. The middle class is built from the bottom up, not the top down, as those who were once wealthy tend to find their own way back to wealth more easily the second time. At its core, middle-class-building starts with the small, the young, and the disadvantaged. Help those among them who want to start their own businesses, and they will in time hire others who would rather collect paychecks than write them. And those local businesses will help both owners and employees get into the ranks of the middle class.

The Settings

   Cities do not need to build a lot of new things to help fuel the middle class. Chances are, they already have many assets sitting unused all over town. Adopt a policy of No Fallow Land that states that every unused piece of city property is a potential setting for initiatives to help citizens join the middle class by starting new stuff. A vacant lot can be a community garden. An under-used parking lot can become a food cart pod. Empty buildings can be used like this:

Open Maker Spaces


   Identify neighborhoods most in need of recovery and open a maker space in each of them because time and again, they have become morning’s first light of recovery in a struggling neighborhood, and the first hint that place can be cool again. After that, continue with more stable neighborhoods. A maker space needs little more than wide-open space, a (mostly) leak-free roof, electricity, and running water. It is here that people come to re-learn the lost arts and crafts of making stuff. They also teach other makers what they’ve learned, so it’s half-laboratory and half-school.

   What they learn varies as much as their locations; a maker space in the Bahamas probably shelters those relearning something about living in a nautical nation, while one in Boston might focus more on technology. Or not. It all depends on the interests of those using them.

   Be sure to put maker spaces on the field trip schedule for local schools. Not only is it interesting for kids to see what the makers are doing, but there’s a pretty good chance that some of the kids might actually know more about some of the tech things than the makers, and be able to help them out… and maybe even come back after school.

Allow Temporary Single-Crew Shops

   Single-crew workplaces that are temporary or even mobile allow people to open their own businesses years or even decades before they could have afforded a bricks-and-mortar store… if ever. Put another way, raise the initial threshold to brick-and-mortar stores, and most people will never get started and the middle class will not thrive like it could have. Temporary single-crew workplaces run from the most ephemeral farmers market tents to food carts and shop sheds. In every case, they can be moved to another location whenever the town has a higher or better use for the land on which they’re sitting.

Build Craft Workshops


   Once someone has figured out how to do something useful, they need a more established place to do it longterm. When someone first moves out of a maker space into their own workshop, their needs are small. They probably need only enough space for one person to work, plus space to store their tools. Locate workshops on the borders of public spaces (plazas and sqares are best) for three reasons: it will make those civic spaces more interesting while helping create enclosure, drawing more people, and some of those people will become customers of the craftspeople. The third reason might be the most important: by being highly visible in a public place, kids are likely to see them working while coming home from school, and some of them might be inspired to try their hand at a craft someday.

Start Coworking Spaces

   Of the places to work, coworking spaces are the most expensive because they’re built just like a regular office. Their economy comes from the fact that each person uses only a very small part of the building.

Reopen the Old School


Legendary Bahamian craftsman
Joseph Saunders will soon be 91.

   Some old skills will never be needed again in most places. Saddle repair, for example, is a craft once found in every town, but now likely to be kept alive only in places where lots of people still ride horses. But there are many skills we’re now realizing we’d like to have back. Unfortunately, the last people to know how to do them are now aged or dying. Find an old abandoned school or similar structure (church building? office?) and gather the old craftspeople there to teach the young who want those abilities back again.

The Deal

   Remember, the original idea was “take a small fraction of the money you would have spent on corporate welfare and spend it this way instead…” in order to strengthen education and the middle class. The greatest help for a new business should come at the beginning, then taper off as new arrivals to the middle class can stand on their own. So rent charged at these workplaces should be free to begin with for a certain number of months, then transition to a percentage rent, where the city gets a percentage of each person’s gross monthly income. Once they graduate from being a single-crew workplace of one businessperson and maybe one helper, then they should be able to pay regular rent to a normal private-sector landlord.

Making Making Cool Again
(and Learning, Too)


   Being a craftsperson was once a high calling, but by the time I was in high school in the 1970s, classmates who spent their afternoons at the local vocational-technical school were known as “the VoTech losers.” Now, education of any kind is held in low regard in much of society. “It’s not cool to be smart” is sadly far too common, but easy to understand. Since the mid-19th Century, education in most industrialized nations was designed to produce graduates who were normal and obedient, so they could become good factory workers. How is it possible to be less cool than that?? So learning things and making things both need an image revival in most places today. Here are some low-budget ideas to try:

Idea Fairs for Kids

   Carve a little time out of the curriculum, probably on Friday afternoon, and start an idea fair in every grade of schools. Disruptive ideas are cool today, so frame it like “here’s how I’m gonna change this town,” to “here’s how I’m gonna change the world.” Give prizes. Make it the highlight of the month, or maybe even do them every week.

Idea Fairs for Adults

   Maker spaces are good places for neighborhood cultural events, so hold idea fairs there where makers can pitch their ideas to local businesses and investors. Saturdays might be a good time so as to not interfere with the workweek. And the Saturday idea fairs wouldn’t just attract people who might bring a contract with them. Look at Kickstarter’s traffic and it’s clear that many people consider looking at cool new ideas a form of entertainment.

Movie Night

IMG 6323

   Hold regular “movies on the green” screening films focused on kids with great ideas. Pay It Forward should be the anthem film, shown at least a couple times per year. Make this a real neighborhood cultural event, and a family night. Friday night right after the idea fair at school could be a perfect time. Do it as leanly as possible. You don’t need a big screen, for example; just a white-painted wall on the side of a building.

The Idea Board

   Set up a blackboard, whiteboard, or some other waterproof board in a public place like a park, installed at a height so most third-grade kids can reach the top of the board. Divide it into rectangles. You may have seen these before; they’re often framed as “things I want to do before I die,” “things I’d like to see built here,” etc. Do this one as “here’s my big idea; help me out with it” and leave a lot of chalk.

Helpful Infrastructure

   There are some things that can be done to the city itself to help make it a more education- and growth-friendly place for children and adults alike.

Gigabit Internet

   Cities around the US are realizing that if they bring gigabit internet to town, the internet will bring bandwidth-heavy businesses to town. Even small towns such as Geraldine, Alabama have brought gigabit to town to attract businesses. There’s no debate anywhere as to whether it’s worth the expense, and gigabit is a huge benefit to education as well. On a personal note, Geraldine was the last place in Alabama where members of my extended family were served by outdoor plumbing, and that was as late as 1978. Outhouses to gigabit in 40 years!

Pink Zones

   The Pink Zone is an innovative idea from the Lean Urbanism initiative. It’s a place where the red tape isn’t eliminated entirely, but is made a little bit lighter so the small, the young, and the disadvantaged can get started easier. In other words, it doesn’t create a favela zone, but it does allow more freedom than the fully-regulated remainder of town. And a Pink Zone doesn’t cost money; it saves, because it can be administered lightly.

Walk Appeal


   Swapping great ideas shouldn’t only happen at idea fairs, movie nights, and other special occasions and destinations. Smart cultures and entrepreneurial cultures work best when there are many opportunities for chance meetings between people working to figure stuff out. And that begins with getting people out, because you never accidentally bump into someone if everyone stays inside. Places with great Walk Appeal get far more people outdoors than auto-dominated places that are unfriendly to walking, so do everything you can to boost Walk Appeal all over town. Many of these measures cost little, and quite a number of them are in the financial best interest of landowners to do at their own expense, costing the city nothing. Wanda and I are writing the Walk Appeal book; if you’re interested, you can subscribe to updates below.

Third Places

   Your First Place is home. Your Second Place is work. Your Third Place is where you go to hang out, “where everybody knows your name,” as the old Cheers tagline went. Third Places can be pubs, coffee shops, or any other place where you can buy something and hang out for as long as you like (maybe with your laptop because they have wifi). Third Places can be like chameleons, morphing from coffee shop in the morning to rum bar at night, like the Rum & Bean. Third Places have been hotspots of thinking throughout history, from the forum in ancient cities to the coffee shops largely responsible for the European Enlightenment. A city or town should not actually build any Third Places; just encourage them, and make it easy for them to open for business.

Infrastructure ROI

   For over a century, Americans have built infrastructure with no thought for the Return on Investment, or ROI. If a traffic study says we need it, we’ve gotta build it. Today, most American cities are loaded with infrastructure they cannot maintain, and it threatens to bankrupt thousands of cities and towns.  Joe Minicozzi and Chuck Marohn have been sounding the alarm for years; it’s high time we listen, because if we keep building infrastructure that doesn’t make a profit for the city, we won’t be able to afford the other things on this list, much less the One Big Thing.

   ~Steve Mouzon

   One more thing… I’m delighted to be participating in a blogoff again! This one is ArchiTalks, organized by Lora Teagarden, and this week's topic is starting a design. I’ve altered it a bit for this post to include things beyond a single design… this one is more like laying a good foundation for an entire city. I’ll update the links tomorrow as more posts come online. Enjoy the reads!

Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture (@FiELD9arch)
Slow Down. Hold Still.

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti)
where do we start?

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC)
How to Start a Design

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect)
Starting a Design: #Architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome)
On Your Mark, Get Set -- Start a Design!

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel)
Starting Design

Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC (@MeghanaIRA)
Architalks #35: Starting a Design

Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect (@bpaletz)
Where do we begin?

Jeffrey Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum)
Where do you start when designing a new home?

Keith Palma - Architect's Trace (@cogitatedesign)
do-re-mi- Design

Jim Mehaffey - Yeoman Architect (@jamesmehaffey)
First Thing's First

Tim Ung - Journey of an Architect (@timothy_ung)
5 Tips for Starting an Architecture Project

Mark Stephens - Mark Stephens Architects (@architectmark)
How it all begins...

Walk Appeal book front cover

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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2020