Category Archives: Portfolio

People-first development

Strong Towns’ guru speaks

Editor’s note: Charles Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, shared thoughts about Phoenix-area development during a 2018 visit. This article was written for LISC Phoenix, one of the sponsors of Marohn’s visit.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” — Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”

The definition of insanity, the adage goes, is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Charles Marohn, founder and president of Strong Towns, argues that current development patterns force people, especially those in the Southwest, to live some variation of Crazytown, USA.

The horizontal expansion development patterns we see today make life unnecessarily difficult for some residents and are not sustainable long-term, Marohn said. Cities and towns can’t afford the post-World War II, automobile-centric, sprawl development pattern seen coast to coast, he said.

“You’re in a dysfunctional system designed to do a dysfunctional thing over and over again,” Marohn said.

“Phoenix, the state of Arizona, a lot of the Southwest, is designed to grow in a very certain, specific way. … Not only is the landscape perfectly adapted to that, but the structures that we’ve created — socially, politically, culturally, economically — are perfectly aligned to do that,” he said.

Last summer Marohn led a candid “Curbside Chat” (one of more than 300 he’s held nationwide) about development of cities and towns and was the featured speaker at events sponsored by LISC Phoenix, Local First, Downtown Voices Coalition, Downtown Phoenix Inc., RAILmesa, Sustainable Cities Network AZ, Sustainable Communities Collaborative, Urban Phoenix Project and Vitalyst Health Foundation.

LISC is a national organization with a community focus. LISC Phoenix was formed in 1992 to help revive blighted neighborhoods throughout metropolitan Phoenix. Working in collaboration with grassroots organizations and community partners, LISC Phoenix creates innovative solutions to problems faced by distressed, low-income neighborhoods.

LISC Phoenix initiatives, such as the Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE), speak to some of the people-first community development principles championed by Strong Towns. CORE is a data-driven strategy that supports development and economic growth along five commercial corridors in low and moderate-income neighborhoods. CORE strategies develop from market assessments, on-the-ground surveys and collaboration with residents and business owners.

Charles Marohn told downtown Phoenix audiences that current U.S. development patterns — “the suburban experiment” — are a deviation from thousands of years of how civilizations grew and prospered.

Strong Towns’ mission is to restore sanity to the places we call home by supporting a development model that encourages financial strength and resilience in cities, towns and neighborhoods. The organization believes “strong citizens (people who care),” collaboration, financial solvency, a meaningful transportation system, and sustainable land use are keys to stopping the madness.

Marohn told downtown Phoenix audiences that current U.S. development patterns — “the suburban experiment” — are a deviation from thousands of years of how civilizations grew and prospered.

Our ancestors knew what they were building; they followed a strong pattern of incremental development, Marohn said. They started small, taking low risks as they grew up within a core rather than building horizontally on the edges. Over time, buildings were constructed with more intensity: wood structures would be replaced with brick and granite.

Cities and towns back in the day lived within their means; they were able to pay their bills, he said. Today, not so much. Marohn calls today’s development pattern a growth Ponzi scheme that creates an illusion of wealth.

Because of decades of unproductive development, we have built more than we can take care of, Marohn said.  Older, established neighborhoods are paying for themselves and contributing to city coffers; the rapid-fire new developments are not, leaving shortfalls when it comes time for public infrastructure upkeep or replacement, he said.

Historical development patterns recognized that complex natural systems are never based on efficiency; they are based on resiliency, adaptability and redundancy, Marohn said. But with modern development patterns, we’ve said cities and towns should be built and administered on an efficiency model. Marohn believes the efficiency model is designed to fail.

Strong Towns has adapted a Silicon Valley saying that innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb; innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Taking direction from the people for how to grow and development is a smart thing to do, Marohn said.

“We all have a preference for smart over dumb,” Marohn said. “But we have an enormously overwhelming preference, especially as an affluent society, for order over chaos. We will tolerate an incredible amount of dumb in order to have order.”

“How do you not get chaotic but dumb? I think you trust that people living in the community over time will not be dumb,” he said. “They’ll not migrate towards dumb. And if they do, that neighborhood will probably fail and go away.”

In the Phoenix metropolitan area, the impact of the 10-year CORE initiative, which has a transit-oriented development focus, has come into focus. LISC Phoenix and its partners have invested in five commercial corridors in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix and have provided technical assistance to support ongoing grass-roots corridor management.

In four of the five corridors, population increased, largely as a result of investment in affordable housing. The percentage of low-income households also decreased from 2008 to 2018.

Marohn believes the best way North American cities and towns can get off the path of catastrophic failure is to turn planning and development on its head. Instead of trying to take a dysfunctional, professional top-down process and try to bend it to better ends, put people first in planning, he said.

Let neighborhoods be part of the solution, part of rescuing themselves, Marohn said. Observe where people struggle and make small investments to deal with those struggles, he said.

“Instead of saying, ‘Our goal is to do this to help them,’ what if we said, ‘Our goal is to help them?’ “

Marohn is convinced the outcomes of such a process would be very different than something that came from top-down efforts. It could help stitch neighborhoods back together, making them stronger, more resilient, and adaptable. It could improve lives, he said.

“Tactical urbanism” is part of a “Neighborhoods First” initiative championed by Strong Towns. It’s a citizen-led, low-cost approach to neighborhood building and incremental growth. It happens in the Phoenix metropolitan area with efforts such as tree plantings, Park(ing) Day, the Radiate PHX Pop-up Festival, Mesa temporary murals, and Mesa Movies on Main St. (Downtown Voices Coalition started an open source map that shows examples of tactical urbanism.)

“We need to step back and acknowledge that we may have the right motives in our heart, but we’re using a process designed to do something different than what we’re trying to accomplish,” Marohn said. “If we can pump ourselves to have a different approach, an approach that is messier, an approach that’s not as efficient, an approach that’s not necessarily tied into federal and state grant programs, an approach that’s not tied into redevelopers and large amounts of capital, but an approach that actually starts with the needs of the people in our community, I think we can, in a very low-risk, high-reward kind of way, build places that are productive, successful and great places to live.”

That doesn’t sound crazy at all.

Act One

Making the case

“This is who we are. This is what we do. This is why it matters.”

Geri Wright, president and CEO of Act One

JDD Specialties prepared a case statement for the Act One Field Trip Program that told the story of the Phoenix-based nonprofit. Act One removes financial and logistical barriers to ensuring students in Title I schools have an arts-related field trip experience.


Communities on the Line

A new series for LISC Phoenix

In 2015, LISC Phoenix added an economic development component to its strategic plan to revitalize neighborhoods. In 2016, the nonprofit identified four corridors along the Valley Metro light rail line that could benefit from LISC-style comprehensive economic development efforts. In 2017, LISC Phoenix, with the help of JDD Specialties, will highlight the challenges, opportunities and successes of those corridors through a series called, Communities on the Line. 

Valor on Eighth marshals resources, inspires hope for veterans

LISC and Kiva help local shop owners gain critical access to capital

Affordable loan opportunities growing from LISC partners

LISC push on economic development strikes a chord

Long-awaited redevelopment heating up in Apache Blvd. corridor

Creative economic development efforts grow success in downtown Mesa

Bazaar days make a world of difference at 19th Ave. and Camelback

Mesa Artspace Lofts will have good bones

‘Happy City’ author urges push for safe, healthy transportation corridors

With new clinic, MPHC no longer hidden treasure in Tempe

There’s more than meets the eye on West Camelback Road

Visitor center enriches public understanding of indigenous people

NAC combines power of housing first and TOD at Camelback Pointe

A second chance for McDowell Road’s Miracle Mile


LISC CEO’s message

Maurice Jones gets to the heart of matters

The president and CEO of LISC, a champion of inclusive economic development, was the featured guest at the LISC Phoenix annual breakfast and awards ceremony on Nov. 1.

“Sometimes in our work we get caught up in what’s the capital stack that we need, where does philanthropy play, where do banks play, where does local government play, where do we play,” Maurice Jones said. “The real issue is do I see the face of my daughter in that homeless guy. …The most important muscle in the work that we’re talking about now is the heart. It’s not the other stuff. We know how to do it. It’s whether we have the heart to do it.”



The Red Book Magazine

‘Leap for Joy’

The Red Book, a resource for those involved in the social and philanthropic community, and launched a new magazine. The Red Book Magazine will have a single focus. The premier issue published in September 2017 focused on the arts. JDD Specialties was honored to write a feature, “Leap for Joy,” for the first issue of The Red Book Magazine


Community development

A focus on urban living

JDD Specialties has expertise writing about community development, urban design and sustainable communities. An article for LISC Phoenix that recaps “Happy City” author Charles Montgomery’s May 2017 visit to the Valley of the Sun is an example of that work.

South Central Extension

Disseminating information

There are many stories to be told about the 5.5 mile South Central Extension of the Valley Metro light-rail system. An article about a Ford Foundation workshop on equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD) for the underserved South Central corridor is the first of many articles JDD Specialties will write about the $700 million public transportation infrastructure project and its impact on residents and businesses.

South Central route

LISC Phoenix

Writing and editing services

JDD Specialties has a consultant’s contract with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation to do writing and editing services for its Phoenix office. LISC Phoenix’s primary initiative is “Our Future is on the Line,” which helps advance economic development and neighborhood revitalization along the Valley’s light-rail route. The nonprofit is a key player in creative placemaking and transit-oriented development.

Green Living article

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Vitalyst Health Foundation

Advancing public discussions

Policy primers and briefing papers produced by Vitalyst, formerly St. Luke’s Health Initiatives, contribute to public discussions about improving Arizona’s health-care infrastructure. JDD Specialties provided writing and editing services that led to publication of “Fired Up: Community Paramedicine Models Blaze a Trail for Healthcare Delivery Reform,”  “Community, Health, Savings: The Power of Community Health Workers in an Evolving Healthcare System” and “Connecting the Dots: A Healthy Community Leader’s Guide to Understanding Hospital Community Benefit Requirements.”

Wildlife center rescue

Championing a cause

JDD Specialties helped the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust with a multipronged effort to promote public support for the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center whose 22-year existence is threatened by a new neighbor’s complaints. Preserving endangered Mexican gray wolves is among the accredited sanctuary’s noble deeds. JDD Specialties wrote the Pulliam Trust news release that informed media coverage of the issue; a guest column that provided some inspiration for an editorial and an “advertorial” that encouraged donations to the center.(Photo by Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.)

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Native American center

Promoting cultural connections

LISC Phoenix was among the early supporters of a plan to turn the historic music building at Steele Indian School Park into a Native American cultural center. LISC Phoenix executive director Terry Benelli said the renovated center could be one of the region’s best examples of creative placemaking with cultural emphasis.

Arizona Health Futures

Reporting on public policy

JDD Specialties applies journalism skills to help clients explain complex issues, such as this Vitalyst Health Foundation policy primer on the community paramedicine component of mobile integrated healthcare. The February 2016 report required interviews with several leaders of Arizona fire departments and districts. Additional profiles on Arizona fire-service based community paramedicine programs will be posted on the Vitalyst website.