A Placemaking Journal

Return on No Investment

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

Over the weekend, I had a Twitter exchange with Mitchell Silver and Steve Mouzon about a PlaceMakers concept that I’m feeling the need to explain in more detail.

Return on No Investment – my new friend, RONI – is the whole idea of leveraging assets and connections that are already in place, while investing a little more time and energy, to create a significant return. It’s a simple concept that PlaceMakers has championed since lean times made for more careful spending practices in city planning circles.

At recent planning conferences, instead of purchasing expensive booths or hosting high-priced workshops, we’ve looked for other ways to facilitate conversations that can move placemaking initiatives forward. At New Partners for Smart Growth in San Diego, that turned out to be a dinner bus tour of great neighborhoods, looking for lessons learned. At CNU West Palm Beach, it was a dance party on a rooftop garden with varying levels of “loud” to make for a number of ways for a few hundred people to interact.

In both of these cases, the highly functional public spaces were already in place. We just had to do a bit of legwork and research to determine what would work best for our group. Then some branding helped tap into our already-existing social networks to spread the word. The outcomes were fun nights with good conversations that sparked new ideas with almost no investment.

In lean times, RONI is a concept that taps into local volunteerism, existing assets, and social networks to effect change on very skimpy budgets.

From a planning perspective, not all cities and towns have these great public spaces connected nodally via walkable streets with a value-driving mix of shops, pubs, restaurants, offices, civic amenities, and residences. Or the places that do are finding them marginalized by zoning laws that are out of step with the character of what works best economically.

I lecture on this subject quite a bit, and am often asked for my presentations. Here’s one (80mb .ppt) for your use at home, to help start the conversations about how a form-based code can become a big part of your city’s business plan. It defines what these character-based zoning documents are, who all is adopting them, and the sorts of value that they’re creating over time. It’s me, sharing my friend RONI with you.

The presentation, Form-Based Economic Development by Hazel Borys is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, so use away! My only other request is that you share your own perspectives, ideas, and value drivers in the comments below.

–Hazel Borys

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