Many communities espouse themselves to be business-, family- or visitor-friendly, but very often this intent is not reflected by the actual user experience of the place. Frequently, policies that guide development or activity in a space are created without regard for unintentional consequences, or these policies have been created on an adhoc basis over time which collectively make it simple for officials to say no to new ideas, people and activities, but much more complicated to say yes to a new idea. This is not the fault of the individuals or governing bodies making the rules, but rather a natural outcome of our civic rule-following tendencies. As Bobby Kennedy once famously said, “Some people see things as they are and say, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” Or, as Henry Ford put it, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” However, humans have the ability to override our instincts when it is in the best interest of our goals. Just as we can say no to a second helping of dessert to achieve our weight loss goals, we can choose to say yes to a new idea if it has the potential to make our community better.

Because saying yes might seem strange or scary to some, it is important to recognize that deciding to say yes does not necessarily mean agreeing with or granting permission to every request; rather it’s the ability to convey a message of “I hear your idea and accept it, and will look for possibilities” as opposed to “Here are all the reasons your crazy idea won’t work.” Many of today’s planning trends push us toward that place; the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach promoted by Project for Public Spaces and the pop-up placemaking efforts carried out by the Better Block Project encourage the use of temporary or test projects to demonstrate the potential for success and identify challenges before going all in on a new idea. This ability to test drive a concept makes it less scary (and potentially avoids the need to follow all the rules from the outset), while still allowing a community to acknowledge a problem and explore creative solutions.

The next series of posts will explore ways that communities can say yes, both in policy and practice, in specific and impactful ways that will ultimately help attract and welcome audiences that many places want more of—businesses, families and visitors.

In the top photo, this community projects a negative image to visitors, discouraging them from exploring a public park, while the park shown in the bottom photo clearly welcomes pet owners while also directing them to appropriate areas.