For the past few years I’ve been attending a conference in February called Saving Places. While historic preservation is the main focus of the event, a wide variety of urban development topics tend to surface including local economics, place building, and revitalization. The plenary speakers on Thursday morning this week hit upon a topic that Kyle Wagenschutz introduced here in Fort Collins at a NoCo Bike Show last year — instigating change with a low-budget, temporary, people-oriented solution.

When Kyle spoke at the Bike Show, he was referring to bicycle infrastructure improvements that could be made with paint, cones, planters and other temporary items that would enable people to experience the infrastructure change without a big outlay of cash on the part of the City. When Joe Nickol and Kevin Wright spoke at Saving Places, their focus was revitalizing older neighborhoods. But the central nugget of their idea was essentially the same as Kyle’s. Start small. Start cheap. And focus on people.

Joe and Kevin had noticed that despite a downtown economic rebound in the midwest city where they live, and some resurgence of interest in a few nearby neighborhoods, there was still at least one neighborhood that continued to struggle. They wondered why that was. They tried to entice developers to come in and pour some money into the area in hopes that people would follow. But there was no interest in spending money on a neighborhood that no one else was enthused about.

So the guys decided to hold an alley clean-up party. After the clean-up they had a local brewery come serve beers and a food truck provided munchies. They had a great turnout, drawing not only current residents, but people from neighboring places as well. This event and others gave outsiders a chance to come in, enjoy a beer, chat with the locals and realize what a neat little neighborhood they were sitting in. Some of these folks started looking for apartments in the area and before long those investors and developers that had snubbed the neighborhood before were eager to get behind new redevelopment projects.

The general idea at work here revolves around small, incremental, inexpensive change that is people-focused with the goal of testing ideas and creating interest. What was new to me from Joe and Kevin’s talk, however, was the verbiage that they wrapped this idea in. They put it in economic terms. Small improvements are easy to do and they can test whether there’s interest. If there is interest, then improving upon the original idea can build demand. And as demand grows, investors will take note and want in on the action. In other words, create demand and supply will follow.

Many cities rely on a supply side model of redevelopment and revitalization. They provide expansive tax credits to industry or retail to move into an area and set up shop with the hope that people will come. This not only puts the incentives into the hands of the corporations (that are often not locally owned and therefore don’t put as much money back into the local economy), but it also pins everything on a big change. And if that big change doesn’t pan out, then the city will be left holding the bill and the industry or retail that tried moving in will have fled for greener pastures.

By focusing on creating demand and building community, a city can test an idea, see if there is indeed a need or interest and then begin planning how to nurture what’s been started into a revitalized, economically vibrant, people-oriented neighborhood. The development would follow a trajectory that’s already been set by the residents rather than allowing developers to create a project and everyone crossing their fingers hoping residents will follow. Plus, even if investors and developers don’t step in, the City still wins because these small, neighborhood focused projects build community which in turn contributes to neighborhood health and safety and supports happy, integrated, connected community members.

This small, incremental, and cheap method of showing demand doesn’t just work for neighborhoods. Imagine using it for infrastructure as well. I was recently talking to a friend about how difficult it is for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross I-25 on Mulberry. His reply is that he’s never seen anyone try to do that so he didn’t think there was any interest in such a crossing. But when the intersection is so dangerous, of course no one is crossing there! What if we found a way to add a pedestrian/bicyclist crossing there temporarily. (I have no idea how this could be done, given the current cloverleaf configuration. But just roll with the idea for now.) What if, with just some paint and a few planters, we were able to make a safe, temporary crossing. If people still didn’t cross there, then we’d know there’s no demand. But if suddenly people who have been needing a safe way to cross started to use the new route, we would KNOW there’s demand. It was invisible, but a cheap test would have shown that it existed.

We don’t have to make huge, monumental changes. Building out expensive projects in hopes that something will come of it leaves the possibility that nothing will come of it. But starting with a small idea, testing for a response from the community, making incremental adjustments and focusing on people-centric solutions can point the way toward where larger sums of money should be spent in the future. Fort Collins is growing. Let’s be smart about how we move forward.