A blogosphere buzz today joined my astute older brother in recognizing that we’ve reached a significant date that links movie history to present day real life. Today (Wednesday, October 21, 2015) is the “future” date visited by teenage time traveler Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future Part II, released in 1989. In the movie Marty (portrayed by Michael J. Fox) catches a glimpse of his “future” life in 2015, and the plot revolves around some potential personal outcomes that are at stake. Some have taken this opportunity today to evaluate the screenplay writers’ so-called predictions for 2015 that can now be measured up against our present day reality. The Cubs’ bid for the World Series has not gone unnoticed. And I, for one, maintain my admiration for the majestic concept of hoverboards despite there being no such thing quite so close to being commercially available just yet.
Amidst the amusing banter of what has and has not come to pass, I am reminded of the notion that “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Popularized in that form by Peter Drucker by the mid 1980s, the basic idea about creating vs. predicting the future goes back much further and is at least old enough to qualify for a senior discount at many venues. In a post about entrepreneurship, Forbes contributor Paul Brown ventures a step further and suggests that “…the best way to create the future is to: Act. Learn. Build. Repeat”, eventually getting there as follows:
In the face of the unknown, entrepreneurs act. Specifically they:
- Figure out what they want.
- Take a small step toward making it reality.
- Pause to think about what they learned from taking that step.
- Build that learning into their next step—and if that means adjusting from the initial path, so be it.
In other words the best way to create the future is to: Act. Learn. Build. Repeat.
I find this a fairly straight-forward – if general – suggestion about navigating a changing world. (Drucker also wrote in 1973 that “the only thing we know about the future is that it is going to be different”.) And I think it basically fits with what several scholars and practitioners of community planning and development suggest about creating long range plans for the rural, urban and suburban settings in which people live, work, and play. Torbjörn Lahti, pioneer of the eco-municipality movement who visited Central Wisconsin last spring, eloquently summed up many successful experiences in sustainable community development as a continuous process of “learning, planning, and doing”. When Chuck Marohn led a workshop here earlier this year, he celebrated the benefits of incremental reinvestment and gradual improvements in historic built environments over the course of decades.
Contrasting reinvestment with greenfield development gets us back to another entertaining theme that is evident throughout the Back to the Future trilogy: illustrations of how drastically some landscapes can change over the course of 30 years. The movies offer frequent reminders of this. Fictional examples filmed in various places include the Peabody Farm of 1955 becoming vast parking lots by 1985, and the transformation of an undeveloped greenfield to Lyon Estates over the same period. Looking at Marty’s home town through a placemaking lens, I can’t help but notice what could appear like an identity crisis of a community called Hill Valley. Sprinkled throughout the movies are things that make you go hmmm (to reference a pop song released the following year). There is even the recurring idea that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.
I’ll wind down with just a few scholarly insights as you ponder various prospects of change in your community over 30-year horizons. Much research has been devoted to the study of “community identity”. According to John Puddifoot (1995) it is comprised of several elements including locus (geography), distinctiveness (uniqueness), identification (belongingness), orientation (individuals’s experience of), quality of life, and function (decision-making). Taking action to develop places of value and meaning is the essence of “placemaking”. Susan Zelinka and Jackson Harden (2005) define placemaking as “the process of adding value and meaning to the public realm through community-based revitalization projects rooted in local values, history, culture and the natural environment”. Outside of special occasions like October 21, 2015, we’re not all accustomed to thinking very often about how our community environments are being shaped and reshaped. And yet I would encourage anyone to seize meaningful opportunities to be involved in community-based revitalization efforts, and community planning and development – as these can be among the important opportunities to help create (if not predict) the future of your community.
Puddifoot, John E. “Dimensions of Community Identity.” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology (1995): 357-370. Paper. 23 6 2015.
Zelinka, Susan and Jackson Harden. Placemaking on a budget: improving small towns, neighborhoods, and downtowns without spending a lot of money. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association, 2005. Book
—Nathan Sandwick lives in Stevens Point and works in Portage County.
Tags: Charles Marohn, Strong Towns