We can plan for success without a crystal ball

When I was a kid, I used to wonder if there was anything real about objects of prediction such as crystal balls. They were always such an essential tool of witches and wizards. However they worked, they provided their masters with amazing vision beyond their immediate time and space. Imagine such power to envision our potential futures.

In my adult world, there are no crystal balls with which a divinely endowed operator can peer into the future. The best tool is the electrochemical water sack we call a brain. It grants us the capacity to imagine a desire, examine systems and data, synthesize a conclusion of potential outcomes based on predictive modeling and act to modify our behavior to achieve or avoid an anticipated outcome. You know, to make a plan and act on it.

As card-carrying Homo sapiens, planning is in our very nature. No Neolithic human could take down a woolly mammoth on his own to feed his family. But if one early human (let’s call him Ted) organized his clan and learned the behavior of his prey and built the right weapons and strategically hunted the beast, well then, everyone could be successful and eat well and stay warm through the winter. He figured out that planning was a good way to transcend their personal differences by leveraging his people’s common interests for the benefit of all. Nice job, Ted!

Planning is a pretty straight forward exercise, especially when practiced in our homes on a short-term basis. We plan our weekly dinners based on our grocery list. We plan our monthly finances based on our weekly paychecks. It’s pretty easy when you are master of your own domain. Factor in a longer planning period, shared resources, numerous constituencies and territorial boundaries, and suddenly the potential offered by assertive planning seems, well, lost. It leaves me a bit despondent, wishing I had a good crystal ball.

The flip side of planning is organic growth. It’s a kind of hands-off approach where no one really does anything. We rely on the ebb and flow of commerce and culture to provide opportunities to build business and prosperity. It is much more passive and reactive to the environment that feeds it.

Let’s not discount the role organic development plays in making good communities, because there are many wonderful places in the world that grew out of the right mix of opportunity, resources and energy. But the downside of organic development is atrophy and starvation. Without the right ingredients, our communities wither on the vine. I believe this is where Fulton and Montgomery counties find themselves now.

This area has a weird nexus of stunted regional cooperation that implicitly endorses a de facto organic growth policy, with various stakeholders pulling in different directions.

We are simply not doing enough to cultivate our communities at the regional level. But there are signs of hope; little sprouts of green life are poking out of what we have always seen as barren earth. Let us not trample them because our neighbor has sown them.

The green shoots I am referring to are some initiatives happening at the county level. Just recently, we saw the Fulton County Board of Supervisors start a discussion about planning a countywide water and sewer authority. Over the last eight months, the CEO Roundtable has sponsored workshops on the revitalization of our downtowns. Fulton County is securing the transfer of the Tryon Campus to county property for business development. The Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce is forming Main Street revitalization committees for each city to guide development planning. Even the Johnstown Planning Board is getting in on the action by updating its comprehensive plan.

But there is still more that can and should be done. Our downtowns are a perfect microcosm of how a lack of coordinated planning provides little structure to support a robust organic commercial growth. We have failed thus far to inventory leasable space. No one really knows the current revenue generated by our downtown businesses. There are lots of theories and perceptions based on what we casually see, but that is not the same as knowing. We need knowledge if we are going try to plan a revitalization of our downtowns.

I will go a step further and state that we need feet on the street. We need professional planners to help us craft our vision of the future. We need the planning gypsies and wizards to empower our sight, for I fear we have our heads in the sand. We need their objective skill and knowledge to transcend our personal grievances. If there are grants to pay for their services, they should be gotten. Business owners need to get behind this. Politicians need to get behind this. Citizens need to get behind this.

As I have written before, this is all a question of value. If we want the stagnation to end, we need to hack at the underbrush of cynicism to create a clearer path to prosperity. And we need to do this with the understanding that plans are not binding outside of our own collective inertia in seeing them happen. Proper planning can support legislation, entice entrepreneurs and drive dollars and resources into rechanneling the flow of our commerce and culture. Planning is the crystal ball that gives us knowledge by which we can make decisions.

Let’s take a lesson from Ted! I’ve always wanted to hunt a wooly mammoth.

David D’Amore is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design, based in Johnstown (