Preserving authenticity in planning small communities

February 16, 2016

Radical incrementalism: How working with what you have (instead of dreaming big) often reaps the biggest benefits

By Simon O'Byrne


A few years ago, I went on a trip to Ottawa with other business leaders from Alberta. We met with some elected officials. After a few hours of formal discussion about national business policy, it was time for dinner.

Ottawa, as the nation’s capital, is home to plenty of posh eateries. But our bus took us past all of these. We went north across the Ottawa River and through the city of Gatineau, arriving at Chelsea, Quebec (population 6,977).

During the ride, I was confused. Our group, I imagined, could get a table at any restaurant in the country. Why were we leaving the grandeur of Ottawa?

Then we arrived in Chelsea. Its historic buildings and picturesque main street instantly charmed me. By the time we drove back after a meal of delicious French cuisine, I understood that we’d been drawn to something as captivating as anything found in Ottawa: a small town that built on what it had rather than chase the impossible.

It is popular these days in the world of urban planning to say that capitalism has been replaced by “talentism.” That is, getting your hands on capital is pretty easy these days thanks to historically low interest rates. But getting talented people—those really wired for success in the modern economy, the ones who move a place from good to great—getting them to join your business or move to your municipality is hard. This also goes for doctors, accountants, engineers, and other professionals any community needs to survive.

In this competition for talent, you might think small places face a stiff challenge. Certainly, many such places feel that way themselves. That’s why they try to mimic the bigger cities they fear losing their businesses and people to.


How often have you passed through a small town that consists of nothing but chain restaurants, one big-box store, and a moribund main street?

How long do these places stick in your memory?

A small town is never going to beat a big city at big city things. And they don’t have the tax base to make mistakes. Chelsea can’t compete with Ottawa’s shopping or art galleries. Instead of chasing rainbows, Chelsea leaned into its strengths with a plan based on an authentic vision of itself.

It cultivated an eclectic mix of unique businesses. It preserved its historic architecture and sense of place. It provided lots of gathering space for the relaxed socializing that cities sometimes lack.

In short, instead of trying to remake itself into a second-rate small city, it tried to be a really great, really authentic small town.

This doesn’t happen overnight. Most small towns or cities don’t have the money to pursue an ambitious vision in the short term. But every community, no matter the size, can adopt an attitude of “radical incrementalism.” That is, once you’ve formed a plan based on your authentic strengths, relentlessly implement it every year.

When you have money, you progress quickly. When you don’t, you go a little slower. But you never lose track of the long game. You never stop moving towards the evocative, unforgettable sense of place offered by Chelsea, Quebec.

I’ve always loved Stuart Maclean’s Vinyl Café stories. In the window of the titular café, which is actually a record store, hangs a sign. The sign expresses an idea that should be at the heart of every leader trying to make their village, their town, their hamlet, great.

“We may not be big,” it reads. “But we’re small.”


About the Author

Simon O'Byrne is an award-winning urban designer and planner and vice president of Community Development in Canada. With his planning expertise, he’s frequently quoted in North American media, and he’s a regularly sought-after public speaker.


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