What I follow To Keep Learning!

I “retired” in August, 2019, but prior to that and continuing now, is a lifelong interest (passion?) in urban/city, regional planning, This expanded to economic/community development – how communities can grow, and expand and sustain their economies., The foundation of this interest was geography, combined with history. In fact, history was my undergraduate major, followed by graduate school and a Master’s in City & Regional Planning. degree.

My next “learning” process was leadership, ingrained from a 38 year career in the US Army and Army National Guard. I somehow advanced to a senior (E-9, Command Sergeant Major) position, hopefully learning along the journey, observing what works and doesn’t in sometimes stressful conditions.

Leadership is need now more than ever in our communities, not only elected officials, but citizens and activists to make a difference.

COVID-19, as stated in prior posts, has questioned all my prior “learning” and experiences, but provides another opportunity to learn again and perhaps make a difference in my community.

Following below are a number of blogs, websites and e-newsletters I follow that provide inspiration for this blog, while helping to advance my learning.

Traditional sites, but changing

American Planning Association

Source: American Planning Association

This is my professional association for planning, a member since 1980 and obtained their professional certification in 1986 (American Institute of Certified Planners). This is the equivalent of a CPA for accountants. You qualify to take the test, after documented the appropriate education and years of experience requirements. Upon passing the test, you must then take courses each year to keep your certification current.

Planetizen

Home
Source: Planetizen

This site compiles news and related data, and commentary about planning from around the US and abroad. The site has a blog, a Job Board and offer relevant on-courses. They provide up to date blog posts devoted to COVID-19, planning and community development responses and best practices. I have been a follower for over ten years.

Main Street America

Main Street America
Source: Main Street America

The National Main Street Center is a national organization that works to strengthen communities through preservation-based economic development in older and historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts.

It was established as a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1980 as a way to address the myriad issues facing older and historic downtowns during that time. Today, there are over 2,000 communities across the country participating.

While this is a membership only program, access to some materials, studies, and best practices is available to the public. i have used this site to assist my local town as they pursue redevelopment of the downtown,

Focused sites, with new thoughts and ideas!

The next two sites were highlighted in previous posts. Both are and remain key sources of current trends and inspiration for this blog.

Strong Towns

See my May 31 post. I have followed this site for two years.

Strong Towns
Source; Strong Towns

Verdunity

See the June 14 post. I am active member in their Community Cultivators online community. I recently reached out to them for blog and podcast ideas.

 Verdunity
Source: Verdunity, Dallas, TX,

Public Square, A CNU Journal

Home
Source: Congress for the New Urbanism

This is a publication dedicated to illuminating and cultivating best practices in urbanism in the US and beyond, part of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). I like their commentary and articles because it provides a variety of topics to improve “resilient places—places that people love” .

New Journalism

CityLab (Bloomberg)

Bloomberg purchased this site several months ago, but continue the original intent to post timely news and commentary across a cross section of issues, all part of a place – Design Culture Transportation Environment Economy Housing Justice Government. This feeds my interest in economic/community development.

A sister site is CityLab University, providing a series of focused articles to inform and educate about a variety of topics for better understanding of issues and processes affecting communities. A good example – Zoning Codes – “an overview of zoning and defines the key terms related to it in America, so you can better understand the rules that are shaping your city and neighborhood.”

City Observatory

Source: CityObservatory

This is a website and think tank, devoted to data-driven analysis of cities and the policies that shape them. The site writes about transportation, housing, gentrification, place making, economic opportunity, and industry clusters. It also posts about misconceptions about cities, break down the latest urban research, and highlight the innovative ideas that strengthen our communities.

Why These

These sites provide a variety of information, from different sources, consistent with my interests. More importantly, they capture the interconnections of issues, needs and policies that reflect the complexity of our places,

In this 24 hour media cycle, I read these, rather than the TV news. These are now more relevant as communities struggle for needed solutions for their local needs.

Finally, this feeds my need to keep learning, so perhaps I can contribute to solutions, rather then fixing blame.

COVID and Planning Data

This is a follow up to my June 7 post Urban Planning After Pandemic (AP) , about predictions for urban planning, specifically 4 Predictions for Urban Planning Post-Coronavirus – Urban Planners Will Become Even More Reliant on City-Level, Granular Data. Kayla Matthews, the author has posted a follow up blog Pandemic Data for Planners . This is a review of this post and cited and other data sources and technologies that assist communities to response to the current virus and future events.

The right data will be critical in crafting effective responses to the threats posed by the coronavirus.

Tracking

The pandemic has enhanced the need for timely and accurate data for tracking it’s spread, allowing for targeted deployment of vital medical support support for public health and safety.

An example is Boston’s COVID-19 Case Tracker, displaying city and national data. Further detail is shown by county. Key issues with this kind of dashboard:

1. The need to maintain and expand the data base

2. Ease of access to and understanding of the data

3. Data is not useful when not used, It must be actionable – the basis for intelligent and timely decisions.

An Example

The article goes further expands use of tracking or dashboard data, to include mapping those most vulnerable due to underlying health conditions. A good example is the Urban Health Vulnerable Index. This not only tracks COVID data in urban areas across the country, but also has additional health related layers, such as heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease . The purpose of the Index for use a a tool:

1. Uncovers which parts of our communities could be most affected by a COVID-19 outbreak.
2. Allows local governments to anticipate where resources may be needed the most.
3. Provides important information about a community’s access to healthcare.

This clearly demonstrates the power of good and reliable data mapped for use by planners, health providers and policy makers to help and support communities.

Other Examples

During the pandemic, I followed the following sites:

At the national level – COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. This is similar to the Boston example, and in fact may be based on the Hopkins Dashboard.

For the my state (Maryland), I follow this site, again based on the Hopkins data and platform. Layers are available by county and zip code – Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Outbreak.

Dashboards and transparency

City of San Diego

Prior to COVID-19, many communities invested time and money in dashboards to track the progress of adopted policies including the economy, education, demographics, education,, the environment, housing, public safety and health.The pandemic has only heightened the need for this need for this holistic view, impacting all facets of community life.

The dashboards also fill a needed void of open government and transparency, particularly during the current crisis. This will need to be strengthened as communities recover and for the efficient use of limited tax dollars.

An example, Alexandria, Virginia – Performance Dashboard – “Annually, City departments report on how well their department is performing using key indicators. This information, which is used to track and evaluate performance, is jointly developed by individual departments and the Office of Performance and Accountability (OPA).”

The city of Alexandria, Virginia

So what

The lesson here for me is now more than ever, data- based decision-making is needed, as COVID-19 has demonstrated. This is again, an opportunity to leverage and merge technology and data to benefit our communities. This promotes transparency, the best use of limited resources and funds, while specifically pinpointed where the assistance is needed the most. Finally, a dashboard integrates all aspects of a community, not in isolation, as one elements affects others.

Density Revisited

As we continue to learn more about COVID-19 and it’s implications, the issue of urban density has also evolved. Initially this was seen as the real cause for the explosive spread of the virus, first in Hunan China and then around the world to other urban centers. This was fertile ground for the virus to spread, given a large number of people in small spaces.

This post is a follow up to my April 13 post (COVID -19 Weekly Summary), tracing revised perspectives about density.

AZURE March 29, 2020

Will COVID-19 Spell the End of Urban Density? Don’t Bet On It.

Written in during the early stages of the pandemic (March 2020), this article documents the initial blame game that density was the primary cause for the rapid the spread of the virus. Two key questions are then posed as arguments that the demise of dense places is premature and in fact are needed for a variety of reasons.

Does high population density inherently increase vulnerability to epidemic outbreaks?

Given the collapse of urban retail and the rapid proliferation of remote work, can cities remain culturally and socio-economically vital?

The next two articles are recent (May, June 2020), providing persuasive arguments, given the passage of time and the pandemic experience.

Density Isn’t Easy. But It’s Necessary.

This is part of Bloomberg CityLab’s ongoing density series. This piece documents our love/hate views of dense urban areas and why now more than ever are needed.

The question is not whether we need cities and density. The question is whether we have the vision, commitment and fortitude to make our cities equitable, affordable and sustainable as well as dense, creative and diverse.

This “commitment” is now more relevant than ever in the wake of the racial inequality exposed by COVID-19, only reinforced by the aftermath of the George Floyd murder.

The other articles in this series provide a variety of well documented and needed arguments in response to continuing attacks on urban places.

Youth Movement: Accelerating America’s Urban Renaissance

Urban Land Institute, Ngoc Doan, Pulaski Park, Northampton, Massachusetts,

This article is a summary of a larger study by City Observatory, documenting the continuing migration and economic expansion of urban areas. T

“Close-in urban neighborhoods are increasingly attractive to the “young and restless” 25- to 34 year-olds who’ve completed at least a four-year college degree. These well-educated young adults have accounted for more than half of the increase in population in close-in urban neighborhoods in the nation’s large metro areas since 2010.

There’s no evidence that this powerful momentum has been blunted by Coronavirus concerns.”

The Nature Conservancy

It was easy initially for me to say, yes – density spread the COVID. Look at what happened in New York City! But given time, reading, research and reflection, I now understand better the nuances and other forces at play. It is about better design or retrofitting for more urban spaces. It is about discipline of physical distancing (social distancing – really!), masks, contact tracing and hand washing. Just look at how South Korea, Hong Kong and other dense urban areas handled the epidemic.

Rather than a hotbed of germs and viruses, dense places provide the environment and fertile conditions to unleash the human spirit to start new businesses, develop new technologies and take risks to advance mankind. At a more human level, dense places fulfill our need to be social, to gather and share our experiences.

COVID-19 has pointedly demonstrated the systemic economic and racial disparities in our places. I am then hopeful that this will be a transcendental opportunity fix our places, not a passing phase.

Blog Review

Over the years, I continue to follow websites, blogs and podcasts about urban planning and related topics – economic/community development, housing, transportation, public engagement and civic leadership.

These have maintained my passion in planning, and dramatically changed my mindset and motivation to start this blog.

This is another blog review, following a previous review of Strong Towns (https://placesense.net/2020/05/31/blog-review-strong-towns/).

Verdunity is a Dallas Texas consulting firm, started in 2011, motivated by Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn writings.

The Name

The name comes from their vision, approach and company culture philosophy:-

“The ‘VERD’ portion of our name represents what inspires us:

Fiscally Productive Places

Natural Systems and Green Infrastructure

Economic Gardening and Incremental Development

The ‘UNITY’ represents where and how we work:

Communities and Neighborhoods

Locally-Led Initiatives

Partnerships

Verde + Community became Verdunity – a better future, by design.”

What They Do

They are not your typical planning and engineering firm. I know, having worked for two engineering firms as a planner. Talk about a duck out of water! What sets them apart is this (emphasis added):

“Verdunity provides progressive city leaders with fiscally-based planning, engineering and community engagement services that prioritize civic vitality and long-term sustainability over short-term results. Our core purpose is to ensure prosperity for everyone by helping communities build neighborhoods where people at all stages of life and means can survive and thrive.

We believe that the way we have been building our places is not sustainable, and that America’s approach to how we build our communities and neighborhoods must change – immediately. We are committed to leading this change through the work we do and the lives we lead.”

Credit: National Charrette Institute at MSU

Their core services:

COMMUNITY CONSULTING & EDUCATION SERVICES through
Workshops, Strategic Planning and Staff Augmentation

PLANNING SERVICES
Fiscal Models & Analysis, Comprehensive Plans, Downtown, Corridor and Area Plans, Neighborhood Revitalization Strategies and Citizen Led Implementation – Cultivate Community Program (CCP)

ENGINEERING SERVICES
Neighborhood Street Design, Site Development and Design, Active Transportation, Low Impact Development + Green Infrastructure

How they work

They spread the word (their passion and expertise) through the following venues:

Go Cultivate! Blog and Podcast, Workshops and Walkshops, Go Cultivate! Online Network, andUniversity Guest Lectures Keynotes & Presentations.

The Inspiration

The Blog/Podcast and the Online Network were my initial introduction, but the following captures why I joined and actively contribute to the Go Cultivate! Online Network (it’s free!):

Is your community struggling to find the resources to keep up with growing infrastructure, service and amenity needs and expectations? Do you feel like you’re spinning your wheels implementing policies and procedures you know won’t lead to the type of community your residents desire? Is there tension within your local government because you’re all coming from different starting points? Then you understand that business as usual is broken, and status quo has to go.

UMass Lowell Blog

I see this in my community as we continue to develop with no understanding of the implications, to the detriment of our environment and financial security. I now spread the word to my community’s elected leaders and planning staff that this cannot be sustained. COVID-19 is a harsh wake -up call for change, requiring bottoms up, collaborative process.

This likely reads like previous posts. But this other related blogs and research convinces me more than ever the need to do things differently and experiment, We can and must do better for our places.

Urban Planning After Pandemic (AP)

My Planning Perspective

Urban planning has been my life’s work, with a Master’s Degree, followed by a career, split between local, regional and state government planning agencies and the remaining in the private sector, with several planning/engineering firms.

This experience has provided a broad perspective, but the pandemic has impacted me, questioning my education and experience. Could I have done things differently? What can I do now?

What’s Next

Two recent posts on Planetizen ( “The independent resource for people passionate about planning and related fields.” ) provide different perspectives for needed chances to the planning profession post COVID-19, while giving me opportunities to support and spread the news about these changes This is my motivation for the PLACESENSE blog.

Violence Against Black Americans a Moment of Reckoning for the Planning Profession, James Brasuell, June 1, 2020

Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This commentary provides a variety of sources how the planning profession must change to address racial injustice in the wake of the George Floyd murder. This includes the hard reality that planning has contributed to systemic racial and economic segregation and now is the moment for active and sustained engagement for change.

This needed change cuts across the full spectrum of planning – housing diversity, open streets/open space to name a few and now is …….“an opportunity to enter a new era: one that centers racial, social, and environmental justice in every act.

“Ensuring a new normal of social and racial equity will require a deep reckoning with the ways that planning innovations perpetuate systematic inequality, even among the most innovative and ostensibly progressive planning practices. It might be hard to hear, but advocates are underlining and insisting on this point, and no matter how difficult it is to confront, the field of planning is faced with an opportunity to enter a new era: one that centers racial, social, and environmental justice in every act.”

4 Predictions for Urban Planning Post-Coronavirus, Kayla Matthews, May 27, 2020

American Planning Association, 2018

The predictions are a mixed bag for me. Here is my take.

City Planning Will More Frequently Address the Need for Transportation Independence

While true, additional thought and details are needed. Integration with land use policies and zoning codes needs to be part of any transportation discussion to make any meaningful changes. But the current impetus of open streets is a refreshing start for all communities. The hope is this will be sustained.

Design Decisions for Public Urban Spaces Will Become More Proactive Rather Than Reactive

Generally true, but again needs additional details and must relate to local conditions and needs. One size does not fit all. There is no question that more public spaces are needed, but must be located across a community, available to all, not only just higher income areas. It must be equitable and should also be integrated with public health needs.

Urban Planners Will Become Even More Reliant on City-Level, Granular Data

Total agreement with this. While the technology is there, it needs to be more accessible and affordable, including training to those communities who cannot afford it or perhaps not a technologically savvy as others. The pandemic map example cited here is an excellent and practical application needed by communities to make fact based decisions.

City Planners Will Become Champions of Their Work and Speak More Assertively to Local Authorities

Total agreement that COVID-19 is an opportunity and “a call to arms” for planners. This is not easy, as we will be at odds with our elected leaders (public sector) or our clients (private sector). I know this, having experienced this myself.

Planners will likely deal with challenges including changing transportation patterns, development approvals moving to the digital realm, and fiscal austerity at the local government level leading to layoffs and reduced capacity to maintain services and implement new projects.

The quick shift has made people eagerly discuss the future of urban planning after COVID-19. Failing to shift to the new normal created by the coronavirus would mean a missed opportunity for city planners.

Reflection

European Union External Action March 23, 2020

Planning is still my passion, but it’s not my intent to pat myself on the back or suggest I have all the answers. COVID-19 will have a long term impact on our places. Listening to podcasts, following planning and related blogs and news has only reinforced this and the for the need for real and sustained change. This inspires me to speak out, and perhaps to atone for my complicity in bad planning policies and inequities now so evident.

We will all experience what happens next and hopefully there is a new sense of urgency.

Blog Review – Strong Towns

Introduction

One of many blogs I  follow is Strong Towns. Established in 2008, this is a national non profit organization, promoting a new way of thinking about how towns grow, to be sustainable and resilient communities.  Their posts and articles related to my experiences as a professional planner for a small town, struggling to maintain our quality of life, but seeking re-development opportunities to pay for needed services.

The founder and President is Charles Marohns, a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a land use planner with two decades of experience. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of Minnesota.

After a decade working with towns, he couldn’t understand that will these communities grew, they also were going bankrupt. He realized “Our national system of growth and development is fundamentally broken, and it’s put too many American cities (and the people who live in them) on the path to certain decline. ” From this Strong Towns was started.

Their core values are (emphasis added):

“….that the American pattern of development extracts wealth from communities, leaves them with unsustainable long-term liabilities, and results in places that are designed to decline.

We are building the capacity of city leaders, institutions and built environment professionals to challenge the status quo.

And we are inspiring a broad movement of people, from all walks of life, who are actively engaged in making their neighborhoods more resilient and livable.”

They deliver their services by:

Strong Towns Media – articles, podcasts, and videos

Strong Towns Academy – a recent addition, comprehensive resource of nine in-depth courses. I just enrolled in the free introduction course, Strong Towns 101.

Strong Towns Community –  readers and members participate in honest, meaningful discussions regarding the state of their communities

Strong Towns Events – produce gatherings that connect local advocates, send staff members  to speak to communities about our ideas with the sponsorship of local organizations.

Timely Material

Two recent publications are relevant in the COVID-19 era:

First,  Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity written by Charles Marohns, the founder.  Note: I don’t receive any payments or other benefits from the book reference.

The book reinforces their advocacy for a new way of thinking about how our towns and communities are developed:

“Why our cities are on the cusp of a long, slow decline, and how to approach the challenge in a rational way.

Why inducing growth and development has been the conventional response to urban financial struggles – and why it just doesn’t work.

Why old and blighted areas are often more financially productive than shiny new ones.

The power of little bets to strengthen communities and improve the lives of citizens.

How humble public engagement can create amazing insights.

The surprising ways that strong neighborhoods make us better people.

Their second is a timey –   THE LOCAL LEADER’S TOOLKIT: A STRONG TOWNS RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC, a COVID-19 recovery guidance for local governments over three phases –  Immediate (first 60 days), We’re Not Going Back to Normal (3-12 months) and Building a Strong Town (one year and beyond). 

“It seems unlikely that we are going to return to pre-coronavirus America anytime soon. This global pandemic feels like a switch that has released
long-standing tensions within our society, revealing deep dysfunction and fragility in the critical systems we depend on.

Whether it’s food supply, housing, health care, transportation, or just basic
community commerce, local communities are waking up to just how fragile we are.

Community leaders are going to have to address these problems in real time, under stress, with limited outside assistance. And with financial resources stretched, they won’t have the option to simply throw money at these problems.

To prepare the ground for recovery, we are now forced to innovate. We must find ways to do much more with what is likely to be much less. That’s
what local leadership now requires.”

Community Needs

The need for leadership at all levels, but especially in neighborhoods and towns, by those closest to their issues and problems.

Develop a resilient community, as Federal  and state government assistance is not guaranteed. We could be on our own.

This is a bottom up process, where local communities need to take control of how they want to develop, taking incremental action steps for sustainability and resiliency.guaranteed. We could be on our own.

As exposed by COVID-19, the status quo didn’t work.  We will never go back the way is was before the pandemic. Innovation is needed now more than ever.

Decisions-Who said it was easy and simple!

Community Choices

A community’s elected leaders and citizens are confronted with hard choices and controversy when making land use and development decisions. Well, that’s what they signed up for. Yes, but nonetheless, it is hard with profound consequences.

Think about what the impacts are of approving or denying a new residential community, new office building, or another large commercial enterprise, expanding or building new infrastructure (water, sewer, landfill, highway, transit). Public engagement and social media add further churn to the process.

This post will attempt to provide a county perspective of the decision dilemma in the context of two recent front-page articles from my local newspaper. Source: Maryland Independent, Friday, November 8, 2019

Opposition and Issues

First – “Planned Homes Draw Fire over Increasing traffic”

san diego planning commission may 2020
San Diego Planning Commission

The County Planning Commission reviewed a next phase of a large mixed-use community, originally approved in 1970, totaling 1,900 acres,1.5 million square feet of industrial space, 25,000 residential units.

This next phase or neighborhood proposes 1,000 homes (a mixture of single-family, townhouses, duplexes) and village commercial center on 460 acres.

Public opposition focused on the following:

  • “Congestion, gridlock, that’s all you have in the county”
  • “We don’t have the roads, the schools to handle being built”
  • “How many more houses have to be built before residents decided that the impact on traffic was unacceptable”

It is interesting that the article continues on another page titled “SPRAWL”. Not sure that is not bias by the paper, but it does capture the public’s objections.

Second – “County Economic outlook bright, job growth slower”

Charles County Economic Development Department

The County’s Economic Development Department (EDD) has an annual fall event to report current and future prospects for economic growth. The November 2019 event focused on EDD’s progress implementing their 2015 Strategic Plan. While there is progress, the following issues have implications for future economic growth (now likey compromised by COVID-19):

  • Need for transportation options, other than roads
  • Improve the business climate – project reviews, permitting take too long, zoning cumbersome
  • Workforce development:
    • Boomers retiring, need to fill positions, but younger workers choose other locations for better pay, social environment, they can live anywhere
    • “Talent is the new currency”,” rebuild the talent pipeline by bringing in skilled workers into the county to live and work
    • “Now there’s your pipeline”- +-65% of residents commute out of the county to jobs

Approve or deny?!

The comments from those opposed to the project and economic development issues seem contradictory – too much traffic and development, but a need for educated, qualified workers to fill needed jobs in the county.

Decision-makers then fall back on policies from their various  Comprehensive and Strategic Plans for guidance. Even those at times are also at odds. 

  •  The 2016 County Comprehensive Plan:
    • Community Development –  policies and actions: Projection – Charles County is projected to add approximately 32,200 housing units between 2010 and 2040, a close to 60 percent increase over the total 2010 housing inventory of 55,000 units.
      • Policy – Provide a broad range of quality housing for all County residents, including those with low and moderate incomes.
      • Policy – Provide housing opportunities for the County’s share of residents who have difficulty competing for standard, market-rate dwellings.
      • Policy – Provide a balanced housing stock with housing opportunities for all residents Charles County will achieve a future county housing mix of approximately 80% single family, 15% townhomes and condominiums, and 5% apartments.
    • Transportation Policy:
      • Charles County’s highest transportation priority is the funding of the 18 miles light transit system

Takeaways:

A community’s plans, policies, and strategies must be integrated with other government agencies ( i.e.Public Works,  Economic Development, and Finance/Budget) for consistency to meet the common sense test. County decision-makers can use their capital improvement plan (CIP) to implement the Comp Plan. This guides where and how to spend tax-payers dollars, getting the biggesst bang for tax payers dollars. 

  •   In the this instance, county policy is not consistent. If  there is a policy for diversified and affordable housing for 32,200 new houses in 20 years, how does that happen with another policy that states 80% single family, 15% townhomes and condominiums, and 5% apartments?  This limits diversity and choice! How can light rail, which  needs housing – density, be your top transportation priority?!

Relationship-of-Capital-Improvement-Plan-to-Other-Documents may 2020
Vicki Elmer, University of Oregon | UO · Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management

  • Need for better outreach to the community, including education about planning and development issues. A public hearing on a Monday evening (typically opponents show up), with a two-week notice, is not effective for citizens to really understand the project, its impact and then have limited time (3 minutes) to provide comments. The record may be left open for some additional time, but still inadequate. Many other communities have leveraged social media to implement project-specific and interactive websites, blogs and podcasts, (14 Online Platforms that Boost Civic Engagement, where the community is an active and ongoing participant, not just reacting at a public hearing. 

civic engagement word-cloud-community may 2020
Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance

  •  A big picture view – the need for change, as COVID-19 has exposed frail infrastructure, unequal  health systems and delivery, supply chain disruption and the sense that our government has failed to lead and take the necessary actions. Now is the time for needed changes, but should be driven from the bottom up,the local community,  by those closest to the issues and problems

 

As written in an earlier post, I am hopeful we will see innovations and advancements to test new techniques to improve and sustain our communities. This is starting as evidenced by the “open streets” (Open Streets are programs that temporarily open streets to people by closing them to cars.) movement in cities around the world, climate change now more than ever in the forefront and the rise of farm to table food (Washington Grown) supply and distribution. Let’s hope the momentum continues!

 

Paying for Stuff We use

Background 

COVID-19 has heightened the long-standing strain not only on the Federal deficit but also on how communities pay for basic services expected by citizens – water, sewer, trash, police/fire protection and road maintenance. There is a further strain because a balanced budget is required by law for many states and local communities.

Property taxes are usually one of the primary revenue sources and as a result, many communities seek new residential and commercial/industrial development to maintain the revenue flow. Where I live, for the proposed Fiscal Year (FY July 1-June 30) 21, 56% of total revenue is from property taxes.

Residential development, while providing needed housing and “rooftops “to support businesses still has costs to provide services. Other costs, often overlooked, include maintainence of the many services provided, fcailities and the cost of debt and bonds.

Commercial/industrial development is more desirable because it requires fewer support services -no school children, typically the largest line item in many local budgets. In my community, the county will spend 48% of projected revenues on education. 

In a perfect world, industrial/commercial development is more desirable, but workers/employees need housing.  A 1974  landmark study, The Cost of Sprawl, Environmental and Economic Costs of Alternative Residential Development Patterns at the Urban FringeCommunities (Environmental Protection Agency, Real Estate Research Corporation ) documented that residential development doesn’t pay for itself – generated taxes don’t cover all the services needed. Communities then strive for a balanced tax base, where non-residential development can generate enough revenue to “pay” for residential development.  Taxes are raised, fees are increased and debt is secured to bridge the gap to pay for existing and future services as a community grows.

New Thinking

The Great Recession (2008) and now COVID-19 have highlighted the need to change  how communities assess property taxes (residential, industrial/commercial)  are valued or assessed to generate government revenue.

The first article, published in 2012, provides  real-world case studies demonstrating that calculating value per acre provides a great yield than the value of the building or structure on the land. The analysis also goes against the myth that large lot single-family development (aka sprawl) is the path to fiscal stability. This further reinforces the 1974 Cost of Spawl report.

The Fiscal Fix, Bacon’s Rebellion Reinventing Virginia for the 21st Century, James A. Bacon June 18, 2012

“So simple. Yet so revolutionary. Katz’s information overturns decades of conventional analysis. Planners typically look at the tax take per house, per store or per office building. But that doesn’t tell you anything particularly useful, says Katz, who in the past 20 years has served as the first executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism, co-founded the Form Based Code Institute and worked as a senior planning official in Sarasota and then Arlington, Va. The cost of providing most government services – water/sewer, roads, sidewalks, police, fire and rescue, almost everything but schools– varies not just by the number of houses, stores or office units being served but by the geographic area being served.”

Photo credit: New Urban News

 

This next article takes the value per acre process further, providing a methodology from Bastrop, Texas, to determine a Return on Investment (ROI) analysis to ask –  is this the best investment of taxpayer dollars?

What’s In Your City’s Wallet? Strong Towns, Felix Landry March 26, 2019

Figure 4 (Click to View Larger):  A weighted ROI map for Bastrop’s existing development, relative to its current operating budget. Numbers below $1.00 (red) indicate the City is losing money by serving these properties. A property with a value greater than $1.00 (green )  generates more revenue than the City spends to serve it.  The more compact development pattern of Bastrop’s downtown performs significantly better than the rest of the city.  (Image: Felix Landry/Verdunity)
Image: Felix Landry/Verdunity

My Hope

This new methodology will not help places balance their budgets today impacted by COVID-19. But perhaps this current crisis will or has forced communities to seriously question how they do business and not rely on the past to meet the future needs of their citizens and seek fiscal sustainability. These are great examples of new thinking and innovations,needed now more than ever as communities  will continue to change and evolve.

 

 

 

Walking Out of Isolation

Perspective

COVID-19 has heightened not only the obvious physical benefits of walking but more than ever the mental health benefits to relieve the stress of isolation. Communities across the country and the world,  have set aside car-free streets or zones to accommodate a growing need to walk, cycle, and expand open space. This is a recent example in downtown Washington, DC.

48848529726_d604964e93_c_799_533_90 car free DC
Bekah Richards licensed under Creative Commons, November 2019

While this is a positive trend and hopeful will continue, this has raised a neglected problem -road design focused on moving cars at the highest speed or efficiency at the expense of safety for walkers, cyclists, the other road users.

While vehicle deaths have trended down in recent years, pedestrian deaths increased significantly. See the graphic below from Smart Growth America’s Dangerous by Design 2019:

dbd-ped-fatalities-and-vmt-1024x719 smart growth america 2020
Smart Growth America Dangerous by Design 2019

 

“In the past decade, the number of people struck and killed while walking increased by 35 percent. Though fatalities decreased ever so slightly in 2017, the last two years on record (2016 and 2017) were the most deadly years for people killed by drivers while walking since 1990.”

Greater emphasis on safety is needed now and in the future.

Community Responses

The following articles highlight  responses and the need  to re-think  how we plan and use roads to accommodate all users. As seen around the world, walking, and cycling are viable transportation options. Car free zones are planned, seen in the photos below  in Milan ( top – before and after), Paris and Barcelona.

You Gave Me Your Word: How Good City Planning Became Walkability

America Walks Blog,  Jeff Speck, AICP, CNU-A, LEED-AP, Honorary ASLA., April 2020

This first piece is by a leading walking advocate, about his evolutionary journey from simply good planning and design to  a leading advocate and pratctioner, ingraining walking in all aspects of community design.

“In my experience, pedestrian advocates tend to focus mostly on safety: let’s make walking less dangerous for those who must do it. But to get more people doing it, the walk has to be truly better than driving. It must be useful, achieved through better mixed-use zoning, more rational transit networks, and often the subsidizing of downtown housing. It must be comfortable, with public spaces shaped into a series of outdoor living rooms with short building setbacks and ample tree cover. And it must be interesting, with a variety of friendly-faced buildings lining the sidewalk and with any parking lots or blank walls hidden.”

 

Larimer Square Denver
Salud America.org

Why building walkable cities is the key to economic success

Curbed, Partick Sisson, June 2019

Welll before COVID-19, there was an economic and social equity incentive for walkable communities. This crisis has only enhanced this need.

“What if I told you there was a way to develop U.S. cities that was better for social equity, created more jobs and economic activity, resulted in better transit access, and improved the environment, all while guaranteeing better economic returns for developers and investors?

According to “Foot Traffic Ahead,” a new report that provides an in-depth look at the impact of walkable urbanism on U.S. real estate, that method exists.”

Best of 2018: Why Walkable Streets are More Economically Productive

Strong Towns, December 2018, Rachel Quednau

Specific examples and data driven analysis are provided in this commentary by Strong Towns ( 501(c)3 non-profit organization) , an international movement, started in 2008,  dedicated to making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resilient.

“…..walkability is something that people have time and again demanded, and that demand is simply not being met. What is the true value of walkable neighborhoods? Why do we need them and why has demand for them increased? “

Strong Towns walkable neighborhoods 4 may 2020
Strong Towns, February 2020

What’s Next

There is motivation now for cities and communities to continue the monemtuem for car free or pedestrian zones beyond the immediate need for isolation relief. It is another opportunity  during this health crisis, to remake our places to a human scale and reduce dependency on cars (and subsequent improvement of air quality ). There is the additional benefit of reinvestment in our places for sustainable economies to address inequalities.

I have hope this reinvestment starts again and continues,  driven from  the bottom up, as each community determines solutions for their needs.

 

 

 

COVID-19 This Week

A weekly review of commentary and perspectives about COVID-19 implications on communities and places.

COVID-19 has exposed the flaws of our current development patterns, land use, infrastructure, delivery of services, fiscal sustainability, public engagement, and other interconnected systems. This then requires a re-look at how we plan our communities. This is particularly personal for me, calling into question my previous education, training, and experiences.

This is needed now as communities start a phased recovery. What then are the implications – how do we plan or retrofit our communities. What could this look like – back to normal ( we always have done it this way!?) or something much different and do we have the leadership, and the will to change?!

What is the role of urban planners during the coronavirus pandemic?

Abundant Housing for All, Joshua Baun, April 7, 2020

Urban Planning, Urban Environment Observatory, 2020

A brief commentary about the urban planning, its role, and processes, all now in question and perhaps in need of a change from COVID-19.

“The urban planning field, like so many professions during the age of Coronavirus, is having an existential crisis. To most planners, fights over community plans, housing, and transportation projects seem trivial amidst a pandemic that could kill millions and bring down the global economy. The work of planners may seem unimportant right now, especially when compared to the life or death work of the medical profession, but it does have a role to play during this period.”

The qualities that imperil urban places during COVID-19 are also the keys to

Brookings,  Metropolitan Policy Program, Tracy Hadden Loh, Hanns Love, Jennifer S. Vey

best places to live
US News Real Estate-US News & World Report, 2019

A discussion about community elements that may have enhanced the spread of the virus, but also offer opportunities for recovery, emphasizing the need for connectivity.

“Local responses to the pandemic are revealing that in the midst of mandated distancing, the economic, physical, social, and civic structures of communities significantly influence places’ ability to cope with the immediate crisis—and may be a strong predictor of their resilience and recovery in the months to come.”

Planning for life in cities after the pandemic

Larimer Square Denver
Salud America.org

PUBLIC SQUARE A CNU ( Congress for the New Urbanism) Journal,  David Dixon, April 28

A perspective about what comes next from a planning /design consultant emphasizing lessons learned and integration into future community planning and design.

“Crises bring us together as a community, supported by the political will to bring forth bold plans that lead to transformative change. Much of the urban renaissance we have enjoyed over the past two decades stems from the funding put forth to prevent an economic collapse following 9/11, and again following the Great Recession of 2008. As we shift our attention from crisis management to recovery, let’s nurture our newfound collective political will, and tap newfound state and federal resources to build an era of more robust, more just, healthier urban places going forward!”

 COVID-19, Communities, and the Planning Profession

man-in-mask-on-transit APA 2020 AP Photo/John Minchillo

American Planning Association, (APA) Petra Hurtado, Ph.D., APA Research Director, April 8, 2020

As a dues-paying APA member for thirty years, I am keenly interested in how they would react to COVID-19 and push to needed changes in my profession. This is only the beginning of an unknown future that I will continue to follow and post updates. 

“As APA’s research director, I’d like to explain how we at APA are approaching the questions of what the impacts on cities and communities are and how this pandemic affects the planning profession. I will describe our process of identifying current pain points, how we “learn with the future,” and what we do to prepare for new uncertainties coming out of this pandemic.”

 This is an important issue for our communities, but as well to me, given my investment and continuing passion for the planning profession and the need for change. There will be more to follow!