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!

COVID -19 Weekly Summary

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

This week’s topic is transportation.

One of the more visible signs of the pandemic is the dramatic reduction in traffic and air pollution.

“According to the study conducted by mapping software and transportation analytics company INRIX, enough to speed up travel into the core of Chicago by 77 percent and Los Angeles by 53 percent. The study, which examined average travel speeds in 25 of the country’s most populous cities during the week of March 11-18, found increases in travel speed ranging from that 77 percent figure in Chicago to a mere 16 percent in Atlanta (Source: Next City, March 25, 2020). “

(Rachel Leathe / The Seattle Times)

INRIX’s U.S. National Traffic Volume Synopsis: Issue #5 (April 11 – 17, 2020) shows the dramatic reduction in passenger vehicle travel.

Google provides community mobility data by states and counties – Google Community Mobility Reports

With reduced traffic and congestion, there is a resultant drop in air pollution, evident around the world. Here is a comparison from Italy, March 2019 versus March 2020.

Source: COURTESY OF EUROPEAN SPACE AGENCY

With reduced activities, other elements of the environment has also improved as seen in  Venice.

Venice, Italy, March 8, 2020.Manuel Silvestri | Reuters

So what does this mean for the future?

Here are some perspectives and aspirations, knowing we are in uncharted times.

How Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Affecting Climate Change? Wired, Matt Simon, April 21, 2020

Here is a series of commentaaries,  summarizing a number of impacts from the current pandemic, with some surprising implications, good and bad. No conclusion about these implications is final, as research continues. 

“It is the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, and it is climate change. The two are intimately linked: As you’d expect, emissions have fallen as people drive less and industries grind to a halt. But dig deeper into how the pandemic is influencing the climate, and surprising and often counterintuitive dynamics begin to emerge. This is your guide to those complexities.”

Forbes, April 10, 2020, How Clean Air Cities Could Outlast COVID-19 Lockdowns, Tamara Thiessen

This provides a number of takeaway lessons from cities around the world about maintaining lower traffic levels and emissions.

StockSnap_E5BW2K6ZYK
Stocksnap

“In a word: cut car dependency, increase bike-walk commutes. telecommuting, renewable energy and post-car cities.”

The Guardian, Milan announces an ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown, Laura Laker, April 21, 2020.

A specific and ambitious plan by Milan, the epicenter of the COVID in Italy, to maintain and expand  reduction of car use and traffic. Note Milan’s population is 1.4 million and transit use at 55 %.

“The Milan plan is so important is because it lays out a good playbook for how you can reset your cities now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a fresh look at your streets and make sure that they are set to achieve the outcomes that we want to achieve: not just moving cars as fast as possible from point A to point B, but making it possible for everyone to get around safely.”

When the World Stops Moving, CityLab, Laura Bliss, March 19, 2020

aerial-view-architecture-buildings-681335 Pixels
Pexels

This commentary discusses the positive effects of traffic reduction and auto emissions, but conversely, the significant negative impact on transit use and their fiscal survival. 

“Transit is in a perilous position. In addition to signaling the economy’s screeching halt, bottomed-out ridership threatens to destabilize a critical industry.”

“Such a scenario would impact millions of people who rely on public transit to get to work, school, and other essential activities. It would also be really bad for the environment; in the U.S., vehicle emissions already make up the majority of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases.”

Speeders Take Over Empty Roads — With Fatal Consequences, Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, Jenni Bergal, April 20, 2020

red light camera hd-mediaitemid50782-2746
ADOBE STOCK

Another perhaps untended consequence that I notice in my community – speeding, particularly ominous, as pedestrian/cycling fatalities have been rising the last several years. 

“As Americans remain at home, many roads in cities, suburbs and rural areas are practically deserted. But the absence of traffic is a seductive draw for one type of driver: speeders.”

So the new “normal” transportation is not known, other than there will be a profound change to our mobility. Stay tuned for updates. 

David 

 

COVID -19 Weekly Summary

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

This week the focus is housing. There has been a housing affordability crisis for some time in the US.

I’m a boomer, so owning a home was the pathway to increased wealth and the “American Dream”. I followed the “normal” path – finished college, entered the workplace, got married, rented an apartment, saved and eventually bought a single-family duplex in the suburbs, started a family, took a better job, needed more room, moved and bought a “real house” (single-family, a 1-acre lot) and have remained there for over 30 years.

pexels-photo-4036300 housing sub
Pexels 2017

But guess what, my housing needs have evolved and changed! I am of the “age” that I don’t want to mow the lawn ( remember 1 acre!), shovel the snow and now as “empty nesters” don’t want and need the space and all the associated “stuff”. Time to downsize!

But the ability to buy or even rent a house has drastically changed not only for us boomers but also for millenniums, Gen Xers and others.

Now COVID-19 adds additional uncertainty to an already stressed housing market.

The first two articles provide the reasons for the current housing crisis and the elements that produce housing in the US.

This sets the stage last two commentaries – how and why the COVID-19 will impact housing.

The affordable housing crisis, explained Blame policy, demographics, and market forces

Curbed, Patrick Sisson, Jeff Andrews, and Alex Bazeley Updated March 2, 2020

This article,  part of Curbed’s Primer on the Housing Affordability crisis series, provides a compelling list of factors driving up the cost of housing.   One factor perhaps not fully recognized, but now a major issue is transportation costs.

“The affordability of housing  isn’t all about the housing itself: As rising rents and home prices push low- and middle-income households farther from major urban centers—where the greatest number of jobs and the most robust public transit systems tend to be—lower housing costs in suburbs and exurbs get offset by increased spending on transportation.”

421-MN_AffordableHousingMPLS-2 april 2020
Photo by Carolyn Torma (CC BY-NC 4.0) Copyright 2007 American Planning Association

Who’s to blame for high housing costs? It’s more complicated than you think.

Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, Jenny Schuetz, Fellow –  January 17, 2020

This piece……..lays ” out some basic facts about the financial ecosystem of housing development, and discuss the ways land use regulations affect development decisions. How do regulatory barriers impact the profitability of a new housing development? And how are the costs of development (including complying with regulations) shared among developers, lenders, and investors?”

So what happens next because of COVID-19?

How Coronavirus is Impacting the Housing market

Curbed, Jeff Andrews, Updated April 9, 2020

This sums up the uncertainly and daily change that could worsen the demand and supply balance as well as the financial infrastructure needed to find shelter, a basic human need.

“But the coronavirus has changed everything, and new details every day alter what the landscape for homebuying could look like after the pandemic passes. While studies of previous pandemics suggest that home prices won’t drop all that much, the economic fallout of COVID-19 could be sweeping.”

architecture-building-construction-daylight-534220
Pexels, July 20, 2017

When This Crisis Ends, People Will Still Need A Place To Live

Atticus LeBlanc, Forbes Councils Member, April 14, 2020

This commentary adds another opinion on how COVID-19 will impact housing.

“America’s housing policies operate under assumptions: Single-family housing is good; multifamily housing is bad, and many people sharing one house is worse. A wave of people looking for shelter in the wake of economic dislocation will challenge those assumptions that history already proved wrong a long time ago.”

Reading this and other related materials have called into question my planning training, education, beliefs, and work experiences. But the facts clearly show that housing is a crisis, needing attention and collaboration, not fixing blame, now more than ever.

COVID -19 Weekly Summary

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

This week’s topic is density –  good or bad? Has density fueled COVID? Two perspectives. 

photo-1545469044-6a709aeb90b5 times sq density
Photo by Julius Jansson on Unsplash

But first, an overview of the impacts on urban planning. 

How Will COVID -19 Affect Planning?

TheCityFix, Urban Development, Rogier van den Berg , April 10, 2020

Five keys ways urban planning will be affected:

  1. Focus on Access to Core services
  2. Affordable Housing and Public Spaces
  3. Integrated Green and Blue Spaces
  4. Increased City-Regional Planning
  5. More City-Level, Granular Data

“The impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic are still being understood, but it does seem clear that this crisis will make a mark on cities, physically and socially, that will echo for generations.”

After Coronavirus, We Need to Rethink Densely Populated Cities

FORTUNE Commentary, Urban Planning – JOEL KOTKIN, April 1, 2020

This opinion piece makes the argument that while density has made urban areas attractive, it also makes them “more dangerous”. 

“The impact of the coronavirus pandemic may be too early to measure, but it’s clear that the great preponderance of cases, and deaths, are concentrated—at least as of now—in dense urban centers, most particularly Wuhan, Milan, Seattle, Madrid, and New York City. This crisis is the right moment for the world to reconsider the conventional wisdom that denser cities are better cities.”

Density is Normally Good for Us.

New York Times, The Upshot, Emily Badger, March 24, 2020

This opposite commentary argues “The very thing that has made cities vulnerable in a pandemic has protected them in other disasters.” While acknowledging density is a factor in the spread of the virus, density provides…” diverse restaurants, rich cultural institutions, new business ideas — that we can’t enjoy right now. Even more than that, density, in the right conditions, is good for us. It even protects against other kinds of calamities.” 

“How, then, do we reconcile the benefits of density for a healthy society with the threat of density in a pandemic? And what happens if we lose sight of those benefits — including the ways they are operating even now — while we are preoccupied by the harm?”

photo-1463839346397-8e9946845e6d dc mall
Photo by Jacob Creswick on Unsplash

Density is but one of many components of an urban place. COVID-19 has exposed the need for a different approach for better places expressed by  TheCityFix commentary: “A more holistic approach to planning that combines gray, green and blue infrastructure supports better health, better water management (flooding contributes to many epidemics and diseases after natural disasters), and climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. Furthermore, larger open spaces within the urban fabric can help cities implement emergency services and evacuation protocols.”

Upcoming posts will provide additional insights and perspectives about other approaches and opportunities resulting from COVID-19.  

 

 

 

 

 

Perspective: Recovery from COVID

pexels-photo-1034662 city march 2020
Source: Pexels 2019

It’s been some time since my last post. The world has dramatically changed as the COVID pandemic spreads, with significant impacts and implications on the world and our lives. This continues daily!

While the COVID-19 has yet to peak in the US, we will move on from this and already needed discussions and perspectives about what comes next for our communities and their recovery have started.

 I am then inspired and motivated to re-engage and contribute, sharing information and perspectives. This is the first of a series of posts about how the COVID has and will impact our “Places” and communities.  

Here is a March 23rd post-CityLab   What a Coronavirus Recovery Could Look Like. It is an interview with Michael Berkowitz, the former executive director of the nonprofit consultancy 100 Resilient Cities, and now founding principal at the Resilient Cities Catalyst. He has worked with dozens of local governments around the world to plan for hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, disease outbreaks, and other social shocks.

Berkowitz begins with “urban resilience – “the ability of a city to survive and thrive in the face of any disaster”, including the following elements:

  • ” Good infrastructure that promotes mobility and sustainable transportation”
  • “Cohesive communities where neighbors check in on neighbors”
  • “A diverse economy with a strong middle-class jobs base
  • “Good governance with multiple stakeholders at a decision-making table

Many communities, not only urban, have resilience. We see this every day now across the country, building on a tradition of moving forward.

pexels-photo-193821 reslience march 2020
Source: Pexels  2016

My rural/suburban community certainly has resilience after a 2005 tornado (EF3) destroyed our downtown. The town and community worked together to rebuild,  not just the physical and built environment, but also the community’s spirit and engagement processes. This continues today.

To then build resilience for the future, “the trick is linking different goals together i.e. – when thinking about governance and community engagement, how do you build trust and confidence in elected officials so that in crisis situations people listen to and follow the advice of elected leaders?” This is needed now more than ever.

Berkowitz adds that a job stimulus package (not passed when interviewed and now a possible infrastructure package) offers an “incredible opportunity to build more resilient infrastructure and to engage communities as we do it.” This should not be the same old tired formula of building highways, airports or “just put things back like they were and not make them better, but about economic development, public health, biodiversity and flood control.”

“We’re going to get a whole new generation of infrastructure because of this pandemic, and we have to do it better than last generation.”

Out of this upheaval, there is a great opportunity to transform our communities, processes, systems, and economies exposed by the pandemic – the fragile public health system, transportation alternatives other than driving, our connectivity systems, diversifying our economy and repurposing industries and buildings.

He concludes by asking us to think and act holistically about how to rebuild. The real question is “Will we have the strategic gumption to make things better?

I hope we do!

Look for more related content as we move through this crisis.

Continue reading “Perspective: Recovery from COVID”

Tips To Avoid Failure In Comprehensive Plans

A  Comprehensive Plan (aka Com Plan) has been and still is the bedrock of planning for most communities. But the process and contents of a Comp Plan have and continue to evolve, reflecting mistakes of the past and the future needs of the places and communities.

As defined by the American Planning Association (APA) a Comp Plan:

comprehensive-planning-image-apa-1
APA, 2018

“is the adopted official statement of a legislative body of a local government that sets forth goals, policies, and guidelines intended to direct the present and future physical, social, and economic development that occurs within its planning jurisdiction.

A local comprehensive plan represents a “big picture” of the community, allowing officials and citizens to explore their communities’ major opportunities and challenges and clarify their ideas on the kind of community they would like to live in.  The comprehensive planning process provides residents with the opportunity to be involved in creating a vision for their communities and offering input on ways in which that vision may be achieved. The adopted comprehensive plan offers a series of goals and policies to guide the local government in administering regulations and making capital improvements and investments within the community. Strategies and action steps offer concrete opportunities for implementation”

 This topic is personal and relevant for several reasons and from different perspectives.

apa map
Source: APA, 2018

First, my experiences as a planner (non-profit, government) participating in comp plan preparation and switching roles to the for-profit sector, reviewing them, seeking development/project approvals.

Second, the place where I live is now updating their 2009 Comp Plan.

Full disclosure – I was a staff planner and active participant in the preparation and eventual adoption of the 2009 Plan. To be candid and blunt, that Plan was not a good one but provides a framework illustrating key tips for effective plans so places can be better.

Just a pretty picture?

Comp Plan Image - APA
Source: Google 2019

 Comp Plans are more than just the physical layout of buildings, streets and associated land use. It is a holistic integrated process, each element dependent on the other.  We planners (me included!) have tended to dwell on the pretty drawings and sketches on what places could be neglecting the interdependence of each plan element, how to achieve this vision, the impacts (  the environment, economic, social) and the uniqueness of each place (one size does not fit all!). So avoid all the focus on the pretty pictures but pay attention to the uniqueness of the place and its interrelated issues  – affordable housing, infrastructure, climate change, and economic inequality. 

Public engagement

Articles_Public_Meeting_Notice
Source: Google 2019

“The community is the expert.”Project for Public Spaces (PPS)

Based on my experiences, this has been woefully inadequate. This is not denying that public engagement is hard, time-consuming and with no guarantee of success, but it is a necessary process that can make comp plans effective through active engagement by the community. During my work on the referenced 2009 Comp Plan, public engagement was limited to work sessions before the Planning Commission, where citizens could attend, but not comment and the perfunctory public hearings on the draft plan before the Planning Commission and then the Mayor/Town Council, the approval authority.  During the many months of developing and then writing the plan and policies, there was virtually no public review. We wrote the “updated” plan based on demographic changes, the previous plan and in essence our opinions as planners that we knew what is best for the community.

Hardly representative and reflective of the dramatic racial and economic changes happening across the country. Looking back, our Comp Plans has not served us well. Just look at our places today and ask can we do better?

road and cyclist Source Pineterst
Source: Pinterest, 2019

Social media and related techniques now offer greater opportunities and options for a sustained public participation process. 

What happens after adoption?

 Approval of the plan is not the end and written in stone. Now the real hard part begins! Will it be implemented or just sit on the shelf and gather dust? It must also change as a place changes.

Here are ways to sustain the plan. 

  • Effective community engagement as discussed above
  • The plan’s policies need to be linked and synchronized to the community’s operating and capital improvement budgets. Every decision made by the elected leaders must be made, consistent with the adopted plan.
  • The political will to invest the time, money and patience to see the process through.
  • Review tied to the annual budget review process to document the status of the plan’s quantifiable goals and objectives. 

New kinds of Comp Plans

But there is hope as communities seek better places through:

  • “Bottom-up”, not top-down planning –  Do It Yourself (DIY)  local solutions
  • Fiscal sustainability  – can we pay for it over the long haul?
  • Environmental sustainability – climate change, flooding, storms
  • The status quo hasn’t kept pace, not good enough for our changing places 

Here are examples of innovative Comp Plans and associated processes, breaking the business as usual mold, making a difference in their communities:

Verdacity photo
Source: https://www.verdunity.com/go-cultivate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Blog?

I am a “professional planner” by education (Master’s City/Regional Planning) and work experience. After graduate school I embarked on a varied career working in the public sector at town, county and regional levels, learning and gaining valuable on the job experiences  about transportation,  infrastructure, land use, zoning, comprehensive plans, community engagement, policy development, how government works and last but not least the political process.

I joined the American Planning Association (APA) to further my planner credentials and after meeting the experience requirements, I was certified as an AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) – I took the test in 1986 and passed!

But, what is planning (called urban planning or city and regional planning)?architectural-design-architecture-asphalt-2356096 Pixels

The American Planning Association (APA) definition:

              • Is a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient and attractive places for present and future generations.
          • Enables civic leaders, businesses, and citizens to play a meaningful role in creating communities that enrich people’s lives.
          • Helps create communities that offer better choices for where and how people live.
          • Helps communities to envision their future.
          • Helps communities find the right balance of new development and essential services, environmental protection, and innovative change.

Change

My planning career changed direction (some say to the dark side) by the leaving the public sector and  working architect-architecture-build-1109541 Pixelsfor several midsize to large engineering/development firms. Now I was on the other side of the table, promoting and advocating for the same projects, where previously I had been the public agency planner writing staff reports recommending denial or approval.

These experiences provided  unique perspectives and so I thought a blog could educate my community, the public and elected officials about planning because I was the “expert”, I knew more than they did! But as I read and researched  blog content, reality hit me between the eyes – I really was not the expert. Planning, the economy  and many other things changed dramatically – and perhaps I hadn’t!public-hearing-source-google-images

The change in planning is manifested by ongoing controversy and conflict locally and around the country about how communities (places) have and are being developed. People don’t know what a planner is and what we do, are frustrated by growth/development issues and quite frankly the planning profession has let communities down. The status quo, the standard processes (that’s how we always do it!) I had learned long ago is no longer the process and solution for the ever-changing dynamics, with failing communities and economic disparities.

 So now my  intent for this blog is to provide a platform about relevant  planning and community development issues, trends, best practices and  then inform, educate and discuss how we can change our communities and the status quo.place june 11 2019

But  a community is really a place, each with unique attributes and context, encompassing the natural and built environments, economy and most important  people who live, play, work and contribute. Together these provide the sense of a place –   Placesense

What’s Next

So my journey continues, knowing I’m not the expert,  but with a passion to learn,  knowing that one size does not fit all, and that change is more effective and lasting from the bottom up – from the places we live, work and play. 

So let me know what you think – what topics should we talk about and  how often to post. Only by discussion and dialogue can we change our places! 

Continue reading “Why Blog?”