Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Most people/organizations don't understand the process of change

Recently, the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland released a report about the progress of smart growth policies in Maryland, which had been initiated three governors ago, by Parris Glendening, and has had 15 years or so to begin to percolate. See for example, "Smart Growth - State making little progress with Smart Growth " from the Baltimore Sun.

The report wasn't positive. From the article:

In its most comprehensive review to date, the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research says development patterns, commuting times and other trends indicate that the state "has not made measurable progress toward improving its performance in many of the areas it says it cares about."

Gerrit Knaap, director of the center, said there are "a few bright spots," notably the preservation of land and recent promotion of development around transit stops in the Baltimore and Washington areas. But overall, he said, "the evidence suggests that we haven't really bent the curves [of growth] in ways we hoped we would."

The issue is a lot more complicated than people realize.

First, you are talking about an entire state, with 24 counties. Some are in more urban areas, some areas are decidedly rural.

Second, even fast tracked government programs, especially transportation projects, take at least 10-20 years to come to fruition.

Third, you have to coordinate two levels of change, first within the state government and agencies, and second at the county/incorporated city level, and you have to make sure that the policies are congruent, and that the state imposes (yes, I use that word) requirements on the local jurisdictions to make more enlightened decisions. For example, the State Highway Administration has a Complete Streets Policy, but the State doesn't mandate that the local jurisdictions have a Complete Streets Policy.

Fourth, 15 years isn't long enough to see results, you need at least 20-30 years. It took 20 years to see the impact of the subway in DC, and 10 more years to begin to reap positive impact from the subway outside of the Central Business District and abutting neighborhoods.

Fifth, to get results, even in a 30 year time frame, you need to have great transit. The Baltimore region doesn't have a great transit network, it has a couple of transit lines. So a big portion of the state isn't capable of reaping the kinds of benefits from transit that are present in DC.

Sixth, the process of changing how people think about growth and infill development and transit is also wrenching and takes a long time. For example, in the DC region, Montgomery County has pretty good transit, but the process of leveraging that transit is taking decades and requires significant changes in how people see the future of the County.

Seventh, related to point 5, you need to have a transit network, just having some transit lines and transit stations isn't enough, so a lot of places that seemingly are capable of "transit oriented development"-based increased intensity aren't in fact capable of much land value increase because the spatial and market conditions are not favorable. That explains why PG County has a bunch of transit stations, but isn't able to reap much benefit from them.

I bring this up because EPA/USDOT/HUD are announcing what they think is a great program. From a press release:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced the formation of Sustainable Communities Building Blocks, a program designed to help interested communities adopt sustainable planning methods. Sustainable planning helps safeguard the environment and spur economic development while also improving Americans’ health.

Interested communities are invited to apply to receive technical assistance during a day-long session that will help them achieve their sustainable planning goals. The application period opens on February 3 and ends on February 23, 2011.

“We’re pleased to be part of this program to help communities build vibrant, healthy neighborhoods where families want to live and businesses want to invest and grow,” EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe said. “Through this program, we’ll walk communities through the process of making smart, cost-effective investments by helping them navigate existing tools vital to securing a lasting foundation for prosperity.”

EPA will work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to select 20 participating communities through a competitive process. During the day-long session, participants will explore proven sustainability tools, including zoning code reviews, walkability assessments, parking policy analysis, climate action planning, and commuter benefits. Each community will select a specific tool to focus on and also learn about general smart growth development strategies.

Sustainable Communities Building Blocks is being coordinated through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a joint effort between the EPA, HUD, and DOT to coordinate federal actions on housing, transportation, and environmental protection. This interagency collaboration achieves efficient federal investments in infrastructure, facilities, and services that meet multiple economic, environmental, and community objectives.

They make it sound so easy. Effecting change in any one of those policy areas is a multi-interest, multi-stakeholder, multi-year process. E.g., in Baltimore County it turns out that the strongest opponents of "smart codes" were the land use bar (lawyers)--coincidentally the largest source of campaign donations for Council candidates--because a smart code based system would reduce the need for lawyers, and as a result they would make less money.

What I'd do instead is something that I suggested years ago, that the USDOT, HUD and other agencies produce the equivalent of national policy statements on various planning issues, comparable to what in the UK were originally called PPGs -- Planning Policy Guidance -- now they are called Planning Policy Statements, on each of the topics listed in the press release, and developing conferences offered to many people, not just 20 communities.

These are the current PPG/PPS documents in the UK. Imagine if EPA/DOT/HUD were to develop a similar set of statements, along maybe with USDA, the Department of Interior, and the DOC where appropriate. (See past blog entry "How will Obama relate to the District?" about how "Chance favors the prepared city.")

Some states do provide more guidance, like Maryland and its smart growth program and California with its Environmental Quality Assessment process. But this is the exception. Having strong guidance from the federal government that enlightened land use and transportation policy is a must for all jurisdictions would help move change forward more quickly, by creating a broader network to support change, and cover for those people brave enough to recommend it.

This Sustainable Communities Building Blocks planning process won't be able to provide enough assistance to communities in one day or on follow up for any of them to change all that quickly, and the process of innovation diffusion appears to be too diffuse (an irony) to have multiplicative positive impact on other communities.

My short experience in Baltimore County (next Monday a bunch of the provisions in the plan I wrote will be enacted through legislation--6 months to one year ahead of the plan getting around to being approved) demonstrates that change is a function of:

- enlightened elected officials (it helps that 5 of the 7 Council Districts have new representatives effective with the most recent election)
- knowledgeable, cogent advocates to push policy
- having the right plans and policies in place, or at least documents that can be drawn upon to support legislative efforts
- hopefully with some enlightened government personnel and agencies willing to be innovative

The problem in Baltimore County is the fourth point, whether or not the most intransigent government agency with regard to sustainable transportation policy and practices will change on these issues in response to the legislation, which among other things, mandates complete streets legislation. It will be interesting to watch.

Even so, the Baltimore County experience is kind of a fluke. If so many members of the County Council hadn't changed, and with some of those councilmembers being transportation planning professionals or very much interested in the topic, the Council wouldn't have had the heft to take this on (after all, each councilmember only has 2 staffers), even with the presence of some particularly well placed advocates (especially in the Catonsville area, which has a growing number of multiuse trails), such a bill wouldn't have been in the picture, at least right now.

Imagine trying to change a county's zoning code. Or to create a transit system? ...

OTOH, Montgomery County has had a form of complete streets legislation for awhile (I referenced it in draft documents I wrote for the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan), and like DC, they calved off transportation from the Department of Public Works, so transportation doesn't get lost in a maelstrom of other activities.

But many advocates in Montgomery County Maryland argue that the MCDOT isn't very enlightened at all (despite the fact that they run a well respected bus service), and is still very much focused on roads and motor vehicles.

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