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.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The tension between planning a community's future and the present is much more complicated

rosedale park entry sign
Photo and map images from the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation website.

than Roger Lewis makes it out to be in yesterday's Post article, "Distrust of development often unfounded." From the article:

Concerns about change and the impact of long-range planning are natural. There is comfort in what we know. Yet change over time is also natural and, indeed, unstoppable as technological, demographic, economic and environmental conditions evolve. The challenge is not to stop change but to manage it wisely. Thus, the goals of planning are, first, to anticipate and predict the nature of likely changes and then to guide change to make it desirable, optimizing its benefits for all.

Visionary, long-term planning entails risks. It requires making forecasts about the distant future based on currently observable circumstances and trends. This is the hardest sell for many residents, since most of their concerns — traffic, schools, jobs, income, taxes, environment, quality of life — are immediate and pressing. They find it difficult to relate today’s needs to what planners tell them will be needed decades from now. Yet planning, by definition, must transcend solving today’s problems. And because plans frequently show future communities whose form and function look different from today’s communities, such plans invariably provoke opposition.

One of the most important textbooks I ever read, Social Psychology of Organizations, has an extensive section on "boundary spanners," people who by the dint of their position as responsible for dealing with the external environment of the organization, have to satisfy multiple stakeholders.

Just who does a planner work for?

The executive branch of government (the Mayor or County Executive or City Manager)? The citizens? The property owners? The legislative branch of government? Of course, who does the legislative branch of government work for?--citizens, themselves, the economic and political elite?

In the case of planners, there are multiple competing external environments that they must maneuver.

Note that I learned it's different in Canada, that planning ethics codes mean that planners are more independent, however, planners' independence and planning and development approvals are two very different issues.

And some jurisdictions let plans be visionary even while there is tight control over the development process. On the other hand, in other jurisdictions, executive branch leaders run tight control over planning processes and final documents reflect this, and can be pretty dull and ordinary, meaning that the community won't be able to be resilient in the face of significant change.

As far as residents are concerned, in my opinion, people forget that places do change over time. Because for the most part we live in our moment, we don't know much about the past, and because we don't know about the past, it's difficult to understand how places can and do change, and how communities need to change as conditions change.

Last week, the New York Times had an article on the "Grandmont Rosedale" area of Detroit, "Detroit neighborhood fights to save its city." From the article:

Pockets of prosperity remain throughout the city, but they are increasingly the exception. The Grandmont Rosedale area, about 15 minutes northwest of downtown, does not have the highest incomes or biggest homes, though both are well above average. But it has used a fierce sense of community to market itself as a safe and stable alternative to the suburbs.

The population here, unlike that of most of the city, actually grew in the 1990s. At the start of the decade, the vacancy rates for homes was less than 3 percent, a fraction of the citywide average. James Tate, a City Council member and lifelong resident, said that commitment to the community — about a third of people here pay voluntary dues — protected the neighborhood. “The lesson we learned,” he said, “is that it’s important that a neighborhood doesn’t slide into a blighted situation in the first place.” ...

But there are troubling signs that have many inside and outside the community worried about just such a slide.

The population dropped over the past decade by 2,122, or 14 percent, to 12,617, said Dale Thomson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The vacancy rate has reached 10 percent. One of those empty houses, sold for $14,000 to a local redevelopment nonprofit group, once belonged to a former president of General Motors.

“If that neighborhood goes, the city goes,” said Kurt Metzger, an urban affairs expert and demographer who studies census data for the city.

Marja Winters, deputy planning director for the city, said that in the past Detroit put a priority on funneling money into the most distressed communities, believing — or hoping — that healthier communities could take care of themselves.

But even strong participation among residents is not enough to overcome the escalating pressures facing these neighborhoods, she said. “We can no longer sit by and expect Grandmont Rosedale to take care of itself.”

I lived in this neighborhood in the mid-1960s--2.5 blocks from McNichols/6 Mile Road, 2 blocks from Outer Drive.
Grandmont Rosedale neighborhoods, Detroit
One block towards McNichols lived our Congresswoman. (Because she lived on our street, I figured that's why we had sidewalk snow removal but it might have been paid for by a neighborhood association.)

In my cub scout troop was the son of a judge who became Mayor in 1970. I was in his car with a group of cub scouts for some outing--afterwards we went to a doughnut shop...

This was an important, stable neighborhood in the city. At the time, it was merely one of dozens of such areas of the city, although "nicer" than many. This was before and even after the 1967 riots. But, while White flight had been ongoing, it was massively accelerated after the riots.

But in 1967 before the riots, no one could have imagined that over the next 10 years, and then the decades beyond that, that the confidence about living in that city and in that neighborhood would change completely, and that different kinds of steps would have to be taken in the future, in order to stabilize the neighborhood and the city.

The reality is that communities, especially center cities, can't take their current status--especially if it is "good"--for granted.

I guess I see that not only because of my Detroit experience, but because of my experiences living in Washington, DC, where for the most part, I couldn't afford to live in the "nicer" areas, and because it was affordable and relatively cheap, for almost 17 years I lived in the H Street neighborhood in northeast DC.

H Street then was nothing like it is today, a hot neighborhood with problems and issues sure (see "H Street Revitalization Hits a Snag" from the Washington Informer) but on an upward trajectory. In the 1980s especially it was bleak, the site of a notorious rape muder in the mid-1980s (see "A Case of Conviction" from the Post--this is a lousy article by the way) and closer to Florida Avenue but just a few blocks away, a leading crack cocaine distribution ring operated with few limitations (see "Running Low on Rayful: Has D.C.'s most famous crack dealer become just another has-been?" from the Washington City Paper). In the late 1980s, a few dozen people were murdered in just a small section of the neighborhood.

Into 2003, those of us working for neighborhood improvement didn't see the neighborhood significantly changing any time soon.

Yet today, 8 years later, a month doesn't go by where you don't hear of a new restaurant opening, and developments that had been cancelled because of the downturn are back on track, and the streetcar is supposed to be running next year.

But it's so easy for DC to fall backwards, not just because of weak and inept political leadership (see "Can Mayor Gray make a case for trusting D.C. government?" from the Post).

It also has to do with real estate development and the suburban jurisdictions and economic competition. Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, now Loudoun County is expecting heavy rail service, plus Montgomery and Prince George's Counties--they are all working to best DC as a place to live and to locate business and commerce.

And transit. Because DC is so well served by transit, commuting times for DC residents are at about the national average, while for most jurisdictions within the region, commuting times are much longer. Similarly, DC is a good environment for walking and bicycling, and close to 40% of households don't own cars--and for many of those households, this is a choice. You don't have to be stuck in traffic all the time when you are a DC resident.

On the other hand, that comes with a cost--housing prices are high. And not all of the city shares in its relative prosperity, plus many parts of the city don't enjoy high quality transit access, as the transit system was built to focus on getting suburban commuters to and from their jobs in the central business district.

As the NYT article about Detroit says, you can't take good fortune for granted, healthy neighborhoods have to be managed too.

That's the kind of environment that the planning profession works within, having to consider what could happen, and working to ward off the possibilities of decline, by working to maintain healthy neighborhoods and a healthy environment for commerce. If you aren't successful, decline can happen, and righting the decline takes decades.

But it's also the kind of environment that residents have to consider, that the requirements for success in the 21st century, in the context of a metropolitan region, may be and are in fact different from what they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most DC neighborhoods were constructed.

A friend of mine retired and decided to get a graduate degree in architectural history at University of Virginia. We talk from time to time about how most students in planning programs don't really understand decline on the nature of a city like Detroit, that it's completely outside their experience.

If this is true for future leaders of the profession, how hard is it for residents, especially for those residents of a city or region who are afraid of the inner city, and don't deal with it at all--e.g., last month we attended a play at the Shakespeare Theater in the Landsburgh Building on 7th Street NW and I was eavesdropping on a man in his 60s probably, referring to that particular area as particularly distressed and dangerous--this theater is two blocks away from a set of office buildings which just sold for $900/s.f.!

By not discussing in more depth alternative scenarios, scenarios of real decline, I didn't find Roger Lewis' article to be that helpful in terms of contributing very much to our understanding of the current land use and transportation planning environment that planners, elected officials, developers, and residents are working within.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home