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

To get intelligent cities you have to be visionary and engaged

Lewis' article might have been more useful had it focused on intelligent and resilient cities, based on a historical understanding but in the context of the 21st century.

It happens that Time Magazine did a special package of stories on "Intelligent Cities" earlier in March. The piece covers a number of cities in the U.S. and overseas:

Strategic Singapore
Reigning in Sprawleigh
In Tucson, Saving the Bath Water Too
Taming Shanghai's Sprawl
For Electricity 2.0, a Short Circuit in Boulder
London: Turning Access into Apps
Want to Improve Your City? There's an App for That
What Torino Can Teach Cleveland
Congestion Pricing: To Skip Traffic, Atlanta Says Pay Up
City Centered

The article on Raleigh, NC, "Reigning in Sprawleigh," discusses their new approach to planning, which by the way is similar to what Montgomery County, Maryland is doing. It focuses on a more "thematic" understanding of the issues facing the community and it targets growth to particular areas.

It happens that the growth plan is polycentric, while I am a fan of monocentricity. Be that as it may, their focus on building narrative themes so that people can grapple with broader issues than their block and think more broadly about the city as a whole is quite important. The themes are:

• Economic prosperity and equity
• Expanding housing choices
• Managing growth
• Coordinating land use and transportation
• Greenprint Raleigh-sustainable development
• Growing successful neighborhoods and communities.

Note that while DC's own Comprehensive Planning revision process from 2003-2006 was decent, producing a relatively decent document and the elements read well, the planning process started at a more grand position with a theme -- Growing an Inclusive City -- and a set of "issue papers" covering for the most part creatively some of the key issues faced by the city, this kind of narrative, creative, and transformational understanding of the issues wasn't carried through in terms of how the plan was developed.

Furthermore, the Government--both the executive branch and the legislative branch--took for granted that "the people" understood the plan after it was adopted, without entering into a promotion-marketing-engagement phase to build a broader understanding of what the plan was supposed to accomplish.

It is telling that none of the "Growing an Inclusive City" information, including the issue papers, are online anymore.

Of course, without a thematic approach to the plan to begin with, maybe such a level of understanding ends up being unattainable.

Raleigh did it a bit differently. From the Time article:

As for the new plan, perhaps the smartest thing the Raleigh team did was to instill ownership of the process among all constituencies from the beginning. "When I travel the country and hear the pushback in many circles to smart growth and sustainability and planning in general I don't think they see the competitive advantage you can have by embracing planning as a true partnership with all of the sectors."

The city brought in some of the biggest names in the planning business for a lecture series with topics that included: design of a 21st century city, the hidden costs of free parking, transit-oriented development, creation of a pedestrian friendly city, and traditional codes versus form-based codes. The planners did attractive presentations with grandiose but sometimes logically problematic themes such as "We are making new history", Great Streets, Great Spaces, Great Places", and discussions of iconic architecture and a vibrant downtown center.

Montgomery County, Maryland's planning department has a regular speaker series and an aggressive outreach program. In April, they are sponsoring a conference on "rethinking suburban development." DC's Office of Planning does not do anything like this...

I realize that my somewhat academic and participatory democracy focus may make me somewhat of a dreamer in terms of what people are willing and unwilling to support.

But I think it's absolutely true that when you don't try to educate people about the issues, they will remain uneducated about the issues, and it becomes difficult to move forward.

Suzanne suggests that one of DC's "problems" is that people here tend to be pretty hermetic. They don't go to other places, they don't learn that there are other ways to do things.

OTOH, I joke that in DC "big government trickles down and shapes little government--the local municipality--in its image" and that's why local governance, civic engagement, and civil society processes are bollixed up.

We need a philosophy more like Home Depot's slogan:

"You can do it. We can help. That's the power of the Home Depot."

We need more involvement, more self-help, more flexibility, more creativity, more innovation.

I think it's telling that both Seattle and DC started streetcar planning processes about the same time, but Seattle has had an operational streetcar route since December 2007, while we should have an operational streetcar route sometime in 2012...

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