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.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rethinking community planning around maintaining neighborhood civic assets and anchors

One way to go green is to refocus planning on viable, healthy, sustainable neighborhoods where people can conduct many of their day-to-day activities on foot, by bike, or on public transit. (Image: Go Green Forever stamps, produced by the US Postal Service in 2011.)

I have written about refocusing land use planning around maintenance of key civic assets within neighborhoods recently in the context of schools planning ("One way in which community planning is completely backwards" and "Missing the most important point about Clifton School closure in Fairfax County") where I argue that:

Schools are fundamental anchors which build and maintain quality neighborhoods and communities. Therefore to maintain communities we need to maintain the schools located within them.

This comes up again with schools, as according to the Examiner, "Montgomery schools officials reconsider site selection." From the article:

"The process is broken," said Shannon Hamm, a 27-year county resident. "Citizens in the area need to be included in the selection process, not just afterward, because neighbors care about what happens in their neighborhood." Planning board Chairwoman Francoise Carrie said she was "very distressed to learn second- or third-hand that the school system had identified one of our parks as a new school site." ...

Song and colleagues explained that the selection committee considers environmental impacts, utilities, car and pedestrian access, acquisition costs, and more when choosing sites. The joint taskforce between the schools and the parks department will discuss solutions at a committee meeting in the fall, then present to the full school board in the early winter.

How is it that the Planning Board and other planning bodies other than the School System aren't involved in this process from the beginning? When your choices are constrained and your options limited, the only way to make hard choices (sometimes you do have to choose between a park and a school) with some modicum of civility is through public participation.

It's also an issue with other civic assets such as post offices as well, considering that the US Postal Service yesterday announced plans to close as many as 3,653 locations. See "Post office closures: What happens if a town has no post office?" and "Post office cuts: Is your post office on the list?" from the Christian Science Monitor.

Granted, most of the proposed closures in DC are in federal buildings--although in my neighborhood two additional post offices are recommended for closure, including where I got my passport.

The issue involved here, from a planning perspective, is the maintenance of community institutions as building blocks for neighborhoods and sustainable transportation systems.

My point is that maintaining healthy neighborhoods is too important a task to have only the school system be responsible for schools planning. And therefore I make the point that if the costs for running a neighborhood school are greater than the system average, then it is reasonable to "subsidize" the school's costs from non-school funding sources.

The same goes for post offices. Arguably, the USPS shouldn't have to bear the full costs of running a "community" post office, and the possibility of providing support from other funding streams should be available. To reduce costs, co-location in other civic space ought to be an option available to the USPS.

Seattle is one of many municipalities that has an active co-location policy, where district court offices, public utility payment counters, neighborhood liaison offices, and libraries are often combined into one facility. From the City of Seattle 2004-2009 Adopted Capital Improvement Program:

Project Identification: Potential development projects were identified after a professional assessment of service and facilities deficiencies, considerable community dialogue, and staff input. Criteria used include: the ability of
existing facilities to handle current and projected use; citizen input; conformance with basic library standards; geographic equity; compatibility with neighborhood planning; and opportunities for co-location with other agencies.

(Note the point on geographic equity.)

Because the USPS is subject to so much federal oversight and involvement in their operations (in good and usually bad ways in terms of cost-effectiveness), the ability to be innovative in terms of this question isn't really an option, because it is too difficult to raise the question, especially in the current political and economic environment, where local and state budgets are particularly hard pressed.

In any case, refocusing how we do urban-community-neighborhood-schools planning towards maintaining community quality and value of place is clearly necessary.

And that includes biking and walking plans, which should discuss this issue and frequently do not. I guess the only plan that comes to mind with this kind of idea (although there are many amazing Ped. Plans out there, such as Minneapolis') is the Toronto Walking Strategy. From the plan:

The aim of the Walking Strategy is to build a physical and cultural environment that supports and encourages walking, including vibrant streets, parks, public squares and neighbourhoods where people will choose to walk more often. By envisioning a city where high-quality walking environments are seamlessly integrated with public transit, cycling and other sustainable modes of travel, the Strategy sets out a plan that will produce tangible environmental, health and social benefits for residents and visitors to Toronto.

Another good example is the Feet First advocacy group in Seattle. I only know of them through their online materials, which I think are amazing, but if you look at their approach, it is about maintaining and extending the qualities of strong neighborhoods through the promotion of sustainable transportation, particularly walking.

The Toronto Walking Strategy, Feet First's pro-walking-pro-neighborhood agenda, and Seattle's co-location strategy for civic assets are the kinds of examples that support community planning from the standpoint of placemaking and quality of life and the maintenance of particular types of civic assets as anchoring institutions within such a broad strategy.

That's the kind of approach that needs to be built more directly and overtly into our planning documents and government operation practices overall.

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