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, January 01, 2012

2012, A New Year

Children of migrant workers lie on the snow to form the number '2012' while celebrating the coming new year in front of a snow sculpture in Harbin, China, Friday. AP photo.

On New Year's Day last year I wrote a bunch of posts with dozens of suggestions for policy for the 2011. If I were to go back and read each entry, likely few of the suggestions were taken up and little has changed, and that's irrespective of the ethics cloud that hangs over City Council and the Mayor's Office.

-- New Years post #2: sustainability and energy

-- New Years post #3: How about more community self-help? (Peter Riehle and Eastern Market Metro Plaza)

-- New years post #4: How to Keep Resolutions and change behavior

-- New years post #5: DC City Council Committees and striving to be a world class city

-- New years post #6 -- the crazy thing about U.S. zoning is that it's not designed to maximize overall land value

-- New Years post #7: Anacostia and sustainable economic development and revitalization

-- New years post #8: Shattering the myths of sustainability

One of the legitimate criticisms of my blog entries is that they are too detailed and complete and ask for too much. Most people can't fully grasp even one idea, let alone 20 ideas.

So for 2012, I'm going to lay out the five to seven most important items and leave it at that.

1. The City and its leadership, including the Washington Post editorial page, should commit to supporting, encouraging, and enabling substantive public participation, democracy, and civic engagement.

For the Post, that means treating citizens and public processes in the city with the same respect they treat protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt, Russia, and other "foreign" countries.

It means instead of constantly suggesting through editorials that civil society be constrained, instead put forward proposals that enable and strengthen civic involvement through capacity building and the creation of robust open and transparent processes that are citizen-centered.

For example, instead of forcefully advocating for the elimination of constituent services funds or "earmarks" to arts groups, call for open and transparent funding processes, including civic engagement strategies such as "participatory budgeting" exercises where citizens shape the allocation process.

For the executive and legislative branches of the city, it means according citizens the respect that their position in democracy warrants--government derives from the people--and thereby reorienting practices and policies that respect citizens, including:

a. opening up information instead of forcing citizens to file FOIA requests;

b. scheduling public meetings in places that are convenient to get to and Metro accessible for a majority of the citizenry;

c. developing a robust protocol for District/neighborhood planning (comparable to sector and neighborhood conservation district planning in other jurisdictions in the region) that defines citywide and neighborhood objectives, and works to make them more congruent;

d. developing a robust capacity building infrastructure that supports civic engagement and community organizations (like the training infrastructure of the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program and the Massachusetts Citizen Planner Training Collaborative, the "Government 101" programs offered by many cities, and , the Urban Information Library at the main branch of the Dallas Public Library).
Kiosk on Broughton Street, Savannah, promoting citizen involvement in zoning rewrite
Kiosk on Broughton Street, Savannah, flyers promoting citizen involvement in the city-county zoning rewrite process.

That means that we need to be better more engaged citizens too.

2. The Washington Post needs to run more local news.

In the Metro section on Friday, one of the key articles was about how someone who went to the University of Maryland is running for Congress--IN CALIFORNIA!

So what. It's not a story relevant to us in terms of the region's local news, so it's not a Metro section story.

Put it in the national news section if you think it's an important and interesting article that has something to say, but don't waste the precious newshole dedicated to "local" news on a story where the local news value is minimal or nonexistent when there are so many other stories to tell.

In looking at Post articles, issues, and sections from decades ago, far more local news ran in the paper, stories about neighborhoods and developments. Now, very little of that kind of coverage seems to be running in the paper.

While traveling last week, I came across an article, "Durham architect Freelon named to national arts commission," in the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer about architect Phil Freelon of Durham being appointed to the US Commission of Fine Arts--the body in DC that weighs in on urban design in the city as it relates to the federal interest--and I was thinking that this is an appropriate "local news story" for the Washington Post, because the CFA is an important local body, making decisions that shape the city for decades to come. Yet, I expect we'll never see such a story in the "local" paper.

Granted the Post covers the metropolitan area, and DC proper is only the third or fourth largest submarket for the paper--Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's County have more subscribers, and at least in the days of the go-go real estate market, much of the real estate section advertising came from the outlying areas, I know that the "city's" major metropolitan area has a lot more to cover than in the "old days" when the city made up the bulk of the region's population and activity.

Still, without reading the local community papers--the Gazette papers in Maryland (owned by the Post actually), the Current newspapers in DC, the Connection papers in Northern Virginia--it's almost impossible to get a sense of what's happening in the Metro area or DC by relying on the Washington Post.

I know that the digital information revolution has completely changed the role of newspapers as primary media, but if the paper doesn't cover the local region, it ends up having no real anchor, because increasingly, "national" news, or the coverage of the federal government is being supplanted by specialized publications like Politico.

Digital media entries aren't enough--the Post has journalist-bloggers covering the local jurisdictions--articles need to run in the paper, because otherwise the articles aren't retained and indexed for posterity.

3. Rather than spend so much time on achieving "statehood" maybe the Executive and Legislative branches ought to be focused on making the city be great in the here and now--a "city on the hill," where the city's achievements would be seen as supporting evidence for statehood claims, rather than blaming prevailing mediocrity as the product of lack of self-determination.

The fact that DC's elected officials are just as ethically challenged as officials from states with full self-determination isn't enough to offer as argument for why the city deserves statehood.

4. The organization of City Council should probably be changed.

a. Make it a part time legislative body truly;

b. By cutting the salaries to about $60,000 from $130,000 currently ("D.C. Council members bring in second-highest salaries among big cities" from the Examiner);

c. Increase the size of the body (I go back and forth about this) to 24 members + the Council Chair -- it's 12 members + the Council Chair currently -- to 2 members for each Ward and 8 At-Large members;

It seems counter-intuitive, but adding more members will make elected office more competitive, because the winner take all system advantages incumbents and the dominant party, in this case the Democratic Party, stultifying the political environment in ways that are truly deleterious to local government and civil society.

It will also make it harder to pass legislation -- 13 members will be required to pass legislation instead of 7 members now. This would add a level of discernment and a kind of check that isn't in place now ("Is D.C. overgoverned? Or undergoverned?" from the Post).

This will add members to committees. Plus it will provide residents with additional representation and more competition between legislators to provide better service and representation within Wards, and hopefully, to the city as a whole, by the at-large representatives.

And if Councilmembers have day jobs, more hearings would likely occur in the late afternoon and early evening, when citizens are more likely to be able to attend.

(Note that in such a change, the At-Large members, not the Ward Councilmembers, should be in charge of ANC redistricting, to provide a level of objectivity that is often missing from the current process.)

5. At the same time I wish the Councilmembers would take their responsibilities seriously and research ideas and concepts before writing and introducing cockamamie legislation and then putting surveys up afterwards to get input after the legislation has already been submitted.

E.g., were I a college student submitting the equivalent of such legislation as an assignment for a class, I shouldn't be surprised at getting a C grade. But legislators shouldn't be content with such poor marks.

Take a survey research class or read a book about surveys. E.g., Practice of Social Research. Note that Chapter 9 is on surveys. this is on chapter 9 too.

6. DC should create robust master transportation and parks and recreation plans for the city, and transform its planning processes to engage and educate the citizenry.

(Note that DC is doing a sustainability plan, and often the momentum involved in such planning spills over in positive ways on both transportation and parks and open space policy. See "D.C. mayor planning environmental initiative" from the Post.)

I've written plenty on that over the years. This link lists a bunch of entries on parks planning and the connection between parks planning and quality of life.

DC is going to do a transportation plan over the next 18 months or so. If you read the Arlington County Master Transportation Plan, then you'll be much better positioned to participate in the process and understand what a robust plan looks like. Also see the past blog entries, "Best (or at least better) practices in bike parking and bicycle facilities implementation" and "It's time for a new "city beautiful" movement in DC."

Note that as part of the development of a master transportation plan, the city should take the opportunity to consolidate oversight of taxi policy and service within the transportation department going forward.

Legislation to change how the taxi system works (see "Drivers decry D.C. taxi system overhaul bill" from the Post) should be put on hold.

7. Related to being more engaged and knowledgeable citizens, more of us should read a book or two on urbanism, so that we can be more knowledgeable and engaged citizens when it comes to urban revitalization. These three are the books that I recommend the most often, because they are well written and easily graspable:

Cities Back from the Edge by Roberta Gratz
Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown by Roberta Gratz. I think of this book as a primer based on Death and Life of the Great American City, but with more examples and case studies making the concepts much easier to grasp, and the positive examples show a way forward rather than making revitalization seem out of reach. Review from Shelterforce.

Cities in Full by Steve Belmont
Cities in Full: Recognizing and Realizing the Great Potential of Urban America by Steve Belmont. I think this is the most important book in urban planning since Death and Life of the Great American City. It puts numbers to the concepts in Death and Life and explains why recentralization and critical mass of commerce, transportation, and housing are so important.

Reclaiming Our Cities & Towns: Better Living with Less Traffic by David Engwicht. This book is about enhancing exchange, livability, and quality of life in communities through focused management of mobility. The concepts of transportation demand management and traffic calming developed out of this book. Review from Social Anarchism.

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