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Archive: Column of the Week

How Planning Got Its Groove Back

Mitchell Silver / Jul 10 2013

For Release Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Citiwire.net

Mitchell SilverThe field of city planning emerged in U.S. at the dawn of the 20th century and helped shape a rapidly urbanizing nation. Between 1900 and 2000, the nation’s population grew by 205 million, and its land patterns transformed from 20 percent to 80 percent urban. It is hard to imagine how the American landscape would have evolved if Congress had not authorized the Zoning and Planning acts in the 1920s. Those acts empowered local governments to protect the public health, safety and welfare through planning, zoning and capital investment. Planning had a noble purpose, and our nation benefited. But fast-forward to the 21st century. Does city planning still hold a vital role as we continue to grow and urbanize?

In New Orleans in April 2010, I learned I would be the next president of the American Planning Association (APA). I knew my two-year term would be different. The planning landscape was changing. The recession was in full swing, and the mood of the country was glum. Wall Street was beginning to rebound, but Main Street was still suffering. Businesses were being dubbed “job creators,” and government was being blamed for Great Recession and the slow recovery. Planning departments were being merged, downsized or eliminated. Conspiracy theories were increasing – like the one that the United Nations Agenda 21 agreement means the U.N. taking over local government – and the property rights movement reached a broader audience.

If that climate wasn’t bad enough, planners drew criticism from traditional allies. Design professionals accused planners of lacking a design focus. New Urbanists blamed planners for being facilitators of urban sprawl, and neighborhood leaders accused planners of being too focused on the built environment instead of people. Was planning losing its relevance? Had the planning profession lost its sense of purpose? Well, not exactly, but a wake-up call was clearly in order. Something had to change.
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Organic Renewal: St. Joe’s Story

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jul 05 2013

For Release Friday, July 5, 2013
Citiwire.net

Roberta Brandes GratzIn the mid- and late 1960s, while many cities and towns were still tearing their hearts out for the false promises of urban renewal, all sorts of people, young and old, saw the beauty, value and promise of gracious living in historic buildings in the places left behind by suburban development. From San Francisco to Louisville to Providence to Brooklyn to St. Louis and beyond, urban pioneers stripped, cleaned and restored the irreplaceable artifacts of bygone eras of quality and taste.

Those pioneers were the vanguard of the regeneration of neighborhoods and cities that, today, many people do not remember were considered a blighted lost cause.

Washington’s Georgetown. Park Slope in Brooklyn. King William in San Antonio. The Garden District in New Orleans. The Victorian Districts of San Francisco and Savannah. Who remembers that those neighborhoods were once considered “blighted,” over, finished?

Surely, this is the most compelling storyline of the second half of the last century. The rebirth of today’s thriving cities started with the rediscovery of yesterday’s discards. That, as they say, is history. But history has a funny way of repeating itself. Today, one finds examples of that organic renewal process re-emerging.

Many cities have lost more than what remains of the authentic architecture on which to build a new momentum. Miraculously, one that survives with an amazing rich legacy to work with is St. Joseph, Mo.

Set on a bend in the Missouri River and almost equidistant from Kansas City and Omaha, St. Joseph was a railroad, lumber and banking center and, most importantly, the last full provisioning point for the Westward Expansion in the mid-19th century. It’s the birthplace of the Pony Express, the site of Jesse James’ demise, home of Stetson Hat, Saltine crackers and Aunt Jemima.
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Who, Then, is the American?

Melissa Currie / Jun 28 2013

For Release Friday, June 28, 2013
Citiwire.net

Melissa Currie“Who, then, is the American?” Frenchman J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote in the 1780s in Letters from an American Farmer.

The question continues to intrigue, almost 240 years after this nation declared its independence in 1776. Two centuries later, in 1975, Harvard human geographer Brian J.L. Berry offered his own answer. Berry applied de Crèvecoeur’s 18th-century cultural characteristics to what he saw in 20th-century American society and its cities, even describing the aging metropolis as “an effluent, an inevitable discard with no enduring value.”

Why such a negative view? (Of course, even Thomas Jefferson referred to great cities as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”)

Berry based his analysis on what he saw as deeply embedded American cultural traits, which de Crèvecoeur described long before: the love of newness; the desire to be near nature; the freedom to move at will; the pursuit of individualism; America as a great melting pot; a tendency to violence; and the American’s sense of manifest destiny.

Have we changed at all in the 38 years since Berry’s indictment of cities? In the 1970s and ’80s America’s cities declined even further, but then in many cases began reviving. Yet the cultural traits he described appear as strong as ever. Where will they lead our cities in the coming decades?

Love of newness: Berry described how people moving up to new housing creates a constant outward movement of neighborhoods. That leaves the oldest, cheapest houses for the poorest families to occupy, or to be left vacant, thereby eroding neighborhoods and making them obsolete.
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Tactical Urbanism Builds Better Blocks and Streets

Sam Newberg / Jun 21 2013

For Release Friday, June 21, 2013
Citiwire.net

Sam NewbergTactical urbanism is blossoming in the United States, bringing the opportunity to change how we look at our neighborhoods and cities, and most important, how we improve them.

In early June, on a high-traffic street in St. Paul, Minn., Andrew Howard and Team Better Block tried some tactical urbanism to help show people see just how cool the street could be.

They narrowed a busy part of East 7th Street in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood by closing a lane in each direction and putting in potted plants, trees and a bike rack.
East 7th Street
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They painted in a temporary crosswalk in a spot where neighbors though one was needed.
Crosswalk
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They set up a playground, art booths, food stands and even a piano in the street.
Street Setup
Photo Credit: Sam Newberg

They placed images and information in vacant storefront windows to help people imagine how that space could be used, especially if the street outside was more pleasant.

Tactical urbanism is a local, grassroots effort that takes a place with having high commercial vacancy and/or fast-moving traffic (and Dayton’s Bluff grapples with both problems) and installs temporary trees, crosswalks, bike lanes, sidewalk seating and temporary uses for vacant storefronts. Essentially, it’s an effort to inspire neighbors to take back their street, to imagine how great the neighborhood can be when people gather and have a little fun. It’s a fairly low-cost way to demonstrate, temporarily, the potential for long-term change.

The events are great, but how can they inspire long-term change?

In a number of ways. People of all ages who attend can leave with a different perspective on how public space can be used. They can get involved, perhaps, by hosting another event, attending a neighborhood meeting and taking part in long-range planning for the area. Or they could lobby public officials for permanent traffic calming or crosswalks.
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Learning, Again, Why Plans Sometimes Fail

Mary Newsom / Jun 14 2013

For Release Friday, June 14, 2013
Citiwire.net

Mary NewsomYou’d think I would have known better. After all, I’ve been writing about growth since before they called it Smart Growth, and I’m still writing about it now that it’s “resiliency,” or “sustainable growth” or whatever the next term is. I can’t count how many times I’ve explained that when you decide where you want urban growth to go, you must also decide where you don’t want it to go.

That’s why last week’s regional planning exercise was an eye-opener. I learned – or rather, learned again – some key lessons:

  • Real life doesn’t always work the way you think it should.
  • The general public doesn’t think nearly as much about these issues as we like to assume they do.

The exercise was RealityCheck2050, part of a multi-year, regional planning project called CONNECT Our Future that’s looking at the 14-county, two-state Charlotte region. RealityCheck, organized by the Charlotte chapter of the Urban Land Institute, hosted 400 people – among them some 30 elected officials.

We started by listening to speakers, including Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute (a Citistates associate), whose inspiring talk included this line – one I’ve heard so often I groaned: “Trying to cure congestion by building more lanes is like trying to cure obesity by lengthening your belt.”

Yet many in the audience laughed. People Tweeted it to their followers. Lesson No. 1: Sometimes city planner types forget other people are not immersed in this subject.

Then we began a game-like exercise at tables fitted out with Legos and a giant regional map. We were told that by 2050 the region of 2.4 million is expected to grow by 1.8 million and add 863,000 jobs. Each table had to stack hundreds of red and yellow Legos where we thought jobs and housing should go. We could mark out new transit lines with orange yarn, new highways with purple, and green spaces with green yarn.

Lego Building
The planning game used red and yellow Legos for new homes and jobs. But we forgot about green space until late in the game. Photo: Mary Newsom
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Sprawl’s Hidden Problem: Wasting Public Money

William Fulton / May 31 2013

For Release Friday, May 31, 2013
Citiwire.net

William FultonIt’s no secret that mayors and other local leaders around the country are searching for ways to balance municipal and state finances.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office found a widening gap between projected revenues and expenses in the years ahead. While it’s tempting to point fingers at pensions or other easy targets of so-called “wasteful spending” as the only reason for this fiscal problem, city leaders should carefully consider the role that different development strategies play in their budgets and how they can help cure – or ruin – them.

Too often we see cities and towns chasing short-term revenue, mistakenly arguing that sprawling new development on the edge of town represents true economic growth. Yes, new buildings and wide new roads provide a quick hit of cash to a city budget and offer a compelling illusion of prosperity and growth. But over time, the cost of serving such developments often costs more than the tax revenue those developments generate.

Last week, a report I co-authored with Smart Growth America illustrates how walkable, smart growth infill development results in significantly better returns for municipalities compared to car-centric, traditional suburban development. Building Better Budgets: A National Examination of the Fiscal Benefits of Smart Growth Development surveys 17 studies from around the country that compare different development scenarios, including a new study of Nashville-Davidson County, Tenn., commissioned specifically for this report.
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Medellín Shows the Power of Innovation and Inclusion

Nicholas You / May 23 2013

For Release Thursday, May 9, 2013
Citiwire.net

(Editor’s note: This column was originally published May 9).
Plenty of people who knew of Medellín only through its reputation for drug wars were likely surprised when the Colombian city won City of the Year earlier this year, from the Wall Street Journal and Citi, besting New York and Tel Aviv in online voting run by the Urban Land Institute. In this piece, Citistates Associate Nicholas You recounts the decade-long work by a series of innovative mayors to improve not only the physical environment but to inspire social inclusion among the city’s poorest neighborhoods. – Mary Newsom

Nicholas YouMy first visit to Medellín, Colombia, was in 1995, just a little more than a year after the demise of Pablo Escobar, the renowned drug lord who ran the Medellín Cartel. The internecine warfare sparked by his death brought the city to its knees through relentless violence and crime. By 1999, my second visit, no one ventured out after dark.

Yet it was during this time that the first phase of the Medellín Metro rail system was launched – Colombia’s first mass transit system. Its two lines connected downtown with middle class suburbs and a few lower-income neighborhoods. Today it provides efficient and reliable service for more than half a million commuters daily. The metro also inspired a series of urban rehabilitation projects that began to transform the city center into a more urbane space. Rundown warehouse areas were converted into attractive pedestrian malls for stores, restaurants and cafes.

Even so, the city – second largest in Colombia – continued to suffer the ravages of its narco-trafficking past. Violent crime and social exclusion characterized the city, and to this day its income inequity remains among the most extreme of any city in the Western hemisphere.
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States’ Power Grab Quashes Local Governments’ Authority

David Morris / May 16 2013

For Release Thursday, May 9, 2013
Citiwire.net

In 1996, Democratic President Bill Clinton famously declared, “The era of big government is over.” He deregulated the telecommunications and financial industries; pushed a free trade agreement that severely restricted the federal government’s authority to protect domestic jobs and businesses; and abandoned the 75-year-old federal commitment to the poor.

Now, 17 years later, I fully expect some Republican governors to declare, “The era of small government is over.” Again and again, Republican governors and legislatures are pre-empting and abolishing the authority of communities to protect their residents’ health and welfare.

  • Earlier this year Wisconsin passed a law eliminating the authority of cities, villages and counties to require public employees to live inside city limits.
  • A few weeks ago Kansas enacted a law prohibiting cities, counties and local government units from requiring private firms that contract with them to pay more than the state minimum wage or to require other benefits and leave policies.
  • The Florida House recently voted to pre-empt local governments from enacting “living wage” and “sick time” ordinances. It would overrule counties, like Miami-Dade and Broward, which require companies they contract with to pay wages higher than the federal minimum wage.

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 19 states severely restrict or abolish the right of local governments to build their telecommunications networks. Cities began building their networks after years of begging private phone and cable companies to upgrade inadequate infrastructure, moderate price increases and improve customer service. When cities proved successful competitors, telecommunications firms went to state legislatures to abolish the practice. Last year North Carolina became the latest state to bar communities from making their own decisions on these matters.
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Medellín Shows the Power of Innovation and Inclusion

Nicholas You / May 09 2013

For Release Thursday, May 9, 2013
Citiwire.net

Plenty of people who knew of Medellín only through its reputation for drug wars were likely surprised when the Colombian city won City of the Year earlier this year, from the Wall Street Journal and Citi, besting New York and Tel Aviv in online voting run by the Urban Land Institute. In this piece, Citistates Associate Nicholas You recounts the decade-long work by a series of innovative mayors to improve not only the physical environment but to inspire social inclusion among the city’s poorest neighborhoods. – Mary Newsom

Nicholas YouMy first visit to Medellín, Colombia, was in 1995, just a little more than a year after the demise of Pablo Escobar, the renowned drug lord who ran the Medellín Cartel. The internecine warfare sparked by his death brought the city to its knees through relentless violence and crime. By 1999, my second visit, no one ventured out after dark.

Yet it was during this time that the first phase of the Medellín Metro rail system was launched – Colombia’s first mass transit system. Its two lines connected downtown with middle class suburbs and a few lower-income neighborhoods. Today it provides efficient and reliable service for more than half a million commuters daily. The metro also inspired a series of urban rehabilitation projects that began to transform the city center into a more urbane space. Rundown warehouse areas were converted into attractive pedestrian malls for stores, restaurants and cafes.
Read More »

Resilience: Many Cities, Many Meanings

Mary Newsom / Apr 26 2013

For Release Friday, April 26, 2013
Citiwire.net

Mary NewsomCAMBRIDGE, Mass. – On the day much of the Boston area stayed indoors for the manhunt of a Boston marathon bombing suspect, I was in town for a conference on “The Resilient City.”

Like almost everyone in Boston, most conference attendees obeyed the April 19 “stay indoors” order. And the whole bizarre experience – seeing usually crowded streets deserted – gave a different twist to the idea of city resilience, one that may help broaden what we think the term means.

Typically, “resilient city” denotes one that can survive and thrive amid environmental degradation, global climate change and massive population growth worldwide. The World Urban Campaign website says, “A Resilient City is one that can withstand and recover quickly from natural or human-made disaster.”

I suppose a massive hunt for a youth believed to be armed and dangerous (in fact he was hiding, wounded, in a backyard boat) would be in the category of human-made disaster. And Boston’s citizenry, by heeding warnings and obediently staying inside, did their part to help assure their city’s resilience to the trauma of the marathon bombing.

Boston, with its history of survival and change over several centuries, is a particularly apt place to ponder what “resilience” really means for a city. Why can some cities stay healthy, while others seemingly can’t? Different cities, obviously, need different strategies.
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