Measures of a Community

IMG_2967It’s a cool and wet spring morning in my neighborhood. Each day I get up and walk our dog through the community. These early morning walks not only provide exercise for my dog and I, it also gives me a chance to clear my mind. As a Restless Urbanist, I also take the time to observe.

This morning I came across an armada of kids bikes parked outside our neighbor’s townhouse. This is a very happy sight, and one of the Measures of a Community. This is a marker of a vibrant place.

Here is what I see in this picture. I see 4-5 bikes neatly parked in the front yard. Of course there is at least one laying on its side, because of course every group has a rebel. I also do not see a bike locks, and the eyes on the street from the front window and porch light provide adequate security. Because of the the night rain, I know this is exactly where these children left these bikes when the sun went down the night before.

These are all measures and signs of success. We do not live in an urban place. We are in a rural-suburban area transitioning to an urban place. It’s a 5 minute walk across the entire neighborhood, so these bikes are for freedom and not transportation. These children and their parents feel safe enough to ride their bikes. The neighbors expect to see children and know to go slow when they drive on the streets.

I just wanted to share this picture because it made me smile. I also know in just a little while, these children will wake up and start right back where they started before the sun set.

 

Posted in bicycling, Children, communities, Pride, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jane Jacobs

Many of you ask about Urban Design and question where to start. There are a lot of great books on the subject, and an equal if not more list of terrible books. I always recommend The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

I am sure all of you have your own personal Jacobs story or revelation. Most urban nerds have one of these stories or have walked in Jane’s footsteps. I welcome you to share, but I will not bore you with mine.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is just a great read. Jacobs sums up many of the issues of her day with simple observations. We continue to face these issues today, and her observations continue to be relevant. I encourage you to pick up a copy today.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MjU3MjI0MjAzMay is generally recognized as Jane Jacob’s month. Her birth is May 4th, so groups like American Urbanism hold Urban Renewal observances.

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I’m Married to a New Urbanist…

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 10.31.23 AMOnce again the Spouse of a the Restless Urbanist has shared a window into our lives. This time, Michelle has shared her thoughts with Strong Towns titled LIVING STRONG WHEREVER YOU ARE.

Take a minute and click over to Strong Towns. If you are not already a Strong Towns Member, I encourage you to become one.

 

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Micro Action Planning: Get Off the Cart

I recently was asked to present on a panel focused on public engagement. This was an opportunity for me to gather my thoughts on Public engagement and how I utilize all of these tools in the communities I have worked. It also provided me the opportunity to share  how I have managed over planned, under performing communities.

Off the CartMany communities are exhausted from years of planning. The Charrette is a tool, but unfortunately a Charrette has become a term that has lost a positive meaning. Many times it misses the mark of public engagement. We joke in our office that we need to get off the cart, and take action.

 

Erfurt MAP 4A little history, Savannah is master planned community and hands down one of the most exciting plans. Most planners talk about the squares and the block structure. However, we forget about Oglethorpe and his tent in the foreground, We need to remember that someone was in the tent implementing this plan.

Erfurt MAP 5As planners, we need to stop being shelf fillers. We are all really good at making great plans. we create these plans, package them with wonderful drawings and eloquent text, and everyone once in a while we pull them off the shelf. Too many of us have long shelves. We need to get off the shelf and into the tent.

These communities are over planned and the plans have under performed. Although we have great plans, there have been very little physical changes. Tactical Urbanism has provided my department some clarity on this issue. It is a mistake to think Tactile Urbanism is guerrilla warfare against sprawl. Tactical urbanism is living approach to community building.
Erfurt MAP 9Micro Action Planning (MAP) provides an action oriented bottom up approach to planning. This chaotic but smart approach empowers local residents to improve their community at the level of the block and lot. Micro Action Planning has the following keep principles:

  • Action Oriented: Physical things need to happen
  • Bottom-Up Approach: Ideas must come from the Community, not the Planner
  • Chaotic but Smart: Accept that there will be a level of failure in our actions
  • Empower Local Residents: Allow Stakeholders to emerge and take ownership
  • Improves the Community at the Level of the Block and Lot: These projects are at the smallest level of development and not broad strokes

Because I represent government, we needed a bureaucratic system that could operate without bureaucracy. This type of planning had nothing to do with urban design, but with city managment. We created a vessel to manage our urban design projects. The hard work is making this look difficult to the paper pushers, make it look simple to the public, and utilize the minimum amount of staff time from my department.

Our program is a process for implementation. We start at the bottom with community desire. We empower the public through a local stakeholder group, and we manage expectations. With a focus on projects under $10,000. For the beuracrric staff we focus on their realm of procedures, policies, and rules. We have to provide a system that they are familiar with and can thrive in. These are the measures of local government and utilized by your local planning staff. Micro Action Planning must operate in this system, but should never be driven by this system.

Erfurt MAP 11

Now the Achilles heal of local government and the legitimacy for the public gathering comes in the form of the “Trinity” of a successful public process: Sign-In, Public Stakeholders, and a Logo. The Sign-In sheet proves that many people met which shows desire. The public is a gaseous form avoided by most staff. Finally the logo is the flag that legitimize and provides authority to the process. In my experience, I have used my department logo and name. If you community does not have something like this, then spend a couple of minutes to create a civic community action group like a Garden Club, Civic Club, or Homeowners Group.

Erfurt MAP 12
Erfurt MAP 13Desire comes in many forms, and we need to embrace this desire. We need to be on the ground and work with our communities. Our process involves harnessing this desire by asking these residents to invite their neighbors to a public meeting. We also invite a local planner to host an evening workshop, and provide technical support, ie we print maps and post agendas.
The government is not involved, neighbors work with neighbors and talk about their neighborhood.

We document the meeting and we listen. This is not about solutions, it is about listening. This can be very hard, but we do not want to be at the center of this the goal of this supportive role, is to empower the residents to take action in their own community. The resident is presenting the plan to his community, and staff is on the right and does not have to talk.

Erfurt MAP 15We document what we hear into a simple plan. Each idea or need is mapped. This drawing allows residents to prioritize projects and allows the county planners to go loose. While they are completing their studies we are taking action in the community. This also allows for Staff to organize the community’s needs. During one of our Micro Action Planning sessions, we documented 50-60 items that needed attention in a community. On the surface this was overwhelming, and led to complacency. However, when we organized these issues, we found that 100% of the issues could be resolved through the daily operating procedures of Public Works. These are budgeted projects that occur on a daily basis.

Erfurt MAP 19

What we are finding is much of the work is within the parameters of our county’s daily operating procedures, and we are able to improve the community. This buys us time to attack the harder projects where we may not have the policies, rules, or procedures in place to act. It also builds trust between the Community and the Government. I cannot stress how valuable this social capital.

Micro Action Planning can be applied to any location, and can be initiated by residents or manciple staff. It is about making physical improvements and taking action at the level of the block and street. Small steps on your way to larger improvements in your community.

Posted in charrette, CNU, Colleagues, communities, Conference, Congress for the New Urbanism, Education, Planning, Public Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Snow

IMG_0101This past week, I experienced an old friend: SNOW.  It has been over 10 years since I have had to deal with this stuff. In this case, the 40 inches of white stuff, more then made up for this long absence from winter.

The weather is one of the many excuses used to support the suburban experiment. We need large malls, because the winters are too cold for people to shop outside. We need wide roads to make it easier to push snow. We need to eliminate on-street parking because they make plowing difficult. Well, I want to share with you my observations.

IMG_0120For my friends in the snow belt or upper Minnesota, 40 inches may seem like a dusting, but for our town this type of snowfall is historic. Our equipment worked well for the first 12 and even 24 inches, but once the snow began to pile along the roads, our plows could just not throw it any further. Once we started get 2-3 inched of snow an hour, it just was not safe for for our equipment to be on the streets until the snow slowed.

IMG_0105I work for a small town where everyone pitches in. I decided to give public works a hand in their efforts to keep the city streets over. This task moved from observation, to hand shovel, and ultimately to plow operator. I cannot deny that it was a lot of fun to plow, for the first day. By day three, I have to admit, I lost interest in even playing with Eddie’s toy trucks.

I do encourage that planners ride with the folks that clear our streets. You really need to see this first hand. Here are a couple of snow storm observations.

  1. The wide streets are the worst streets. Our town has a couple 3 and 5 lane streets. During and after the storm, you find you only need 2 lanes. It takes a lot resources to plow a Stroad when those resources could be better used somewhere else.
  2. Grids are Great. With the amount of snow we had, we needed a place to put it. In old town Ranson, we have a historic street grid that allowed us to move snow to the four corners of an intersection. This allowed the streets to remain open with the basic equipment we had. The intersections also allowed for the plow to dump what is was pushing into the cross streets, which would get moved as we turned the block. In the long, winding streets of the suburbs, we had to bring in special equipment and haul away the snow. These are also the streets where we received the most complaints about driveways being “plowed in.”
  3. Civic Spaces are important. There are actually three important observations here. First, after the storm, people wanted to get out and kids wanted to play in the snow. Civic spaces and parks provided the opportunity for this to occur, while letting crews clear the streets. Secondly, these civic spaces provided central locations to stage equipment and to haul snow to. Finally, once we clear the parking lots at the Civic buildings, on-street parking residents could move their cars off-street while crews clear the streets.
  4. Mixed-Use. During a snow storm, nothing is drivable, bikeable, or walkable. As soon as the storm lets up, walking becomes the only option. The two or three convenience stores in town stayed open through the storm. This is were many people got their first hot meals and replenished their supplies after the snow. The locally owned restaurants were next to open. Most of these places did not have clear parking lots, so walking was the only option.
  5. When its snowing, temperature is not a factor. I do not want to confuse this observation with scientific meteorology. The fact is, no matter the temperature, people climb out of their warm houses to play in the snow.
  6. Snow plows can do better planning then any engineering street manual. The plow truck will only clear the path that is needed, and has a wide turing radius. The plow truck will start with one lane of road, and after traffic increases, the plow will come through and plow the second lane. As these trucks get to intersections, they are turning at the radius of the plow and truck. There is no calculation as to the radius, other then what the steering wheel allows. In some cases, the plows straighten out streets the were artificially curved.
  7. Deliveries and big trucks make do. Shortly after the storm, supplies and heavy equipment started to arrive back in town. These drivers followed the main streets that were plowed. They did not try to do a u-turn, or expect every road to be at their disposal. they took their time, and behaved like urban guests in the city.
  8. The lead walks were the first areas to be shoveled at people’s homes. Urban or Suburban, the first thing to be shoveled at homes was the path from the front door to the street. I saw many cases were residents just made these paths across their lawn.
  9. Planning and Leadership is Critical. Cities need to be prepared for these events. Emergency Management Plans work. One of the most amazing stories of coordination during the storm in our community occurred at Day 6. Our local senior center feeds many home bound seniors. These seniors had been stocked with 6 days worth of food, so on day six, panic began to set in. The Senior Center had volunteers walk in to prepare meals, the School Board donated food from their cafeterias for the meals, and the National Guard transported the food to the senior center, and then onto residents in the community.
  10. Inform the public. This storm, the City focused on communicating on their Facebook page. Residents want to know what is going on, and need to be informed. Many residents chose not to go out sightseeing after the storm, because the City communicated the severity of the storm and shared pictures.
  11. Roundabouts work. The roundabouts in town worked great. They could easily be plowed, because the plow is in constant forward motion. The center island is also a great place to push and pile snow.

IMG_0128A lot can be learned when mother nature has her way. As urbanists, we can learn a lot, when we are forced back to the most primal levels of urbanization.

I do want to thank all of the crews I followed around during this storm. I saw countless acts of charity. These crews went above and beyond to dig our out town.

Posted in communities, Design, Education, Erfurt, Infrastructure, Planning, Transportation, Urban Design, Walkability, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Adventures: Ranson West Virginia

I am pleased to announce that I will be moving with my family to Ranson, West Virginia. I have accepted the Assistant City Manager focused on Community Development. Ranson is an amazing town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia where amazing things are happening. Ranson has a plan, they have adopted a smart code, and they have the political leadership and staff to build this vision. I am very excited to join the city staff to advance this vision.

Many of you have been actively working in Ranson on these plans. Placemakers pulled together an incredible team of talent to develop the Ranson Renewed Plan. Susan Henderson led the efforts to adopt the Smart Code. Sustainable Strategies lobbied for the resources to implement the first phases. There are also numerous development teams currently under development review to invest in this vision.

I am eager to get started and continue this work.

Posted in Colleagues, The Profession, West Virginia | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Additive Development: The Gas Station

2012_0706_PC_Photo_005When I first arrived at Martin County, a development application for a Sunoco Gas Station proposed on a Mapp Road was in the development review process. This gas station was replacing a gas station that had been destroyed during the 2004 hurricanes. The problem is that Mapp Road was visioned as the walkable Main Street for the Community.

This application had already been in development review for 3 years prior to my arrival. In a battle of wills, the county and the property owner battled over allowable uses, property rights, and design regulations. After three years, it was clear that this station was permitted, but the proposed plan did not fit into the community vision.

Old Palm City has a strong vision. The Community spent several years exploring and developing their community vision. The community vision include new commercial businesses, and the market demanded a replacement gas station. The task at hand was how to make this development contribute to the community vision.

This development took many working sessions with the developer and architect. The Community refused to compromise on three critical items.

  1. The retail portion had to be built to the street
  2. The retail portion had to have a customer entrance opening onto Mapp Road
  3. The entire development needed to developed in a traditional Florida architectural style

The review of this development required numerous design sessions in person and over the phone with the development team. I was important for me to work with the development team. It was not easy and it did take a long time for the developer to understand how important is was to the community to have a building on the street with an operating front door. These sessions also provided the development team the opportunity to educate the review team on the operations of a gas station.

This communication led to designs from both the County and the Developer. We communicated through sketches, which led to additional collaboration. For example, it was critical for the gas station to have access from all of the surrounding streets, which the county could advocate for from the Florida Department of Transportation.

This Sunoco was the first new development on this street, and several amazing things happened. First, the manager of the station bought seats for the front porch. She went out to Walmart and purchased two sets of furniture with her own money. The porch soon became the official morning coffee shop in the community.

2012_0706_PC_Photo_014The business owner is also reporting greater then expected sales, and higher then normal walk-in customers. One of the things I learned during this process is that gas stations do not make money on gas. They make money on the candy bars, beverages and snacks they sell out of the convince store. Its kinda of big deal that the retail portion is over performing.

2012_0706_PC_Photo_016I also had several calls to my office for people looking to build a home in the neighborhood. They explained that they wanted a home that looks like the new Sunoco. There is a separate commentary on this, but the fact is that the development was embraced as a contributing part of the community.

This project illustrates the importance of form when developing in an established neighborhood. Development regardless of use, should be complementary to the community. It is important that these investments contribute to the community vision. Development needs to be additive to the community.

 

Posted in building, communities, Design, Developers, Florida, Planning, Uncategorized, Urban Design, Visioning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is the Next American Urbanism?

We need to ask ourselves how we will design and develop cities based on the lessons of the past 60 years. We are at the beginning of a change in the way we build and manage cities. This is the Next American Urbanism which requires the study and observation of the places we love.

Steve Mouzon filmed a presentation I gave on this subject in Buffalo. I would encourage you to also watch and share the other presentations in this session. The Next American Urbanism is a broad topic that requires additional discourse and study.

You can also click this video link to watch the presentation.

Posted in Advocacy, Conference, Congress for the New Urbanism, Public Policy, The Profession, Urban Design, Urbanism | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Advancing the Vision

Urban Design is about advancing a community vision through investment and development. Vision is the moral rudder of the development process. The design process, whether you are the designer or the regulatory reviewer, requires constant evaluation against the community vision. Design will require comprise, but the community vision should never be compromised.

I want to share a recent development that illustrates this process. The Indiantown McDonalds/Dollar General project is the first new commercial development application approved within Indiantown in over 20 years. As you can imagine, the community was eager to see any new development come to their town.A2-A-page-001

The first concept for this site included the national prototype for each of these buildings. The Dollar General national model is a building with 6-8 feet of split face block on the front with a steel shell building placed on top, and a double door on the front. It was very important to share the community vision with the development team early in their process, so they could adjust to the context of Indiantown.rendering-120511 (1)

As urban Designer, I worked with the development team to improve the proposed architecture of this development. I introduced the team to the local historic architecture, and provided several elevation studies. Based on this work, the architecture was changed to consistent with the local architectural character. It was actually to my surprise that their architects incorporated these sketches into their final design.

2014_0919_Photo_IT_017

 

This development did require compromise from Martin County. The drive-thru element of this development required a variance from the Community Redevelopment Overlay Requirements. This compromised was tested against the community vision. The vision calls for an urban roadway section with buildings built to the street. The code required a zero setback from the state highway, which made this development impossible.Pages from IT_McDonalds_Page_2

Through this process, the development team agreed to construct a frontage road adjacent to the State highway. The frontage road is designed like an local two way street providing additional connectivity and landscaping not permitted on a state highway. To compromise the development provided a secondary cross access along the rear of the site as adopted int eh the Indiantown Sustainable Transportation Network Plan. This long range planning will support future redevelopment along this corridor by providing additional connectivity.

This partnership through the community led to several successes. This was one of the first successful expedited reviews in the redevelopment area, and was approved through a single round of development review. The productivity of this land also increased. Prior to the development the land’s taxable value was less then $70,000. The development is now appraised at over $2 million dollars according to the Martin County Property Appraiser. These two new businesses have created over 100 new jobs in a community that had over 14% unemployment. Following the opening of this development, additional new development application have been filed in Indiantown.

The community vision was the most important tool in the success of this development. The vision attracted new investment, guided the decision making in this process, and has inspired additional development.

Posted in Architecture, building, Codes, communities, Design, Developers, Erfurt, Florida, Planning, Public Policy, Sketches, The Profession, Urban Design, Urbanism, Visioning | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vacant Lots

Every time that I go to a new city, I take a mental note of two things. First, I take note of the vibe and culture of the place. I then take a look at all the vacant land. I take note of the empty lots, the underutilized buildings, and the buildings that are standing on a single leg. I like to seek out the ones that all the neighbors want torn down, but a lone architect or historian protests demolition in the name of preservation.

I am amazed to find so many empty lots that already have roads, utilities, and city services connected to them. They are the places that once had thriving dense populations that prospered. Places where two or three generations shared the same roof. They are the eyesores in the middle of the city that lie in waiting for something new. Some of these places have become overgrown where nature is making and stand to return, and other vacant land has become and left to rot back into the earth. Others have been transformed into loved pocket community parks.

Our once urban centers are the places that deserve to be invested into and built on once again. Two generations ago, these are places our Country invested time, money, and passion to build. The vacant lots in these areas are sites that not only meet the needs those who wish to live in urban areas, but they are an alternative to Greenfield development.

As an urbanist, I wonder what keeps these properties from being re-developed into viable uses? I hope that all of you share the myths and mysteries of why these areas remain abandoned.

Posted in Advocacy, Colleagues, communities, Developers, Infrastructure, Redevelopment, Urbanism | Tagged , | 1 Comment