West Virginia Day

13445297_514036728805695_565424421157396769_nYesterday was West Virginia Day. This is the first West Virginia Day that I have celebrated both as a West Virginian and really ever. June 20th is the anniversary of the creation of West Virginia as a result of the succession from Virginia. The history of the formation of West Virginia is a fascinating Civil War story involving President Lincoln and a desire for regional control. It was also possible through a vacuum of voting residents who where traveling through northern Virginia with General Lee. Its well worth exploring for all of the history buffs out there.

As many of you know a year ago, the politics had changed dramatically in Martin County where I was working. After six years with one of the most progressive and talented public sector development teams in country, and some of the most energized community stakeholders I had ever worked with, we were implementing the county’s redevelopment plans. These were not easy projects, but with the enthusiasm of the community and the skill of the team, we were able to work through the obstacles and get projects complete. It was slow going through one of the most complex development environments, but we were able undertake some of the most progressive development projects.

The momentum was great, the community values were increasing, and we were attracting both local and national investment. During the annual budget hearings, the County Commission decided to stop all of these projects without warning. Redevelopment was no longer a priority which was devastating to the communities in which I was working and a moral atomic bomb for my team. This is one of the risks of working in the public sector, and it forced me to explore other opportunities were I could use my talents and follow my passions.

June 20th, I had a phone conversation with a visionary City Manager of a small town in the eastern panhandle of the state. He had come into his office on West Virginia Day, which is a paid holiday, to have a conversation with me about the work underway in his City.

The City had recently adopted comprehensive plan which established a fiscal first approach to development and planning. As he talked, I heard the Strong Towns approach to City Management. He explained that the City had adopted form based code that allows for compact development, mixed-use, the missing middle, and protects the character of the historic core. The City also had master planned and approved three different developments: a transit oriented development, an agrarian urbanist development, and a a neighborhood that is an extension of downtown. On top of all of this, this town had received a $13 million dollar grant to design and build a sustainable urban boulevard through the heart of the city connecting the old with the new.

ic-ransonI hung up the phone on that West Virginia Day, and I made the decision to join the City of Ranson. At the City, I have one of the most passionate and dedicated teams focused everyday to make the City of Ranson better then the previous day. With this team, I get the opportunity to work with local builders and developers who are excited about the vision and direction of the City. These builders are taking risks outside the conventional norms, which are resulting in incredible projects. Mobile homes are being replaced with townhouses, commercial rental tenants are converting to landlords, and the boulevard project has transformed the City.

DocumentI started a City Facebook Page last fall. Several of us at the City post City news and events. We also post images of the City which seem to get the most views. I enjoy reading the comments from residents, both current and former, that are surprised at the transformation of the City. They know the images to be Ranson, but it is a better Ranson then the day before.

West Virginia Day is a special Day for me, because this is the anniversary of joining this team, and being part of this City. If you are in the Eastern Panhandle, I encourage you to stop by and check out my new home. This is a special place that I love to share.


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Strong Towns Member Drive


Are you a Strong Towns Members? If your answer is no, then I encourage you to join. Becoming a Strong Towns Member has multiple benefits, most importantly it provides the energy to continue promoting sustainable development.

I do a lot of work with the Strong Towns Team and Chuck Marohn which I have shared many times here on my blog and also on the Strong Towns blog and podcasts. As a public sector planner, Strong Towns has assisted in connecting me with other professionals working on the fiscal planning policies for cities. This work led to restructuring they way my redevelopment department approached public sector development and investment. This success would not have been possible without the support of Strong Towns.

75% of the Strong Towns funding comes from membership dues and committed donors. By becoming a member, you become part of this growing movement. I encourage you to take a minute to become a member.

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Beauty in Your City

“There is no excuse to build anything that does not add beauty to the City.”      -Mayor Joe Riley. 

Last night Mayor Riley addressed the attendees of the Congress of the New Urbanism and shared this simple yet powerful statement. Mayor Riley shared his experience as Mayor for over 40 years for the City of Charleston, South Carolina. Tonight, he pulled back the curtain and shared how as Mayor, he was also the chief architect for the City.

For urbanists and planners, Mayor Riley reminded us that “Mayors are the chief architects of their cities.” They are the ones that can demand more because they not only represent the now, they represent the future for their city. Strong mayors like Riley can work the political system to elevate the voice of the community above the squeaky wheels.

Like every great mayor, Mayor Riley boiled down his planning philosophy into a simple and pointed statement: “The first goal of City Building is not to make stupid mistakes.” Mayors have the responsibility to protect their city from stupid mistakes. Unlike any other profession, the results of planning and architecture may take years to see the final results.

“There is no excuse to build anything that does not add beauty to the City.”      – Mayor Riley

I really want to stress Mayor Riley’s statement that there is no excuse to build anything that does not add beauty to the City. This is not any easy statement and is loaded with subjective opinion. Mayor Riley is passionate about his city and woke up everyday seeking opportunities to make the city better. He carried the basic principles of traditional urbanism and promoted the emulation of the traditional architecture of his city.

As you walk down your own community streets or as you work on projects in you community, remained yourself that there is no excuse to build anything that does not add beauty to your city.


Posted in Advocacy, Architecture, building, CIty, communities, Congress for the New Urbanism, Elected Offical, Planning, Urban Design | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Detroit and the Congress for the New Urbanism

I am on my annual pilgrimage to regroup with my tribe, better know as the annual meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism. This annual gathering of urbanists, is the opportunity to share and critic the cutting edge of community planning.

The Congress is not your typical conference. In addition to the obligatory lecture sessions, there are walking tours, hands on unsanctioned urban interventions, pub and pastry crawls, and countless other activities to explore the host city. This is the opportunity to not only meet fellow urbanists, but the opportunity to see the world through their eyes.

This year the Congress is being held in Detroit. I grew up a few hours away from the city, drove by it many times for family vacations, and the closest I ever got to downtown were visits to the Henry Ford Museum. For my generation, Detroit has been off limits.

The one and only times I was near the downtown, I had just crossed over the Ambassador Bridge from a week long Canadian fishing trip. It was just beginning to get dark, and we were looking for a place to grab some dinner, so we asked the boarder agent for directions to the nearest fast food place. His response has been burned into my mind. He said, “If you are going south, I would not get off the freeway. Do not stop or get off at an exit until you get past Monroe. Detroit is just not safe, especially after dark.” The City has been a black hole in my mind ever since.

Detroit peaked in population in the 1950 census with a population of over 1.8 million people. To understand this city’s size, we can compare this to the populations of several american cities today. That is equal to the population of Houston, greater then Philadelphia, San Fransisco and Charlotte.

Plan of Detroit

Plan of Philadelphia

Detroit is also a good sized city. It encompasses 142.9 square miles. That is almost the same size as Philadelphia and almost a 100 square miles less then Chicago. Detroit is a little larger then 3 times the entire Disney World resort. The one for one comparison of the Motor City to the most Magical Place on earth is fuel for a future post.

However, since 1950, Detroit has seen a 61% population drop. The City now has a population less then Columbus, Ohio. People have left the City. Unlike other cities were the population migrated out to the surrounding bedroom communities filling the outer-belt, the population of Detroit just left.

Well before the budget crisis, Detroit has been in trouble. We can look at all of the issues facing the City. In 1943 the Federal Government sent in troops to calm the City after 3 days of race riots. This was repeated again in 1967 during more race riots which resulted in 43 deaths.  More recently we have seen the prosecution of corrupt politicians who managed the city into bankruptcy. The final blow has been the one-two punch of the decline of the auto industry and the mortgage crisis.

For the past few years, new investment has been attracted to Detroit. In preparation for the Congress, I have been following the activities in Detroit via social media and blogs. There are large, heavily subsidized projects that are under construction in the City along side unsanctioned redevelopment and infill. I intend to tour these places and learn more about the city.

I actually have two goals during the Congress. First, now that I am a West Virginian, I want to see how a city of this scale can come back from a total economic meltdown. The entire state of West Virginia has a population of 1.8 million, and has countless towns devastated by the battle against coal. I want to see what is working and how these successes can be introduced into my state.

Secondly, I want to complete the picture of the city in my mind that today is simply a black hole. Despite the city’s recent decline, Detroit is an American city with a strong urban fabric. There are many images that I want to put into my mind and impression of this place.

Posted in Advocacy, Blog, CNU, Colleagues, Congress for the New Urbanism, Public Policy, travel, West Virginia | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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


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