I Have to Ask: Overtaking the Orderly and Sedate

I Have to Ask: Overtaking the Orderly and Sedate

In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week AJ Fawver, City of Amarillo, Texas Planning Director, writes about innovation happening in the planning profession. You could be next. Sign up to be a guest writer for this column. 

“Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how.” – Edward T McMahon

Community character is at the heart of innovation in planning. Communities are about a sense of place, and that is dependent on the character of the area. It is difficult to articulate what community character is, one thing is true: we know it when we see it. Thinking back to places where we have traveled and remember fondly, there is a certain something that imprints into our memory.

Planners are prioritizing wellness, synergy, and nature in commmnities. 

Cities focused on developing for people – not cars – are cities where that community character is evident. The end result is a places where people enjoy spending time. This symbiotic relationship does not require a leap of logic; however, it represents a shift in thinking, as historically, natural features have been perceived as costly and unnecessary. Researchers have found connections between green space and less crime, nature with creativity and lower stress levels, and the positive impact on physical and mental health.

There was a time that parks were devoted to filling this gap, but in modern cities, green infrastructure, streetscapes, water features, greenbelts, and xeriscaping have been the focus. The beauty of bringing nature back to cities further captures and expresses the community’s character by selecting plants, trees, and ground cover which is native to the area and well-suited for the weather – be it Arizona or Washington.

As we focus more on nature, we also focus more on natural disasters and the impact of development patterns, and in turn, the impact of flooding, earthquakes, and the like.  Planners, more than any other time in history, are at the table for major discussions about climate change, public health, and resiliency.

Engagement is another area where planners are innovating.

The world is changing quickly, and citizens are thirsty for information and facts. Cities who engage their community to report problems via apps and online platforms, and who meet that desire by providing better data that is easily accessible, are leaders.

Successful cities are becoming savvier about engagement, and are extremely active in their messaging and content generation. The surge of open data, and the reliance on mapping and modeling technology, has come together to produce the most constant, and most volatile, approach to communication that cities have ever seen.

In turn, the increased diversity of our cities has prompted emerging twists on the traditional engagement model. Storytelling, tactical urbanism, walkshops, art and culture, and bringing planning to the people of the community are ways that communities are augmenting or replacing the town halls, stuffy meetings, and generic notices of the past. This, too, enhances and expresses the community’s character, as the engagement methods are tailored to that neighborhood, village, or city.

Innovation is present in how planning examines the true cost of development. 

Housing costs and homelessness are affecting cities – and not just the largest metro areas. Even cities like Garland, Texas and Omaha, Nebraska are seeing home prices skyrocketing. Planners are looking at subtle ideas like removing parking minimums, zoning that allows working and living spaces together, utilization of accessory buildings, creating more freedom through multimodal transportation, and re-examining regulation to use land in more productive ways.

More efficient development patterns are key. Those in the planning field (and other related disciplines) having tough conversations about the challenges facing cities. Refocusing efforts on housing, and letting go of the constant race to land the next big box retailer, or to grow a city’s footprint is necessary. And it is happening. From CityLab to Strong Towns, questioning the status quo approach to planning cities is gaining support, and that support creates momentum. This audacity solidifies and expresses community character. After all, the cookie cutter, generic parts of our cities hardly demonstrate such.

It is an exciting time to be in community development. The unique and different approaches are starting to overtake the orderly and the sedate. Communities are stretching the limits of their ambition – those are the communities that will see the far-reaching benefits of these innovative approaches.

Supplemental Reading