A Placemaking Journal

Seven Placemaking Wishes for 2013

With the dawning of 2013, the interwebs are awash in lists detailing exactly what to watch out for in the coming year and, in a way, this is one more of those. But not exactly. Though firmly rooted in placemaking trends that have gained notable traction over the past year, this list contains not so much what we’re going to see as it does what we’re hoping to see.

As far as we’re concerned, the communities we love will be better served in 2013 with:

More Options in the Reform of Local Growth Regulations

Over the past decade, form-based codes have emerged as the new standard in next generation growth and development regulations and the premier tool for maintaining and fostering community character. 433 communities have taken this step, and many more are laying the groundwork to do so themselves.

We applaud these efforts. But we also recognize that not every community is ready to dive into the deep end of the pool. That’s why, in the new year, we also wish for more baby steps — more opportunities for low-impact, incremental Euclidean modifications that establish basic smart growth patterns. In time, pretty good places will emerge and, with them, the political will for more nuanced solutions.

Incremental Growth

Development is not an on/off switch; there are interim steps in the building of a city. Moving forward, places will increasingly be developed incrementally. Not in terms of planning for phases of development pods, built-out in a predetermined sequence, but in terms of individual lots and how they can change — evolve — over time. Very rarely now are we designing to build a project’s absolute highest and best use — its “climax condition” — all at once. Instead of sitting on a surface parking lot waiting for the market to support a five story building, what we’d really like to see in 2013 is a lot more here-and-now motivation for things like simple liner retail or modest two story, mixed-use buildings.

Tactical Urbanism as Normative Citizen Practice

Tactical Urbanism, the increasingly lauded movement of “short term action, long term change,” is all the rage among progressive urban Millennials. And that’s a good thing. Empowering incremental physical improvement turns community planning into an ongoing, participatory citizen exercise — in ways that everyday community meetings cannot. But like any trend fueled by the power of social media and online collaboration, Tactical Urbanism’s base is, for the most part, defined by the young. Here’s hoping that, in 2013, these ideas will further transcend their origin, becoming more widely embraced with more demographic segments taking ownership of them — if not directly then at least in terms of recognition and support. Why? Because they make solid economic, environmental and social sense, that’s why. And that’s no small feat.

Better Methods for Measuring Livability

In 1968, Robert Kennedy asserted that “Our gross national product, if we should judge America by that, counts [..] the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.” Regardless, since World War 2, we’ve used GDP as our measure of national success, even as we’ve become less healthy and happy at the same time. Today, our kids are the first generation of humans projected to live shorter lifespans than their parents. That’s why, over the next year, we’re coveting new measures of national success — and commensurate tools (like an Urban Happiness Index) for the planning community to work with — to finally leverage this not exactly new idea.

Return on Infrastructure Investment

Ask Joe Minicozzi, Charles Marohn, or Peter Katz: Infrastructure expenditures associated with conventional suburban sprawl just ain’t paying their own way. And it only gets worse once the time comes for major repairs, as initial forecasts assumed they’d be paid for through our never-ending orgy of growth that, inevitably, ended anyways. As it has, city budget deficits have escalated — even in the midst of reductions to key city services. Now, particularly in Sunburnt Cities and Rust Belt Cities, Smart Decline is replacing Smart Growth. Cities face a new imperative to behave more like businesses, less like Ponzi schemes, while investing in development patterns that are more productive.

What would help? A City Valuation Tool to evaluate city infrastructure investment choices for their economic, environmental and social performance over time. In an era of increasing governmental debt loads, and diminishing growth rates, it’s essential to enable places that pay. As Marohn says, no one should invest a dime before answering, “Will this public project generate enough tax revenue to sustain its maintenance over multiple life cycles?”

More Streets-for-People, Near and Long-Term

North American cities are clamoring for pedestrian and cycling strategies, despite the fact that Creating Walkable and Bikeable Communities: A User Guide to developing pedestrian and bicycle master plans pegs the cost of such planning efforts for a large city at around a million bucks — before any dollars are invested in the land use law reform and infrastructure upgrades that actually impact our daily quality-of-life. That’s not pocket change, especially in an era of new scrutiny on returns. Instead of pricey master plans, 2013 may prove better served by more cross-pollinated, crowd-sourced, skin-of-yer-teeth strategies to get walking and cycling on the political fast track.

Of course, physically reclaiming streets is just one piece of the puzzle. In 2013, we ultimately wish for more battles won on all fronts in the war for transportation design reform. With bureaucrat-friendly manuals now in place, and talk of Complete Streets entering the mainstream, it’s time for municipal priorities to catch up. The future will not be built solely around the automobile. So, while we don’t necessarily expect an abundance of physical infrastructure change over the next 12 months, we are hoping for an ever-expanding change in attitude.

Placemaking in Under-Appreciated Places

Conventional, use-separated zoning played no small role in fostering the large, unloved swaths of opportunistic dreck parasitically feeding at the edges of our high-impact institutions. Perhaps new land use tools can help undo the damage. After all, just because a place is ill-suited to function as a neighborhood, doesn’t mean it can’t serve as a vibrant, mixed-use district with its own human-scaled character

Airports, hospitals and light industry are often economic drivers for cities so, in 2013, we’re looking for growing interest in the taming of their edges — improving character, enticing cyclists and pedestrians to engage, and upping value.

What say you? In your reading of the tea leaves, what are you expecting — or hoping — to see in 2013?


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