A Placemaking Journal

Year End Reflections: Gratitude for Livable Places

As the year draws to a close, reflection is an important rite of passage: celebrating, mourning, learning, and letting go. 2017 has not been the sort of year in which gratitude is the obvious emotion of choice on many levels. Yet the act of searching for what is beneficial, transformative, and noteworthy helps process through troubling challenges. Year end is a time of accounting for profits and losses, and making sense of what went right and what didn’t. In the city and town planning realm that we discuss here, that often comes down to comparing if our words line up with our actions.

If our policies are strong enough to articulate the collective local vision of the people, and if land use laws align with those ideas in ways that govern for health, safety, and general welfare. If what we invest in benefits everyone in a fair and equitable way. If our investments are valued enough by the marketplace to pay for themselves.

If our prime virtues are enabled locally: peace, order and good government in Canada; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the US. These age old values play a pivotal role in community-based placemaking across these two countries by providing insight on what matters here.

We’ve seen where misalignments between our aspirations and outcomes have created the need for climate action plans in the face of increasingly challenging states of emergency. We’ve felt the need for change in how we convene community to allow equity among voices. We’ve felt the heavy burden of land use laws that are out of step — by decades — with market realities.

We’ve also witnessed places capitalizing on the deep benefits of the human scale. And localities that are welcoming nature into cities in walkable urban formats. Learning to tell the stories that are resonant paradigm-shifters.

Image credit: David A. Garcia

“It’s that time of year again where we fetishize old timey, walkable neighborhoods while continuing to ban their existence.” ~David A. Garcia

Incremental wins in 2017 deserve significant gratitude. And provide aspirations for 2018.

2017 Climate Action Plan Wins

Cities have owned the process of localized climate action in 2017 by commitments to mitigation and adaptation. This month in Chicago, Mayors from the US, Canada and Mexico made commitments to fight together against climate change, signing the Chicago Climate Charter. Many of those mayors also belong to the C40 Cities, representing a quarter of the global economy, and working together to address climate change. Gatherings like the CNU Climate Summit are providing connections for working across silos.

2018 Climate Action Plan Hopes

The next essential step in local climate action plans is to ensure land use impacts are properly understood and speedy change makers enabled. Tools that should be in every 2018 climate action plan include: the Consortium for Scenario Planning via Lincoln Institute and SPAN, Walk Score, Bike Score, Transit Score, the H+T Index and ALLTransit via Center for Neighborhood Technology, and/or Urban Footprint via Calthorpe Analytics.

Many feel it’s too late for mitigation alone and we must also work to adapt to climate change. Mitigation must include steps to reduce transportation emissions by retooling business as usual and enabling walkable, bikeable, transit-served urbanism. Adaptation must lean on nature, with parks, plazas, squares, and streets that perform double duty in storm events. The days of the retention pond behind the chain link fence and millions driving alone in private cars are over.

2017 Sharing Economy Wins

2017 saw the sharing economy take a deeper hold on our lifestyles across more cities, with bikeshare, carshare, rideshare (Uber, Lyft), and houseshare (AirBNB, VRBO) reducing our dependence on the car across the continent. At the same time, transit has strengthened with local investments in bus rapid transit and light rail.

2018 Sharing Economy Hopes

Our hope for 2018 is that towns look to Lean Urbanism interventions to increase livability, like the Lean Code Tool and dockless bikeshares.

And that more master plans double as business plans, fully appraised of market realities with tools in place to help second tier cities compete.

2017 Land Use Wins

Over 650 units of government have form-based codes underway to enable livability as a right, with some of those units being at the national scale. Many more have taken smaller steps toward enabling walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly places, through land use amendments that may be as short as two sentences to enable more “people streets” to balance out the over abundance of “car streets” in North America.

These character-based codes of the new economy also make updates to historic structures more feasible, as our century buildings are no longer “legal non-compliant.” A collective sigh of relief went through the US redevelopment community this week, as the historic rehabilitation tax credit, the New Markets tax credit, and select bond financing tax breaks all survived the tax reform bill likely to pass this week.

However, since these incentives will be spread over five years instead of one, their effectiveness lessens. Properties purchased before year end still qualify for the one year version, so your gift list may need to change for that special urbanist in your life.

2018 Land Use Hopes

Despite recent adoptions of upgraded land use laws that enable livability, most of North American is governed by zoning codes that create car-centric patterns, not the growing market preference for walkable urban places.

In older neighbourhoods like the one where I live, redevelopment is a sore subject as our century homes are getting scraped for redevelopment without character-based land use laws to guide the shape of that new development. Missives of sorrow flow in for the old homes as they come down. And even those who carefully renovate often make fatal flaws, forward-facing garages protruding past the front of the house.

Thanks for Your Work

Fellow architects, planners, engineers, artists, and economists are sharing their knowledge on how to make expeditious change in the face of the obesity crisis, challenges of an aging population, global warming, and peaking oil. Events, webinars, and books by urbanist leaders put forward many ways to connect the dots.

Placemaking still has much heavy lifting to do to build resilient places that live lightly on the land, with strong, equitable, caring communities. We also have much more that deserves gratitude than this short list. Thank you for all you do to build strong communities. Happy holidays and all the best in 2018.

–Hazel Borys

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