Some 1,100 planners, elected officials and others braved winter weather across the country and gathered in Denver this week for the 13th annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference. The first two days included sessions on topics that the Lincoln Institute has been immersed in of late: Legacy Cities and zombie subdivisions. The use of technology in planning and citizen engagement was a highlight as well.
Alan Mallach, co-author with Lavea Brachman of the Policy Focus Report Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, presented on the challenges facing Baltimore, Camden, Flint, Detroit, and Youngstown, among many other urban areas once referred to as “shrinking cities,” due to massive population loss accompanying disappearing manufacturing base. Amid the many grim scenarios and vast acres of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, Mallach said, there are almost as many success stories. He singled out the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati and Washington Avenue in St. Louis, where historic garment district buildings have been renovated and re-used, and underscored the importance of making the most of existing urban fabric in downtowns. So-called “eds and meds” – colleges and medical centers – continue to be vital economic engines and job providers in many Legacy Cities, he said. The critical question is whether all residents can share in economic regeneration, beyond neighborhoods that are improving or gentrifying. A roundtable on Legacy Cities with a number of presented and former mayors is planned for May at the Lincoln Institute.
Jim Holway, lead author of Arrested Developments: Combating Zombie Subdivisions and Other Excess Entitlements, led a workshop detailing the different methods communities can use to reconfigure vast acres of incomplete – and in many cases, largely empty -- residential developments. The session, which included co-authors Anna Trentadue, program director of Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, and Don Elliot, Denver-based director of Clarion Associates, focused on strategies to reconfigure zombie subdivisions and prevent the phenomenon from occurring so intensely in the future. In trying to “kill, prevent or reincarnate” these subdivisions, local planners can reconfigure, replat, and even vacate subdivisions, and in the future put time limits on development agreements, require realistic market feasibility studies, infrastructure up front, and building in phases. Communities faced with extensive tracts of land where there are empty streets and vacant lots – 12 to 66 percent of all lots in eight states in the Intermountain West, the report found – are concerned that “this is going to happen again,” said Linda Dannenberger, planning director for Mesa County, Colorado. The temptation for quick profits, seen in the run-up to the 2008 housing bust, “is just human nature,” she said.
Another big event at New Partners was the announcement of winners of the inaugural Innovation Awards put on by the Open Planning Tools Group, the network of innovators originally convened by the Lincoln Institute in association with the publication of the report, Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools. The awards, designed as a way to recognize significant contributions in planning tools technology, went to Forest Planner by Ecotrust, where forest managers can map properties, prepare forest management scenarios, and evaluate the results based on key indicators of forest production and health. Forest Planner connects science to decision-making using a system developed in collaboration with Oregon State University Extension foresters. Previously, analytics of this type were available only through the use of expensive and complicated software. Forest Planner’s web-based interface makes complex data accessible to land owners and other decision-makers. Using open source software further opens up the access to this tool to new audiences, brings together years of forest and conservation modeling with tool development in the open source Madrona framework.
The other winner was the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’sMassachusetts Priority Mapping Protocol, which creates a framework for using civic engagement and data-driven technology to identify priority areas for housing and economic development in Massachusetts. It exemplifies the Open Planning Tool Group’s linked goals of advancing the use of open access and open source tools to improve planning decisions through engagement with the public, providing improved analytics and information to decision makers, and supporting the use of scenario planning practices in policy development. In the two projects where it has been used, 80 public meetings allowed participants learn about the complex factors that shape their community, and more importantly to share information with and learn from each other.. The innovative use of geospatial tools like Community Viz allowed technical staff to gather public feedback that provides significantly more precise, and thus useful, guidance for future policy decisions. The Priority Mapping Protocol was implemented in collaboration with the State’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and the South East Regional Planning and Economic Development District; the tools developed to support the protocol are available to any region in Massachusetts and include a library of supporting data and guidance for the inclusion of locally sourced information.