Urban planning lessons for the public


At some point, the local economy must be restarted and we are going to be faced with a choice as a nation.

We can attempt to resume our journey along the business-as-usual highway, or take a detour and chart a new course along the boulevard of new horizons.

Our decision makers will explicitly make that decision, but implicitly, so will our professionals through their advice, and the public through their demands and perceived desires.

We have two options:

The current development mantra that ignores the role of walking, bicycling, and mass transit in our transportation system; promotes anti-social community design; elevates suburban development above all else; relies on ill-conceived mega-projects for the provision of housing in generic “cut and paste communities,” and diminishes the economic benefits that derive from agglomeration economies, by continuing to spread the population out over the islands.

A new path forward that prioritises building upon the existing assets – the well-planned city centres and pre-automobile era neighbourhoods – that we have inherited; steering our development paradigm towards one based on lots of incremental changes as opposed to large scale mega-projects; and creating a more economically productive spatial distribution of the population.

While many of the intricate details required in undertaking this paradigm shift is in the hands of the relevant professionals, the public also has a role to play. A well-informed public that is aware of what we can and should be doing to improve our prospects as a country can be a powerful force for change.

Given that many of us may have a bit more free time these days, it is the ideal time to let something good come out of this societal shutdown. Take a break from Netflix, stop checking the number of global covid19 cases every 30 minutes, and take some time to prepare for the inevitable challenges that will arise when economic reality hits us like a high-speed train, possibly at the end of the month. Moreover, let us not forget that the existential threat of climate change did not disappear because of a virus.

In advocating for a more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable and resilient approach to development, I am sharing some free resources, in the hope that the discussion around these issues is elevated to a higher level of public consciousness.

Although this column has covered many of these topic areas, experiencing and learning through a visual medium can sometimes make all the difference in grasping new concepts and being able to see real examples of communities that are progressing.

Three leading urban planning organisations/movements continue to work on reaching out to not only planners, but also allied professionals, government officials, and the wider public. The goal being sensitised around key issues, and empowered with the knowledge necessary to face these head on.

The Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU), the Strong Towns Movement (STM), and Smart Growth America (SGA) are great sources of webinars, videos, case studies, and many other free resources that show how communities are transforming themselves through both government and citizen-led initiatives. Many of these resources are targeted towards not only a professional, but also a general audience. These are fun and inspirational lessons and ideas about what we can all do to spark change.

CNU is an organisation that has been leading the movement to return to the principles of traditional neighbourhood design. Once considered a fringe group of rebellious urban professionals, the American Planning Association has since created an entire division dedicated to the New Urbanism. On the CNU YouTube channel one can find informative videos that deal with urban planning topics such as the current pandemic; climate change; historic preservation; retrofitting existing suburban communities to make them more pedestrian friendly; and more.

STM was started by transportation engineer Charles Marohn. He popularised the idea that the suburban development pattern of low-density development, high infrastructure requirements, and large-scale projects built all at once, is akin to a Ponzi scheme – in which the money needed to maintain the infrastructure in these places cannot be recuperated through the taxes that they generate. Their YouTube channel contains videos that deal with topics such as the financial productivity (tax revenue generation) of different land development patterns; local food provision; and the Land Value Tax as a way to control speculative land buying and soaring land prices.

SGA has changed the discussion around the intersection of urban planning and sustainable transportation. Some of the great videos that you can check out on their YouTube channel revolve around topics like induced demand, that is, how building more roads and adding lanes ultimately only increases traffic congestion; alternative approaches to dealing with car parking management; and designing pedestrian, bicycle, and transit-friendly streets.

Take a dive into the ocean of possibilities, and experience where progressive urban planning can lead us. I hope that we will emerge motivated and armed with knowledge.

Ryan Darmanie is a professional urban planning and design consultant, and an avid observer of people, their habitat, and the resulting socio-economic and political dynamics. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or email him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com


"Urban planning lessons for the public"

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