Friday, March 6, 2009

Tales of a City Planner

With the decline of the print newspapers, many have bemoaned the loss of good journalism. Some within the blogging community believe that bloggers can take the place of newspapers and present multiple angles of stories. Critics of that ideology believe that all bloggers do is re-post the work of real journalists and then give their opinions.

Ouch. While half of this blog is made up of a collection of art, video clips, vignettes and yes even some original thought, the other half is dedicated to my opinion as a city planner on news that affects the urban environments.

So I've decided to take it one step farther. Many of my opinions on news articles are based on my professional experiences of being city planner, so why not write about that and share them amongst other planners, future planners, architects, engineers, community activists and anyone else interested in the urban environment. Many people have asked what do I do as a community planner, well this post be the first of many about the day to day functions of city planning.

Tales of a City Planner (Part 1)
Beware of those overly nice to you before a meeting

This week I was invited to give a presentation about local area development at a residents' association meeting for a senior living facility. I rarely have contact with senior living facilities but this particular facility was very well-to-do and is located in the town's cental core. The topic of my presentation was on the recent rise of development within the town, most of which was happening less then a block away from the senior living facility.

Before the presentation, the residents' association had invited me to dinner at their facility two hours prior to the presentation. As I ate dinner (which is a rarity, most of the time at night community meetings I leave straight from work and sit in meetings starving...on top of that, this meal was free!) in the very formal dining hall, I chatted with board members about their past lives, their lives at the facility (the place was top notch) and eventually about nearby development. As the board members asked questions about development, I gave them full explanations of the process and seemed to have alleviated at least some of their concerns. If this was an indication of the type of questions I was going to receive at the presentation, this will be an easy meeting I thought.

Fast forward to the presentation. I purposefully dumbed down my powerpoint presentation because I did not want to lose any seniors on the long, arduous, complicated matters of development and redevelopment. No offense to the seniors, but explaining our 400 page zoning code and it's procedures of development can confuse anyone and also put them to sleep as well. So I breeze through my presentation showing the residents all the proposed images of projects still in construction as well as projects still in the developmental phase. I was a little worried because I went through the presentation a little too fast. Most of the time at other community meetings I'm interrupted by questions though the middle of the presentation. So as I finish my presentation and still have over 40 minutes to kill, I turn it over to questions from the audience.

And this is where the fun begins. Sometimes when a group of people have not had a chance to talk to anyone from government about their issues in a while they have a tendency to unload on first available official they see. I was that official. To sum up all the questions and comments raised over the next hour, the seniors were most upset that a.) the town is difficult for them to walk and b.) all the new development will make traffic worse. All very legitimate questions and comments...for the first five times they asked the same variated question.

Part of the reason the seniors kept asking the same questions is because frankly did not like my answers. The answers I gave the crowd were that many of the new developments under construction had employed walkability measures that my office and the community had developed to make a more liveable and active town. The new developments were built closer to the street and have reduced parking counts to encourage new residents to walk to nearby stores and offices. The seniors weren't hearing that. They believed that no one would walk anywhere despite everything a new resident would need is within blocks of their new apartment building. The problem with the seniors thinking is that since they have trouble moving around, they assumed everyone else would as well. My suggestion that new residents would walk from their building to the super market across the street brought guffaws from the crowd.

The question of the night came from a somewhat bitter senior who pointedly asked, "how did you get here tonight, did you walk or drive?"


Now my office is probably 8 blocks away from the senior living facility. I have walked many times from office to the restaurants across the street from the senior living facility on my lunch break dozens of times. That night I was carrying a laptop and folder full of papers and it was cold. So I drove. But if I were to ask what percentage of them walk outside the building at all, I would have been the bad guy (most confessed privately that they get bussed to the market across the street). At times I did feel like the bad guy, after the tenth variation of the same question you get a little testy. Answers to questions went from, "As I had previously mentioned..." to "Like I had told you guys before..." When you get to that point, you know you're meeting with seniors had not gone as planned.

This is when you have to realize, you can not take their comments personal. Not that I was taking offense to their comments but sometimes as an official for government, you have to become the whupping boy for all of government's failings that may or may not have anything to do with you or your office. I realized that after the third or fourth time I offered to make another presenation with local community associations to show how we are addressing their concerns, to only have that offer fall on deaf ears. That's when I realized that they came to the meeting to gripe...and that's ok. Everyone needs to gripe once and awhile as long as it does not become a habit because griping with inaction is not productive.

The meeting finally came to a close. One of the residents' association members came to me and said, for all their complaints, they were all engaged and were discussing issues even after the meeting was over, which never happens according to the association member. And that my friends was the positive of the meeting. One of the biggest hurdles planners' face in dealing with the public, is the public's lack of knowledge or awareness of the planning process. Some communities are better then others in their knowledge of the development process but it is always important to keep everyone connected and informed. How the community interprets the information is another issue. But if you want a healthy planning process the community must have the facts, for better or for worse. If not, the community will have an us vs them mentality which can be difficult to overcome and will always slow down progress.

Whew. This is my first post on the tales of being a community planner. For those in planning, I hope you enjoyed and had a good laugh and for those curious about planning I hope you were able to learn something or see how the planning process works. If anyone has any questions, comments, similar tales or suggestions, I would love to hear them, so please leave a comment.

Thanks for reading!

No comments: