When I was about five years old, I would sometimes like to lie on my back in the grass of my hometown of Kings Mountain, NC on a sunny day and watch the clouds slowly join, form shapes, slip apart and gently drift by. I enjoyed the quiet, comfortable spot from which I could think big thoughts, picture different scenes in a story and imagine far off lands like Hon-A-Lee. Sometimes, if I lay there long enough and allowed my eyes to un-focus, I'd develop a feeling of panic as I imagined gravity no longer held me to the ground and any second I would suddenly separate from my bed of warm grass and drift off into the clouds and space beyond. Only by refocusing my attention on a nearby tree or a friend was I able to avert disaster. I still get that feeling sometimes.
Imagining the future can be like that: easy and peaceful, full of blissful creativity at one moment, and leaving one perplexed and panic-stricken the next. It can mean confronting challenges and fears as much as it means picturing a halcyon future of rewards, efficiency and cooperation. In those days, I liked to imagine what I would become, what I would do and where I would go. I also imagined how, if possible, I would overcome my fears and ultimately conquer them.
Un-Focusing to See Better
Now I am doing that for neighborhoods, cities, counties and regions. Planning only really solves problems when it confronts fears and challenges through a process of imagining different future outcomes. By exploring possibilities and examining the issues that will influence change, we can free ourselves from convention, current rules and well-worn solutions. It really does begin with imagination, a working vision. It takes an open mind watching the shapes form, separate and drift by to see how trends or the actors in the story create opportunities or resolve conflicts. We like to talk about focusing on things in planning, such as understanding the data or pencilling out the details, but sometimes it takes un-focusing and looking at what the shapes form when you allow your mind to relax and drift as you imagine different solutions that could work. Like observing clouds, those solutions are rarely one-dimensional and require openness to imagining the possibilities rather than focusing on conventional responses or barriers.
Integrated Solutions Take Leadership
Imagining possibilities is the foundation of integrated planning. Integration is essentially the simultaneous examination of factors rather than the sequential; putting elements together to assess their dynamic influence on possible outcomes. Integration requires that we examine the ways cities work by moving beyond thought silos or conventional professional specialties to envision and craft solutions that will stand the tests of time and sabotage by opponents. Those kinds of solutions often depend on aligning strategies from different fields or disciplines to achieve a lasting legacy of remaking a neighborhood, district, city or region. Places like Charlotte, Portland, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City and many others have demonstrated the power of integrated planning and many other places of varying sizes and scales are learning from their examples. One lesson that becomes increasingly clear is the role of leadership from elected and appointed officials, citizens and policy experts to imagine and confront change in its various forms.
Cities That Work Blog
This blog will explore the imaginative and practical work of planning and community design within the context of integrated approaches. It will address the emerging issues, trends and new ideas that shape how we live, travel and experience place. We will feature various perspectives, opinions and analytical approaches reflecting the experience of different authors from our staff at Renaissance Planning Group. Our intent is to improve understanding and share knowledge about the profession from our observations and lessons learned putting together plans, facilitating change and conducting applied research for a wide range of regions and places.
We've chosen to launch this blog because there is a new era taking hold for planning and development nationwide. Our notion of community, what we seek from places, and how we interact with our environment is changing, largely in response to global and national effects that are increasingly felt in the pocketbook, in our health and in our sense of safety and security. Much like the American or European Renaissance, I believe our communities are entering a period of rebirth and renewal, and like the artists, scientists and inventors of the Renaissance, it takes truly integrated thinking to bring visions of a bold new future to reality. This new era is both exciting and challenging, and will be put to the test by fiscal realities, keepers of the status quo and professional specialization. We hope you will contribute to the conversation as we explore the shapes and solutions that can form while keeping ourselves grounded.