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Planning without the Growth Factor

As a child I watched my hometown of Raleigh, NC transform from a sleepy southern capital city to one of the fastest growing places in America. Constant development was a fact of life. My curiosity about the forces that shape cities grew with each new highway, housing development, shopping mall, and office building springing up from the Piedmont’s pine forests and tobacco fields. This curiosity led me to journalism and eventually planning. I suspect many planners have similar stories, but certainly not all. Some are from places like Flint, Michigan where my father grew up, or one of several other so-called “Rust Belt” communities large and small that are seeing little or no economic and population growth. These are places where terms like “smart growth” or “sustainability” take on different meanings. They are also places where the solutions are not as obvious as the problems.

Train Pulling into Williamson, WV

Recently our work has taken us to several of these places, including Uhrichsville, Ohio; Williamson, West Virginia; and Salamanca, New York. Each of those small cities has experienced a boom followed by a long economic plateau or decline. Uhrichsville once had more than 30 plants turning out clay sewer pipes, flues, and tiles while Salamanca was a booming railroad town. Today Uhrichsville has two plants and one of Salamanca’s rail depots is a museum while another stands eerily vacant. Back then elected officials and planners probably thought about how to build new infrastructure to accommodate population and economic growth. Those days are largely gone, but the infrastructure remains as a reminder of the past.

Image of downtown Salamanca, NY

Common Issues in Slow/No Growth Communities

Our experiences in these communities have revealed several common challenges that require flexible and creative approaches to planning. Some of the common obstacles are listed here. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list; each place faces other unique issues.

  • A major industry once drove the economy, but the industry is in decline or gone.
  • Housing supply exceeds demand, driving down prices and leading to high rates of vacancy.
  • Municipal planning staff is either too small or does not exist.
  • The mayor wears multiple hats including town manager, planner, code enforcement officer, and more – all while maintaining a full time career outside of government.
  • Residents are concerned about young people leaving and not returning to the community.
  • Municipal finances are stretched thin, leaving little capacity for new public investments.

Pot Luck Dinner at Community Meeting in Williamson, WV

Despite the daunting challenges, I find our work in these communities to be particularly rewarding and enjoyable. Unlike larger urban areas, it’s pretty easy to get nearly all of the key players in one room to discuss the community’s challenges and plan for the future. It’s hard to imagine grabbing a drink and shooting a late night round of pool with the mayor of Philadelphia, Atlanta, or Seattle, but it’s a common occurrence when working in small cities and towns. The residents are also friendly and eager to be involved in planning. I’ve never seen a larger turnout for a public meeting than the crowd that showed up in Williamson, WV; and many of them even brought a dish to share with their fellow citizens. Clearly one of the most important ingredients for problem solving – collaboration - is firmly in place.

Identifying and Building Upon Existing Assets

But viable solutions to their common problems are not as easy to identify. Planners have developed many well tested ideas about how to address the issues that come with urban growth and development. But I would argue

Residents of Uhrichsville, OH Identify Community Assets

that less attention has been paid to places that are economically contracting. Regardless of which strategies these communities choose to start improving livability, I think their existing assets must be part of the solution. These communities all have large sunk investments in their infrastructure. They also typically have “good bones,” or the elements of the public realm – wide sidewalks, street grid pattern, mature street trees, front porches, back alleys, and a mix of land use types in close proximity – that many suburban communities are now trying to replicate. These communities also tend to be unique, with a distinct look and feel that leaves visitors feeling like they have been someplace unlike any they have ever seen. Some of the communities we have worked with are tapping into their rich cultural heritage by supporting museums, festivals, parks, and markets that share this culture and attract visitors. Meanwhile, some cities and towns have started making far more difficult choices about providing services in some parts of the town while retreating from others.

As the many parts of the nation continue to struggle in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the time is right for planners to focus more energy on these communities. The American Planning Association has a Small Town and Rural Planning Division that is a good place to get started learning about promising ideas and strategies. While planning in slow or no growth areas may be unfamiliar for many of us, the rewards are just as great.

-- Mike Callahan, Cities that Work Blog

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