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Theory and Practice

So What's the Big Deal?

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So What's the Big Deal?

Walkability Audit, Highland Park, Randolph County WV Not long ago a reporter called me.  She had gotten word at some conference that interesting things were happening in Randolph County, West Virginia.  She heard that the Randolph County Housing Authority staff had received HUD community challenge grants and were using these and other matching funds to embark on a variety of sustainability and livability initiatives.  They had conducted a transit study, a housing study, and some neighborhood mobility studies; studies I had worked on and thus her call to me.  Still, she asked, what's so special or different about this place. It was a logical "so what" reporter question.

"Where do you live?" I inquired. "Los Angeles." "Have you ever been to West Virginia?" "Sorry, no," she replied.

Ah, where to begin?  She sorely needed some context.  Rural Randolph County is in the heart of the Allegheny highlands, a 1000 sq mile county, with 28,000 people - 8000 of which live in the City of Elkins.  It is rural, and not near any major metropolitan area.  It faces many challenges that other Appalachian communities do, poverty, lack of economic opportunities.  Many industries are natural resource based, wood, coal, agriculture, tourism and recreation.  Like many Appalachian communities, the people are resilient, proud, hard-working and possess a hearty I-can-do-this individualism.  Survivability is a more common theme than sustainability.

Where Seldom is Heard

From a planning perspective the county is still somewhat like the wild west.  A comprehensive plan was attempted a few years back, but the process was aborted due to some outspoken local opposition.  Zoning exists in the city, not the county.  There are no planners on staff, only code officials, assessors and administrators.  The efforts to put Randolph on a path to sustainability (view the Vimeo video below for their own words), I argued, is in itself a remarkable 'so what' difference.  They are operating in an environment that is traditionally hostile to planning and so far have had positive results, and that itself should partly answer her  so what  question. But there is more.

They are thinking about the aging population, about housing needs, about how people will get around, and whether can they walk, ride bike or take transit.  Is housing where it needs to be?  Is it near services, work and amenities.  Are neighborhoods accessible to destinations? Is the housing stock diverse enough to allow for youth to stay, for older people to live, for employees of potential companies to find housing?  They are thinking about the land use, housing and transportation systems and framework. They are talking with people in the community.   They are doing all this, and have the general support of local elected officials, and have generated much enthusiasm.

Good Article, But Here's My Take

In my estimation she did a good job with her article. She did her homework.  She found a hook, namely the Silver Tsunami (link to article) aspect of how they are wrestling with plans to cope for a fast aging population.  The article is informative.  The video (below) produced by AmeriCorps volunteer with RCHA, is the story in their own words, and worth the view.  But my personal take away from this effort is that the RCHA staff  are taking initiative. They are making a lot happen with little, and are embracing a holistic approach to sustainability that looks beyond just housing availability and affordability. They are working nimbly and humbly and are managing to move things forward for Randolph County, and are taking a long-term view of both issues and solutions. They are thinking in a proactive and integrated fashion, and that for me is the "big deal" answer here.

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Creating a Culture of Bicycle Transportation

cyclist in bike lane When I want to get from A to B by bike, I try to find routes where I can reach my destination most efficiently and comfortably. Living in Central Florida, which is mostly pancake-flat, I don’t have to worry about hills. I want a direct route that has minimal conflicts (with pedestrians, other bicyclists, debris, roadkill, what have you) and the ability to maintain a good pace. Off-road trails offer mobility, but they often lack access to destinations and feature hazards of their own, like dogs on long leashes or groups of slow-moving walkers. So I take the streets, often busy with commuters, delivery trucks and distracted drivers.

Creating a culture of on-street bicycle riding takes time and education, but it does not have to take a lot of money. Well-designed bicycle networks provide economic value for the same reason highways and rail lines do: they improve access and mobility. When integrated into a comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan, the two elements of access and mobility have the greatest power of improving the culture of bicycling as transportation, and defining a positive brand identity for a region, community or neighborhood, generating economic returns in several ways.

Street from cyclist's point of view

Different types of bicyclists clearly need different strategies to account for varying levels of experience and comfort. Destination-oriented cyclists benefit from a direct, well-defined routing plan that offers good flow and reduced conflicts. Most cities and urban areas have the basics for such a network already in place using existing streets. Lower speed streets (

Which Bike Facilities?

The knee-jerk response of many agencies is to add bike lanes or other expensive retrofits for separated on-street facilities. They are often poorly designed to reduce costs.

Even when properly designed, that approach results in a patchwork of roads with bike lanes and no real continuity of network for most communities.

What's needed is a coordinated strategy creating a lower cost shared network to make cycling more accepted and inviting. By using streets that best exhibit a few key traits, a plan for shared streets serves motorists and bicyclists equitably, offering both mobility and accessibility. Using shared lane pavement markings (“sharrows") and clear signage does not require right-of-way, offering a more cost-effective and publicly-accepted way of building a network providing mobility and accessibility, generating greater demand. It can have the added benefit of slowing down motorized traffic in appropriate locations, and there is evidence that bicyclists spend more money than auto drivers.

Six Key Considerations

bad bike lane

Selecting the right streets to place bicycling on a more equitable level as cars can have profound effects on personal mobility and economic development. There are six considerations to creating a preferential on-road network offering shared space for bicycle- and car-drivers:

  1. Continuous Traffic Flow. A network of well-spaced collector or minor arterial streets with few stop signs or signals that traverse a city or neighborhood is good for motorists as well as bicyclists. It serves as the backbone of a good bicycling community. A smooth asphalt, non-brick, surface is important. Too many stops at signs or signals disrupts the flow and introduces safety issues for cyclists. These are the bikeways or bike boulevards that link different parts of a community together east to west, north to south.
  2. A Connected Network. Cyclists don't mind riding 1/2 mile or so out of direction to traverse a network of streets offering good flow and fewer conflicts. Stitching this network of different types of streets with distinctive signage, pavement markings, banners and clear maps further reinforces the emphasis on primary routes where cyclists are invited and should be expected.
  3. Capacity Availability. Very experienced cyclists will ride in heavy traffic, but it's intimidating for others. There are many 2- and 4-lane roads operating well below capacity much of the day, making it easy for motorists to safely pass cyclists controlling the lane.
  4. Acceptable Speed Differential. As traffic speeds rise, the need for designated bike lanes or paths increases. Roads with operating speeds of 25 to 35 mph create a more comfortable environment for bicyclists averaging between 10-20 miles per hour without the need for physical separation. Shared lane markings and the presence of bicyclists using the lane can help keep traffic at the desired target speed.
  5. may use full lane signEducation. Many motorists don't get that sharing the road means one at a time, not riding side-by-side. Similarly, many cyclists do not follow the laws of the road. Using sharrows and adding signage reinforces a message that bicyclists belong and where they should ride in the lane. This must be augmented by educational messages and specific training for law enforcement, cyclists and motorists.
  6. Enforcement. Laws vary state to state, but roads with travel lanes less than 14' wide are not suitable for side-by-side sharing. Police play an important role in educational and enforcement efforts so that both car drivers and bicycle drivers operate safely and with respect for each other. It’s critical to get law enforcement on board for an on-street cycling strategy.

Taking those steps to build a citywide network one street at a time will prove effective at both attracting riders and sustaining economic vitality for a more mobile and accessible community.


Confronting Change Through Imagination


Confronting Change Through Imagination


clouds 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.

Sanford, FL diagram

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.