Assets to foster and strengthen – Number One: Physical Design and Walkability

by Robin LeBlanc | Mar 13th, 2018 | Leave a comment

Last fall, at our conference on The Role of Community Design in Supporting Economic Development, Shanna Draheim from the Michigan Municipal League spoke to us about the eight asset areas “that Michigan’s communities need to grow and strengthen,  [and] for our state to sustain and prosper in coming years.”  These apply to New Hampshire as well.

The first is “physical design and walkability.”

As we heard on March 6 from Brent Toderian, good design, especially dense, or compact design, creates value.  Not just economic value, but social value and environmental.   But how does that happen?

This is a complex issue, but one that just about any community of any size can think about.  Let’s start here:

All but a few of our 200+ cities and towns and villages in New Hampshire have some kind of town center.   Some still have (most of) the basics:  town hall, library, school, post office.   Some may have a general store, or place to get coffee.   Some may have a park. Some town centers include places to live.

So think of your town center as a place.

According to Project for Public Spaces:

Great public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, and cultures mix … When these spaces work well, they serve as the stage for our public lives. (from What makes a successful place?)

And, again according to PPS, there are four components to great places:

  • They are physically and visually accessible
  • There are different activities going on among people of all ages and genders
  • Is it comfortable? (don’t underestimate the importance of places to sit)
  • Is it a place to be sociable?

With this, of course, is the notion of walkability  (and we take a stand here to include  people in wheelchairs and the visually- or cognitively-impaired).  People of all ages want to be in places that are walkable (Jeff Speck:  walkability is safe, convenient, interesting and useful) – especially to live.  And data shows that walkable communities tend to be stronger economically as well as socially.

If you are thinking about the future of your community, a place to start might be your town center.  Is it a great place?  Is it walkable?  It won’t happen overnight, but even smaller towns or villages can get to “yes” – when there is, as Toderian said, the “vision, will, skill and follow-through.”

Brent Toderian on “Density Done Well”

by Robin LeBlanc | Mar 13th, 2018 | Leave a comment

On Tuesday, March 6, Brent Toderian, former city planner for Vancouver and now independent planning consultant to communities of all sizes around the world, spoke at Red River Theatres to an audience of about 100 planners, architects, landscape architects and others from across the state about density.  The event was presented by PS21 of Portsmouth, and funded in large part by New Hampshire Housing (and others).  Plan NH was a partner.
When done well, density is a great tool for addressing myriad challenges, including creating affordable places to live, fluctuating energy costs, climate change and its consequences, the aging/changing population, public health, and in many places, a loss of community identity.
Toderian used a multitude of images from around the world, including Portsmouth (where he had spent the day before), to illustrate some of his ideas.  As he himself admitted, it was like a “fire hose” of information.
At its heart, density starts with the alignment of land use and mobility: how is the land to be used, and how do people move in, around, and out of it?  Toderian prioritizes people on foot (and we at Plan NH add people in wheelchairs to this top priority), then people on bicycles, then public transportation, then goods, and then cars.  If the land use emphases “nearness” – that things we need are nearby, it is easier to walk. It is critical that these two concepts be developed together for a given project – or community planning in general.
In addition, density done well includes good design, both architectural and of the space itself – the “public realm” – what does it look like at eye-level?  Is it interesting (eg, a mix of things), comfortable (trees?)?  Is it easy to get about?
Finally, density done well includes amenities and a diversity of uses and designs (different, but compatible)  – places to live, green spaces, services and more.
Todearian’s talk the evening before in Portsmouth (which was very similar) will be posted on PS21’s website soon.  We encourage you to take the time to view it.
This article first appeared in Plan NH’s March 7 2018 newsletter.

Who is right? Are “they” wrong?

by Robin LeBlanc | Mar 13th, 2018 | Leave a comment

Whether at the national level or local, whether in a public forum or around a kitchen table, the art of dialog – of discussion and listening to and exploring differing viewpoints –  has all but disappeared.  Instead, more often than not  we have one person, or one side who is “right”, and the others are “wrong.”

We all are guilty of that at one time or another. “Once they see this,” we say.  “Once we get them to understand that,” we are certain, “then they will see that we are right.”   And that they are wrong.  Or, at least, they have no reason to not agree with us.

To many, we are wrong.  “How can you even think that?” they say of us.  And then, in this new world, they commence to dismiss whatever it is we are thinking.

And we do the same to them.

In some life work I did some years ago, one of the first things we learned was how we, as human beings, often make others wrong so that we are right – in ideas, in relationships, in lots of aspects of our lives.

And yet, really, who are we to say what’s right and what is not?  Sure, there are some things that are clearly not wrong, that we can all agree on.  Like clean air and clean water.  And that we shouldn’t kill other people (and even that is up for debate again).

But beyond that, what is “right” to me, and what is “right” to you really depends on where we are coming from – the myriad experiences and learnings and encounters that make up who we are and our points of view.  Having a different way of interpreting something, or thinking about something, does not necessarily make me wrong.  It just makes me different from you.

David Herriges, at the end of his “Calming the Waters,” which just appeared in, said this (about differences of opinion in a paricular issue of community planning):

Far too many of us listen to people looking for where they’re wrong … At our worst, we’re hoping to score points rather than engage with what we might learn from what they’re saying.
Instead, when you listen to someone you disagree with (especially someone you disagree with), listen for where they’re right. Everyone is right about something. Everyone believes what they believe because of something in their own experience, some basic truth that motivates his or her world view. Find that person’s ground truth. 
You can learn something from everyone who cares about your [community].
Town meetings are coming up (the purest form of democracy, some say).  What if you, if you attend town meeting, went in being mindful of this notion that everyone has a basic truth? You may not agree with some of what you hear, but if you could identify and acknowledge that truth of those naysayers (or the ones YOU are saying “nay” to) – what could YOU make happen?
( This was first published on March 2 by Plan NH.)