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

by robin | 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 | 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 | 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 Strongtowns.org, 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.)

Housing is … the keystone of community development

by robin | Dec 28th, 2017 | Leave a comment

Housing is the backbone of a community and the keystone of community development. So begins the summary of the first section (Housing) of the 2017 report of the Governor’s Millennial Advisory Council.

As stated in the report’s Overview,

The Governor’s Millennial Advisory Council was created by Governor Sununu’s Executive Order 2017-07. The Council is charged with providing the Governor with recommendations, insight, suggestions, and feedback on matters of State policy that directly impact the attraction and retention of young workers.

The Council divided itself into four sub-committees, each looking at a specific area of policy, including workforce development, the environment, transportation and more, including housing.

At Plan NH, we are particularly interested in housing.   Where we live drives who our friends are, our schedules (eg, school, jobs, getting to the store or healthcare), our personal finances and yes, even our physical and mental health.  Housing is critical to the health and well-being not only of the individuals who live in a town or neighborhood, but, as noted in the opening quote above, to the well-being of the community itself.

And, as the report underscores, without choices in decent, affordable places to live, it is difficult to attract workers to fill the myriad job openings we now have in the state and to grow our economic base in the years to come.

High quality of life, like that of New Hampshire, is increasingly important to economic development, with millennials increasingly selecting a place to live before choosing employment. This shift presents a great opportunity and creates a demand for housing as the State seeks to attract and retain millennials. For young people, housing availability is often the initial barrier of entry to live, work, and thrive in New Hampshire.

Decent, affordable places to live are hard to come by right now, especially in active, walkable communities.   Millennials want to live there – as do Boomers who want to downsize.  Desire drives demand which drives up prices and reduces availability.

To simply build new homes – of diverse design, location and price-point – is not as easy as it sounds.

What can we do – as communities, as a state?  The report includes several policy and other recommendations.

At Plan NH, we do not have the answer, or even an answer.  But what we can do is raise awareness that this is a serious issue that we all need to work together on to address.

Mixed use development – not just for big cities anymore

by robin | Sep 18th, 2017 | Leave a comment

by Robert Duval, President, TF Moran.

One significant trend in land development projects these days is towards “mixed-use development”, that is, an integrated mixture of residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, or industrial uses in close proximity. Recently seen primarily in large urban centers, the concept of mixed-use development is now moving into smaller cities and towns across New England.

The advantages of integrated development can be substantial. Among other benefits, traffic volumes, parking needs, and stormwater flows can all be reduced by taking advantage of the interaction between related uses. For example, apartments and offices located in close proximity will tend to reduce vehicle trips because some tenants will be employees of the office; thus, some of the vehicle trips usually expected become pedestrian trips. Likewise, parking inventory can also be reduced through shared parking. Using the same example, peak apartment parking demand falls outside of regular business hours, thus fewer total spaces can be provided for the same amount of development.

Also, where multiple properties can be combined into a single development, greater land use density can be achieved by avoiding internal lot line setbacks. This results in more efficient parking layouts and elimination of unnecessary pavement, further reducing needed land area, construction costs, and the burden of excess runoff on stormwater infrastructure.

Landscape Architecture plays a significant role in making mixed-use development work. First of all, each building must be placed so that it allows convenient, safe, and attractive pedestrian connections between all other major uses. It is generally taken that “walking distance” in New England is approximately 1400 feet or about a 7 minute walk. This is largely dependent on establishing a clear, direct path and an attractive walking environment. Of course, the concept of mixed-use development is not new – many of us remember when it was simply called “downtown”.

Today, more community planners understand the benefits of mixed-use development and revitalizing city centers, particularly older, under-utilized manufacturing or commercial areas. As more communities embrace mixed-use development in their zoning codes, we can expect this healthy trend to accelerate, returning a large measure of prosperity and vibrancy to New England cities and towns.

Where we live

by robin | May 22nd, 2017 | Leave a comment

Where we live – and how our home is designed, including layout and quality of materials impacts out health and well-being.

Most of us take it for granted that our homes are safe and healthy havens at the end of a day.  But for many, it is not so simple.  We may be able to afford the space, but getting to work is expensive, and our stress levels rise.   We may live in the home we have lived in for many years, but now we find stairs difficult, if not impossible.

We just heard a short story from a pediatrician:  she was treating a young girl who had asthma.  They thought it had cleared up, but suddenly it returned with a vengeance. As you probably know, asthma is not just a “breathing problem,” but is extremely serious.  This young girl was in a grim situation. What had changed?  Turns out, they had gotten a cat. Why? there were mice in the bed.  We can imagine the quality of the home they were living in.  She said, “I consider a safe, affordable and decent home a vaccine.”

Our communities as a whole are not healthy if parts of it are not, especially our homes.  What challenges are some of your community members facing regarding where they  live, and what can you, as a community, do to overcome them?

 

A share of the stake

by robin | Jan 03rd, 2017 | Leave a comment

a blog by John Lavey at Community Builders,  “reprinted” with permission.   An interesting look at our use of the word “stakeholders” when we discuss community planning and development,   John has determined another term that, he believes, captures a truer essence of who those folks are …    Go here for full text

Revitalizing New England’s strip development

by robin | Dec 08th, 2016 | Leave a comment

 

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by guest Bill Flynn, Arnett Development Group (ADG) This first appeared in the December

New England consists mainly of a vast network of small rural towns connected by a web of two-lane state highways and back roads – a dispersed settlement pattern rooted deeply in an agricultural heritage. Historically, a town’s civic, cultural, and economic activities were concentrated in village centers, which in some cases, evolved into small downtown areas clustered around thriving factories and mills. It was a stable and for the most part, prosperous arrangement.

With the decline of New England’s textile industry along with rising energy and labor costs in the 1960s and 1970s, New England’s position as a major manufacturing and industrial center was undercut. By the end of the twentieth century, New England’s once bustling downtowns were deteriorating.

During the past few decades, we have made modest progress in stabilizing our failing downtowns, and now face a new challenge, the decline of the commercial strip, one of the culprits that helped contribute to the demise of downtowns, that is now itself threatened.  It is imperative that we look at restructuring the commercial strip in order to help stabilize and preserve the economic gains that have been made.

The Emergence of the Strip

While it can be argued that the emergence of strip development lead to the demise of downtowns, the root cause for the decline is a great deal more complicated. It takes a profound shift in social, cultural, and economic factors to change prevailing development patterns. This occurred following WWII, when the United States experienced a period of unprecedented prosperity. Programs like the federal home mortgage program and the development of the interstate highway system, helped stimulate a mass exodus from cities to surrounding suburbs. Congress also created massive subsidies for suburban commercial development by modifying the tax code, allowing owners to depreciate new commercial buildings in seven years, in place of the long-standing 40-year requirement. This coupled with cheap land prices stimulated a frenzy of development in suburbia. Towns quickly adopted zoning regulations, encouraging commercial development in a linear arrangement along major transportation corridors, thus giving rise to the “strip,” but ultimately harming downtowns.

Winds of Change 

Dominance of strip development began to erode in the late 1980s and 1990s with the development of suburban malls that thrived on the interstate system. Malls were able to accommodate nearly a hundred stores within a closed, climate-controlled environment. Growing environmental concerns and a subtle shift in lifestyle preferences have recently refocused attitudes toward suburban development. People are moving back to the cities, with urban gentrification bringing new life and economic vitality into exhausted city neighborhoods.

The Internet may be the biggest change that alters the development patterns of the 21st century. A recent survey of online shoppers reported that they now make 51% of their purchases online, up from 48% in 2015. Amazon’s e-commerce revenue rose 15.8% in the last 12 months alone, roughly the same as Walmart. However, Amazon posted $82.7 billion in sales, compared with $12.5 billion for Walmart, and that chasm keeps getting wider. Retail development, still a critical component of strip development, is undergoing  profound change.

Restructuring Versus Revitalizing
Revitalization efforts are slowly beginning to bring new life into many village centers and historic downtowns. Well-built abandoned mills and storefronts provide a viable framework to work with, which is not the case with the commercial strip. The challenge may not be the revitalization of the strip, but its complete restructuring. It will be up to local governments, property owners, and informed citizens to work together to redefine the role of the commercial corridor within their communities.

The Challenges

One of the first challenges to address is the linear arrangement of the commercial corridor. In many cases the corridor is relatively narrow, 200-400 feet in depth, with parcels encompassing one to ten acres, limiting configuration of new buildings. In order to break this mold, communities might consider adjacent land uses. This could offer opportunities to widen or entirely reconfigure the commercial corridor.

The character and quality of the building stock is the second challenge. Very few strip buildings inspire or stir nostalgic emotions, and were not built to last. The vast majority will need to come down, significantly impacting redevelopment costs.

Another challenge communities will face is the connectivity between the restructured strip and the rest of the community. Contemporary planning practices place a premium on walkability and intermodal connections. Maintaining sidewalks, bike trails, and shared-use paths connecting community social, civic, and recreational spaces will be vital.

The most important challenge may be igniting community leadership and nurturing effective partnerships between the local government, property owners, concerned citizens, and local businesses. Preserving downtowns, along with restructuring our strips, is key to saving New England’s economic future.

Plan NH Scholars Go Beyond the Classroom: “Where Are They Now?”

by Guest Blogger | Oct 14th, 2016 | Leave a comment

Written by Guest Blogger Caroline Corriveau, 2014 Plan NH scholarship recipient and current intern with Warrenstreet Architects in Concord. 

cc-tinyhouse-4Plan NH awarded me a remarkable scholarship in 2014 that allowed me the opportunity to complete a Master of Architecture Degree from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. As I graduated with my third degree, I simultaneously finished a 2-year internship at Harriman Architects + Engineers and began a new job as an Intern Architect at Warrenstreet Architects in Concord, NH. I am currently studying for the Architect Registration Exams and have knocked quite a few of my required Architectural Experience Program hours off the list.

But something else has got me very excited this year! In February I purchased a tandem-axel, gooseneck trailer. In April, I began constructing a mobile, timber frame tiny house by my design. A dream of mine since 2007, I finally designated the time to build my dream house with help from my partner, family, and several friends. cc-tiny-house-2We anticipate putting the finishing interior touches on this winter with a move-in date of April 1, 2017.

Living simply is not for everyone, yet it is also not something everyone needs overlook. With a growing society that does not ever seem to slow down, it will be refreshing to live in a small space with minimal belongings that will allow us more time for what is important in this life: relationships and experiences. Acclimating ourselves to the tiny house lifestyle will be our first – challenging but thrilling – experience! I look forward to spending more time with Plan NH after the build is completed!

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Thank you for sharing, Caroline!
Are you a scholarship student? Share your story! [email protected]

Learn more about the Plan NH Scholarship program HERE. The Plan NH Scholarship program is a partnership with the NH Charitable Foundation

The Role Natural Capital Plays in Keeping our Villages Vibrant

by Guest Blogger | Sep 26th, 2016 | Leave a comment

Written by Guest Blogger Shannon H. Rogers, Ph.D. Assistant Professor/Ecological Economist at Plymouth State University.

Harken back to your Economics 101 class and you may recall the concepts of built capital and financial capital as major pieces of the basic economic equation for producing goods and services.  Others may be familiar with human capital and even the concept of social capital (one of my favorites especially when looking at the connection between social capital and walkability –  but that may be another blog post!).  All of these types of capital are key to thriving communities across the Globe.   In this post, I’d like to discuss one type of capital that isn’t always considered but arguably provides many of the benefits we enjoy in New Hampshire’s vibrant villages—that is Natural Capital.

new-castle
New Castle

A quick definition of natural capital is:  the assets, such as ecosystems, that humans rely upon for many of our needs, including clean water, food, and carbon capture.   These assets provide a flow of goods and services for all of us called ecosystem services.

Many of us in the field of ecological economics study how we use and value our natural capital.  Ecological economics is still developing, but it has already shown its potential for helping us think about solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing society.  Have you ever come in from a wonderful day at the ocean or the lake or in the mountains and said, “wow, I really benefitted from New Hampshire’s natural capital today?”  If you haven’t, don’t worry, you are not alone. Natural capital is often hidden or taken for granted in the background, and because there haven’t been many ways to value it and incorporate it into decision making, it hasn’t always been considered in our decision making.

We are fortunate to be awash in natural capital here in New Hampshire, and it is arguably part of the New Hampshire advantage.  Some of us are studying how we use natural capital in the region and how we can better incorporate it into our environmental decision making.  My research group at Plymouth State University’s Center for the Environment has been looking at this very question in partnership with colleagues at UNH and Dartmouth with support from the National Science Foundation through New Hampshire’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NH EPSCoR).  One new study we just published looked at the value of conservation land in removing pollutants, such as Nitrogen, before it reaches the impaired Great Bay Estuary.  Yes, you read that correctly, our natural capital (that is forests and watersheds) can help remove some pollutants as part of natural ecosystem functions and may help us save some money compared to building up engineered methods for purifying water and other services.

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Mirror Lake

Flood mitigation is another benefit from natural capital we might have in our communities.  You may have heard of the valuable things wetlands can do for humans:  holding back floodwater is one of those.  For instance, a 1-acre wetland, 1-foot-deep can hold approximately 330,000 gallons of water (see Purdue Extension) and is often more cost effective than building a large flood control dam.  This is not to mention the habitat and water purification services wetlands also provide as well as the copious recreational benefits our natural landscapes can provide, something we would call co-benefits and have tried to understand in another, recent paper.

All of these services contribute to the vibrancy of our villages, so the next time you are thinking about a planning decision in one of our wonderful villages, I suggest taking a second to ask about the natural capital implications.  You’ll probably be happy you did –  because not only will you save money  but there likely will be many co-benefits for you and your fellow citizens to enjoy.   Let me know how it goes!

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Caution: Outrageous views in Gilmanton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All photos by S. Rogers.

Shannon H. Rogers, Ph.D
Assistant Professor/Ecological Economist
Center for the Environment
Plymouth State University
[email protected]

 

Thank you Shannon!

Have a blog You would like to share? Share it with us! [email protected]