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Smaller Can Be Better – Smart Growth’s Other Half – Smart Decline

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


To put it mildly for there to be winners in America there have to be losers.  For some cities to have rapid growth, growth that is almost too quick, there are cities that have rapid decline.  Many cities within the Rust Belt have been experiencing steady decline for more than 20 years.  Cities like Youngstown, Flint, Rochester, and even Richmond have been exploring the notion that they will not be growing over the foreseeable future.

I had the pleasure of virtually sitting in on an open discussion with Rutgers Bloustein School professor Frank Popper as he discussed Smart Decline, a term he and his wife coined in an article in Planning Magazine in 2002.  Smart Decline is still a new theory but it is beginning to pick up traction as some cities and regions realize they cannot continue to spend tax payer money and go into debt to promote growth and have been experiencing declining populations.

Derived from a German model of city management for dealing with the poorer more run down cities of the former Easter Bloc, Smart Decline deals with steps, both financial and physical, to deal with shrinking populations and tax bases.  Many cities first try to reinvent themselves to become more competitive in the knowledge economy.  But as mentioned in my post on Form Based Code, the knowledge economy will more than likely go where places are loved and beautiful.  Unfortunately, it is looked on as admitting defeat if a city does not reinvent itself and looks to contracting its services and control but planning on decline and meeting it head on is brave and should be applauded.

Smart Decline can take three different forms, Rural, Suburban, and Urban.  Rural Smart Decline can be seen by a return to either a natural state of land or a return to agriculture and livestock, especially native species.  Agriculture still provides some jobs and a small tax base but utilizes nearly no services.

Urban Smart Decline is evident in places like Flint, Michigan which was planning on growing to 350,000 in 1965, but topped out at almost 200,000, and now sits at 112,000, down 9% from the 2000 census.  In a city which has seen double digit decline for the past 40 years the city actually decided to help speed up the decline and get to a sustainable population.  A new Michigan Law permits the counties and cities to take over abandoned, foreclosed, and delinquent properties.  Flint’s solution is to concentrate any growth in a few neighborhoods and city centers and demolish and clear the properties in declining neighborhoods.  It is a tough pill to swallow, as these vacant homes get converted into greenspace and turned over to the local conservation land bank, but the city can save thousands of dollars a lot on garbage pick up and code enforcement.

The Suburban model, which hasn’t been identified in practice yet, is one of the toughest to implement.  The very nature of suburban sprawl has led most suburban cities and towns to rely on automobiles and when a place lacks a center but has decline everywhere where to you circle the wagons?  This is something I’m going to have to contemplate on more, and if an example of a place that could use Smart Decline Planning emerges or a government starts to take certain steps I will be glad to pass it on.

Ultimately the idea behind Smart Decline is finding the happy break even point for cities that have experienced decline.  Once that fiscally sustainable point is met a city can concentrate on where to go from there, but not until the bleeding has stopped, both fiscally and population.  A city should also be quick to realize they are in decline or at least a holding pattern, but they shouldn’t rely on census data for that.  Since the full count census only comes out every ten years decline could have been happening for five or more years prior.  This is where planners and city officials that have a good measure on the pulse of their communities will be able to see the first signs of decline.  From an increase in foreclosures, rental vacancies, and derelict properties a city should begin to do strategic planning for the health of the city.  If a city plans for the worst, but the decline doesn’t come as expected no one is worse off, better safe than sorry.  I believe Smart Decline is the marriage of proper strategic, contingency, and fiscal planning on the part of the community leaders and specific implementation tools and goals by planning departments.

As the United States continues into 2010 with a lingering recession many cities will either see decline increase or begin.  Cities such as Rochester, Buffalo, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Detroit should carefully consider Smart Decline for the immediate future, get back on their feet, pick up the pieces, and in a sense hit reset.  Likewise, cities such as Savannah, Atlanta, Nashville, Houston, Los Angeles and other Sun Belt cities should at least consider having a plan for decline just incase forecasts change and other unforeseen obstacles change the population shift in America.  Just consider Smart Decline another tool in a planner’s toolbox.

Recap: Form Based Code Workshop 9/22

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Smart Code Transect

I had the pleasure of attending a Form Based Code Workshop put on by Nathan Norris of Placemakers and sponsored by the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors.  The presentation started at 6PM and went a full two hours, but it flew by.  Mr. Norris had an informative and entertaining PowerPoint presentation and since there were only about 30 in attendance there was a good dialogue throughout and especially at the end.

I’m always looking for places to further my knowledge of cutting edge planning (pioneer planning), and I wasn’t disappointed. I am familiar with Form Based Codes and hope to work for a progressive government that has embraced the flexibility and control of their own destiny.  Mr. Norris’ presentation gave me some more facts and real life examples to check out and familiarize myself with. Though the presentation was geared toward Mount Pleasant last night, Form Based Codes can be used anywhere.  What amazed me the most is the current leader in the public sector for Form Based Code is Montgomery, Alabama. Nathan Norris, who hails from a town near Montgomery, explained that, “even a city that hasn’t done much planning for the past 40 years was able to implement Form Based Code and make it mandatory in their downtown in just a few years process.”

Form Based Code is based on the 10 Principals of Smart Growth:

  1. Create distinctive places
  2. Promote walkable design
  3. Block size is important (*Most important)
  4. There needs to be a variety of transportation choices
  5. Development needs to be directed to existing places
  6. An appropriate mix of uses should be encouraged
  7. A wide range of housing options and affordabilities
  8. Compact design
  9. Preservation of Nature
  10. Encourage community input and participation

The importance of place and placemaking is more evident now more than ever. The new knowledge economy is more mobile than ever, especially due to the internet and high speed travel.  Place doesn’t matter when it comes to online collaboration, but it matters immensely when a company or firm is considering relocation.  If a company that relies on the knowledge economy can be based anywhere why wouldn’t they want to be somewhere nice and beautiful, with a high quality of living?  Cities need to concentrate on placemaking and giving the knowledge economy somewhere they want to be rather than have to be.

G.K. Chesterfield wrote, “Rome may be loved because it is great, but it is great because it was loved.”  This emphasizes the need for cities and places to have TLC from their elected officials and community.  Only when a place is loved first, shown some TLC, can a place begin to become great.  This is the main reason many developments that do not take into account the city and community around them do not add to the place, because they do not love, or add to, the place.

A memorable quote from Norris was, “Avoid Ego-driven mega projects.”  Many cities feel that if they could just get that convention center built, attract that lifestyle center, or build a new stadium, they will then be great.  But, cities must remember there is no silver bullet in making a place great.  Creating a place requires much more than a gimmick or being able to point at one thing.  The best places in this country have multiple reasons they are great but at the same time you cannot pick one thing out that is the greatest.  Norris also stated that it is time that cities stop saying “thou shall not” and start saying “thou shall”.  I agree, there is no reason a city shouldn’t be able to ask developers for what the city wants rather than relying on the private sector to magically read the city decision makers’ minds.  Now this isn’t to say that a city has the right to tell the developers what uses they want where, but instead what types of buildings and where those buildings should be, within stated limits.

This is where Form Based Code helps.  Traditional zoning regulates Use, Density, and Parking.  Form Based Codes take into account those three but also Design. Design is what really brings a city together and makes it memorable.  Norris gave a good example of multi-family housing and design.  Density can be done, and according to modern day codes this usually results in townhome communities or apartment complexes.  And though they may be dressed up, rarely score high on Visual Preference Surveys (VPS), with a shout out to a former Rutgers professor of mine Tony Nellesen, who invented the original VPS. He stated, “Density without design is objectionable.” Density isn’t the objective, design is the objective.  Multi-family units can be done right considering both density and design.  It always comes back to what it will look like.

As Form Based Code through the use of the Smart Code and Urban Transect become utilized more throughout the country, more municipalities will be willing to explore it.  Now that Smart Code is open source and modular, making it easier for cities to implement and personalize it, Form Base Code should become the type of planning for cities, nodes, and small area plans for the foreseeable future.

Charleston, SC Free Form Based Code Workshops

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Since I can’t find a link to this story I got in my email anywhere…

CHARLESTON, SC—(September 18, 2009) The Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS® will offer workshops to explore the use of form-based codes, a land development strategy that centers on form rather than use.

Placemakers, a national planning firm that specializes in form-based codes, is coming to Charleston for three days of education and exploration of whether the strategy of form-based codes will help build better communities.

“This is an opportunity for stakeholders, community leaders and the public to learn more about form-based codes. These type of land use and building ordinances have been discussed in virtually every city and county and in the Charleston region and as the ‘Voice for Real Estate’ in the area, we felt it was necessary to further explore the viability of form-based codes and how they work in context of the Lowcountry,” said Ryan Castle, CTAR’s Government Affairs Director.

Three public workshops will be held next week throughout the region:

Tuesday, September 22 | 6 p.m:  Mount Pleasant Town Council Chambers, 100 Ann Edwards Lane

Wednesday, September 23  | 6 :30 p.m. | Charleston County Library, 68 Calhoun Street

Thursday, September 24  | 6 p.m. | Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce, 402 N. Main St., Summerville.

At each free information seminar, Placemakers will explain what form-based codes are, and where they fit in to overall economic development and placemaking efforts.  They will also specifically address how form-based codes relate to issues pertaining to growth management, density, private property rights and preservation of the natural beauty of our region.