Communities find creative building blocks to sustainability

Wed, 2015-04-22 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Many cities have big ideas. Few cities have the big resources needed to make them reality. But rather than sitting back and watching the world pass them by, some are finding enterprising ways to take on projects that would seem to be beyond their means. Several shared their successes at the annual meeting of the American Planning Association held recently in Seattle.

While the tools varied from one community to another, all of the successes had one thing in common: Planners used performance-based measures to keep tabs of their projects. Start with your desired outcome, such as reducing emissions, increasing the amount of affordable housing and so on. Establish a baseline and don’t take your eyes off your goal. That’s the way these leaders ensure they don’t waste their limited resources.

Beyond that, their approaches were dramatically different, ranging from partnering with other agencies to using children’s toys to model a county.

Legos for land planning
Planning can be a visual process, but Thurston County, a mostly rural county south of Seattle, found that those visualizations don’t have to be expensive. The county forecasts its population will grow by 50% over the next 25 years, and it’s trying to come up with a plan so that the growth doesn’t come at the expense of farms and forests.

To explain the situation and give residents a say in managing the growth, the Thurston Regional Planning Council used children’s toys. Participants at planning meetings gathered around maps and were given bags of Legos that represent the 180,000 new residents that are expected to move in. They placed the Legos on the map where they thought development should be encouraged.

“We quickly found that people didn’t really agree,” said Mike Burham, associate planner with the Thurston Regional Planning Council.

To continue the conversation, the county used an off-the-shelf solution to create an online discussion board that allowed users to post their own ideas and provide feedback on others. There were rewards for participation and the program is proof that the prizes don’t have to cost much. The most popular prize was a tour of the county morgue.

Partner with bigger organizations
Corvallis, Oregon, is an example of how a small city can work toward an ambitious goal by teaming with larger organizations that are working toward the same thing. The state of Oregon has mandated a 75% reduction in 1990 greenhouse gas levels by 2050.

The state’s two largest metropolitan areas — Portland and Eugene — are required to do scenario planning to find ways of accomplishing the goal. Corvallis volunteered to do so as well. By volunteering, it gained access to a powerful online tool that lets it interactively study the impacts and tradeoffs that result from various policy decisions.

“We now know the impacts of certain decisions and what certain policies and decisions will do to our community,” said Ali Bondakar, director of Corvallis Metropolitan Planning Organization. The city couldn’t have built the tool on its own.

Carrots may be more powerful than sticks
The Atlanta Regional Commission is finding incentives can inspire communities to take drastic action. Its Livable Centers Initiative awards grants to communities on a competitive basis. Communities that have a good project implementation record are rewarded with projects funds.

The commission says this approach seems to be having a positive impact. Since it began, 84% of the target areas have changed their zoning to allow for mixed-use development. About two-thirds have also adopted street and architectural design standards. Some 20% have passed historic-preservation district and farm codes.

Residents have noticed. Some 70% say there are now a variety of housing choices in their communities; more than half say their communities are more active and vibrant.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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