A New Year’s Resolution for Communities
When it comes to community planning, American cities and towns are in a difficult bind. You don’t need to sit in traffic on the freeways of Los Angeles or note what a big box store does to a neighborhood to know that our preparation for the future is far from perfect.
In many cases, our towns and cities were originally planned for people who traveled by horse or carriage. In more “modern” communities, the streets were designed for many fewer cars or perhaps electrified streetcars. Our bridges are old; our highways need to be re-built; and we are a country in great need of more walkable towns or better infrastructure for public transportation.
Main Street in most communities is dead or struggling, with various forms of box stores or malls having replaced the vibrancy of a downtown filled with successful local businesses — the lifeblood of any community. Those downtown areas that still seem viable often feature chain stores, not mom-and-pop establishments, which decidedly changes the feel of the town. What can be done to re-use and re-enliven these centrally located parts of town?
One need not visit Gettysburg (or any other historic site) to understand that strip malls, Taco Bells, and the highly popular Starbucks, may be convenient for tourists and helpful to residents but these establishments are not the perfect neighbors for sites such as Gettysburg where we are hoping people can “take a step back in time” to better understand the meaning of our country. How can a community balance the need for convenient areas for commerce with the respect for historic preservation?
As the baby boomers age, we will eventually see an increase in the number of people who should not be driving. But how many communities are built with any sort of planning for the growth of public transportation?
With these thoughts in mind, I bring to your attention the publication of the second edition of Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan by Eric Damian Kelly (Island Press, 2010). In full disclosure, Eric is my brother, and perhaps his approach is so attractive to me because the book embodies the spirit in which we were raised — that of dedicating ourselves to our communities and participating in constructive citizen activism.
He and I were raised in Pueblo, Colorado by parents who devoted their lives to the town — our father owned a local insurance agency (started by our maternal grandfather in the 1930s) and spent many years on local boards, particularly the water board; our mother, still living, was on the City Council for many years, and she was instrumental in planning and getting funding for two major developments — an arts center and a riverwalk park expanse in the center of town. We were raised with the idea that citizens could — and should — work to make a difference.
One of the true strengths of Community Planning is the very clear and comprehensible writing style that can be grasped by any layperson, and of course, quickly absorbed by professional planners. Each chapter of the book concludes with two separate sidebars: one on the role of the professional planner and another on the role of the individual citizen, meaning that regular people can turn to this book for specific advice — on zoning, controlling development, encouraging public transportation, and greener living, for example — and gain practical suggestions on how to play a constructive role in the community.
Eric brings vast experience to this topic. He a city planner and lawyer, (J.D., Ph.D., FAICP), who is a Professor of Urban Planning at Ball State University. He is a past president of the American Planning Association and in conjunction with James Duncan runs a consultancy practice where he has worked with more than 150 local governments in more than three dozen states. Drawing on his dual backgrounds in planning and law, he also assists local governments in addressing the complex Constitutional issues involved in regulating uses such as signs, billboards, sex businesses and religious institutions. He resides in Muncie, Indiana, where his current public service activities include chairing the Muncie-Delaware County Government Reorganization Committee, created by the Muncie City Council and the Delaware County Commissioners under a 2006 Government Modernization Act.
The publisher has created a comprehensive website for the book, so readers can check it out: http://www.communityplanningbook.org. The website provides short overviews on each chapter, complete with extensive examples, supplemental references and suggested search terms to find more material.
As citizens and community leaders consider their new year’s resolutions for 2010 and the coming decade, they might benefit from Eric’s experience, guidance, and advice.
My daughter, a journalist who often writes about the urban issues of Los Angeles, has already spirited off my copy of the book so that she’ll have a better understanding of the matters on which she may write. The continuation of family values doesn’t get better than that, does it?