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Originally appeared in Issue No. 9.



The Citizen Planner - Real Towns: Making Your Neighborhood Work
by Harrison Bright Rue

People make places work

Real Towns: Making Your Neighborhood Work is a handbook for Real People—people who live in small towns, in new suburbs, in downtown neighborhoods, in historic districts or high-rise condos. This is a fix-it manual for working on real towns or neighborhoods—places filled with character, with families, with history, filled with people who want to make them better. Making towns work isn't exactly rocket science. It is often more complicated—but some of the basic truths are very simple.

Just as owner-builders can learn how to work on their houses, citizens can learn how to work on their communities. The obvious place to start is by looking at the parts that aren't working well, figuring out how they are interrelated, and diagnosing how to fix them together.

Link transportation, land use, and environment

New towns or neighborhoods are a much-needed alternative to business-as-usual suburban development patterns, but we can't afford to turn our backs on our existing cities and suburbs. That is why this handbook focuses on existing towns and neighborhoods, where people already live, work, and play. Preserving the environment requires that we make our inner cities—and our small towns—desirable and healthy places to live and work. Spreading ever outward is both an ecologically and economically untenable solution. Sprawl-based development has surrounded our cities with often sterile suburbs entirely dependent on a mode of transport that might be obsolete within our own lifetimes; their low density precludes creating workable alternative transit systems.

Despite our awareness of the importance of connections between transportation, land use, and environment, most of the decisions that affect our daily lives are still made from within the narrow viewpoint and mandates of a specific discipline, such as engineering, education, social work, or housing development. These decisions are not made by uncaring people. Specialists are often educated to look at issues from a tightly defined point of view and then work in a system that artificially divides problems into "controllable" questions with illusory solutions:

  • Roads are designed in absolute, unquestioned reverence of the automobile by well-intentioned professionals. Their job is to ensure the free and rapid flow of auto traffic. The safety of drivers transcends that of pedestrians or the overall health of the community, the local economy, and the environment. Most state departments of transportation (DOT's) consider it a significant "improvement" to widen the main street of a small town into six oversize lanes, remove trees and eliminate on-street parking. There is no apparent connection made between the resulting excessive speed and families having to drive five blocks to church because they are afraid to cross Main Street on foot.
  • Housing developments built by the private sector are often sited on cheaper outlying or leftover land. They are typically far from transit, shopping, jobs, schools or services. Because funding is limited, designs are often recycled from the developer's previous project without consideration of neighborhood or environmental context. Since economies of scale often require very large projects, affordable housing units are physically segregated from others in the community.
  • Sprawl-based development patterns are subsidized by in-town residents and businesses. The true initial and long-term operating costs of such development are not considered in the planning, funding, and decision-making process. James E. Frank's study of Tallahassee neighborhoods calculated that the cost of providing sewer hook-ups in inner-city neighborhoods was $4,447, while it cost up to $11,443 to install the same service for wealthy neighborhoods in the suburban fringe. Even with a measurable difference in cost, everyone pays the same fee for sewer connections (around $6,000), no matter where they live. Inner-city residents and businesses provide similar subsidies for roads, mail, even Fed-Ex and UPS service, all of which charge equal user fees. Frank's study also noted that new houses on the outskirts of Tallahassee cost taxpayers as much as $10,000 each for road improvement, versus $571 per household for improvements serving close-in neighborhoods. Of course, this added cost does not include ongoing maintenance or replacement.
  • Investment in public facilities is usually made by a single agency for a single purpose. Builders of public offices, schools, maintenance buildings, parking garages, pumping stations, consider only their own budget, needs, and users. We don't look at overall public benefit and costs or true environmental impact. We miss the opportunity to make each public investment part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. A recent state office building was built on the far outskirts of Tallahassee, Florida's state capital, solely because land was cheaper. Agency officials were surprised to learn when the building was completed that the city bus system did not extend that far, and there were no plans to extend service in the future.
  • Neighborhood and environmental activists are frustrated with their lack of effective input into public land-use decisions. They have gone beyond NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) to BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). Even locally beneficial projects are often stopped.
  • Public space is ignored or relegated to unusable leftover land. It is cheaper and easier to build in stand-alone developments of a few hundred units of the same housing type. The disadvantage of building neighborhoods without centers was tragically apparent in South Dade County, Florida after Hurricane Andrew. Not only did "condo-burbia" residents have no idea where to gather for assistance immediately after the storm (the mini-mart?), but the relief efforts were hampered because there were few visible targets toward which to direct help.
  • Public works agencies are sometimes locked into piecemeal approaches to environmental problems. When developers are allowed to build in low-lying flood-prone areas, residents are infuriated as neighborhoods continue to flood. The public is then expected to build and maintain expensive pumping and piping systems to keep them dry. Meanwhile, recharge of the aquifer (natural underground water storage) is drastically reduced, leading officials to consider future desalinization plants to provide bad-tasting drinking water at five times the cost—in a climate with more than sixty inches of rain per year.
  • Public investment decisions continue to be made by individual agencies to address separate needs. A comprehensive approach might uncover solutions to multiple problems for the same or less money. Although most local codes inhibit such coordination by requiring individual projects to meet all needs on-site, parking lots can be shared by facilities that use them at different times of the day or week, like churches or schools. A usable neighborhood park can be created by coordinating the planning and design of an affordable housing project, a school, a senior citizen's center, a library, and a daycare center or group home.

Residents can do the RoadWork

How can we change this fractured, wasteful, and ineffective system? How can average citizens influence their community's growth and health? How can they learn to understand, value, celebrate, and protect the rich diversity of cultural, geographic, historic, environmental, and economic resources that make up even an "average" neighborhood? How can non-professionals gather the technical information, community support, and political power necessary to negotiate viable alternatives to business-as-usual development patterns? How can creative change agents laboring within outmoded systems obtain the ammunition they need to change policies and procedures?

People can learn to look at their towns with new eyes, to apply time-tested design principles, and to work together to make change. These time-tested principles of urban design, sustainability, and redevelopment have been introduced in hands-on workshops for thousands of average folks and professionals around the country.

The workshops have been just as useful to elected officials and public servants as for neighborhood residents. Real Towns: Making Your Neighborhood Work covers the same principles presented in the workshops—the chance to participate in the same RoadWork exercises—and the opportunity to make the same commitment to follow through on what you have learned.

Oahu Trans 2K planning session. Planning session with elders.
In Honolulu's Oahu Trans 2K planning process, citizens and activists worked alongside city and state officials to help create an Islandwide Mobility Concept Plan—and consensus to act to implement it.
Photo courtesy H.B. Rue.
Look to elders who have lived in the neighborhood for decades—and whose stories and pictures can help spark newcomers' creative efforts.
Photo courtesy H.B. Rue.

Foundation blocks of citizen planning

There are basic truths that are the foundation blocks of Citizen Planning and community development—and a pathway to change how your community works.

It's all connected.
Looking at communities, economies, and natural systems as a complex interconnected whole makes it much harder to talk about any one project or issue. Questions always lead somewhere else. Fortunately, sometimes that complexity can include better solutions, a new funding source, or more allies.

It's not just about the money.
Appropriate design does not usually cost more, and can often save money in the long run.

You can make a difference.
That's an age-old truth, and central to this work. You can learn to be more effective, discover useful tools, and hear about people who have made change in their communities. You can learn to identify what's wrong in your community and what kind of change is needed.

You have to start somewhere.
It's best to start with what you know. That might be your own street, your kid's school, your church, a civic group, or a project you're already working on. Just because the problems are big, doesn't mean that you have to solve them all at once.

We've all helped cause the problems.
It can be hard talking about what's wrong with our communities without appearing to blame particular individuals or groups - like traffic engineers or developers, environmentalists or bureaucrats. Yet most of us drive cars, want our own houses, like to visit untouched natural areas, and would prefer to have someone else take care of the messy details of civic life.

There are very few clean hands among us.
It will take all of us to fix what we've broken.
Working with people you don't agree with, or who have very different interests, is a good way to find creative answers. You can learn how to get groups to work together effectively and efficiently, and how to break down barriers between projects and agencies that keep common-sense solutions out of reach.

Design makes a difference.
The details of how a place is put together help determine how well it works. These time-tested principles of place-making govern how buildings, streets, and natural areas can add up to more than the sum of their parts, while making our public investments go farther and preserving our environment for future generations.

You can learn just by looking around you.
Most communities still have at least fragments of neighborhoods that work fairly well. These places with "Good Bones" are often in historic districts, Main Street, or near older transportation corridors. They are also often threatened by surrounding conventional development. Learn to compare patterns, figure out what works, and what to do about it.

Average folks are able to see the big picture.
Most problems in our physical environment are solved by people whose job is to look at only one piece—moving cars faster, draining water quicker, bringing one big factory to town, building schools or houses cheaper. If you live in a place, and plan to stay, you are often able to see the big picture.

Public servants can rise above their current job descriptions.
Reward those who make mistakes trying out new ideas or methods. Expect staff to help you create a meaningful, practical, visionary plan for your community—not just wait to review developers' plans. Expect the people who make decisions about your community to act as if they lived there; as if their own children walked on the sidewalks; as if their parents had to cross the dangerous intersections.

The people who live in a neighborhood know how it works.
They know how it came to be, who and what is important, and why. No professional planner or designer should make decisions or assumptions about a community's future without real input from the residents.

Language can get in the way.
Using techno-babble can obscure important issues. Traffic engineers talk about road "improvements" when they mean widening. Each profession has its own confusing vocabulary and acronyms. Using plain language can let more people understand complex issues—and get more brains working on creative solutions.

Simply asking questions is a powerful tool.
"Why?" is one of the most powerful words in the English language. "Because that's the way we've always done it" is one of the weakest (and most-used) answers. "Because those are the rules," "That's agency policy," and "It's required by standards" are tied for second. Ask to see a copy of the rules/policy/standards in writing.

Real Towns: Making Your Neighborhood Work will not make you an expert in one discipline.
It will equip you to talk with other professionals knowledgeably, and to help them understand your own discipline or neighborhood.

You can look through new eyes.
If you undertake these steps, and do the RoadWork, we guarantee you will never look at your community—its buildings, streets, and public spaces—the same way again. You may be able to avoid unnecessary battles, and to win the ones that count.

Neighborhood walk-around. Organized 'WalkAbout.'
Walking around the neighborhood together—and discussing what you see—is a good kick-off for a community-based planning workshop.
Photo courtesy Dover, Kohl.
Organize 'WalkAbouts' or field audits to measure and photograph in more detail—like these Honolulu Street Doctors.
Photo courtesy University of Hawaii at Manoa.

RoadWork - The Citizen Planner

Citizens can learn to be planners—influencing how their communities work and grow.

Average citizens, elected officials, public servants, and business leaders can learn to:

  • Identify what makes a healthy neighborhood.
  • Apply time-tested principles of place making.
  • Work together to make their communities more livable.

RoadWork exercises are useful tools to assess present conditions in your community and stimulate thinking about future possibilities. In the process, you'll experience different kinds of places, and find out how they make you feel and behave. You'll also learn how to measure streets and sidewalks, count traffic, explore your neighborhood, and get a jump-start on how to make your community work better.

Hint: Get a notebook for your RoadWork exercises. Begin with these important questions. Write the answers down. Read them later and think about what you have found and seen. Talk about it with your family, friends and neighbors.

Where do you live? What kind of neighborhood is it? Is it a place where you plan to stay, or do you feel like you are just passing through? How many of your neighbors have family living nearby? Does your neighborhood make that possible?

What kind of problems do you see around you? Which ones look like good opportunities to tackle first? What do you want to change about your neighborhood or community? What do you want to protect?

What do you care about—passionately? Social causes, the environment, children, pedestrian safety, local business, jobs, historic preservation, or politics? All the above?

What work do you do? Any connections with issues you care about? Is your business, church, or school expanding? Are you on a board or a member of an organization that is planning a building project?

What kind of investment are you willing to make? Time, reputation, faith, the family dinner hour, the monthly book group? Are you in it for the long haul?

Who do you know—in your neighborhood, at work, in community activities—who might be interested in these same issues? Can you go through the book and RoadWork together?

What kind of future do you want for your children? Your community?

If you are a public servant, how do these questions relate to your job? Is it fair to ask you to make decisions as if your own family was going to cross the street you designed, live in the community you approved plans for, live across from the public facility you financed? Would that perspective change how you approach your job?


Harrison Bright Rue is executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and the Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Founding Director of the Citizen Planner Institute. Rue serves on the Association of MPO’s Board and U.S. EPA’s National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology, and conducts facilitator training and visioning workshop across the country.

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Citizen Planner Institute


Real Towns: Making Your Neighborhood Word, by Harrison Bright Rue



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Fixing Real Towns helps preserve the environment

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Public investment should not subsidize sprawl

Public agencies should work together to solve multiple problems

Average residents can influence their community's growth and health



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