Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Obstacles & Solutions to Development in F.C.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Mayors’ Summit on City Design – a celebration of 25 years of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. MICD is a National Endowment for the Arts partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and The United States Conference of Mayors.

Since 1986, MICD has been a crucial player in transforming communities through design by preparing mayors to be the chief urban designers of their cities. MICD’s success is rooted in a very simple idea. Sessions bring together a small group of mayors and leading design experts to study specific case-study problems. Each mayor presents a problem from his or her city for the other mayors and designers to discuss. Over the years problems discussed have touched on issues such as how to effectively use and address design challenges associated with density, open space, infrastructure, parks, transportation, parking and downtown development. More than 850 mayors and over 600 planners/designers have participated in sessions.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Mayors’ Summit on City Design – a celebration of 25 years of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. MICD is a National Endowment for the Arts partnership with the American Architectural Foundation and The United States Conference of Mayors.

Since 1986, MICD has been a crucial player in transforming communities through design by preparing mayors to be the chief urban designers of their cities.
MICD’s success is rooted in a very simple idea. Sessions bring together a small group of mayors and leading design experts to study specific case-study problems. Each mayor presents a problem from his or her city for the other mayors and designers to discuss. Over the years problems discussed have touched on issues such as how to effectively use and address design challenges associated with density, open space, infrastructure, parks, transportation, parking and downtown development. More than 850 mayors and over 600 planners/designers have participated in sessions.

The summit extended the work that has happened over the last 25 years. Touted as “part celebration, part investigation, and part think tank” a series of valuable forums brought summit participants together to discuss design issues in three specific topic areas: Design and Transportation, Design and Development and Design and 21st Century Challenges. I made the rounds from room to room during the forums and took the opportunity to listen in on experiences that are happening nationally.

At the conclusion of the discussions a list of key, emerging issues were created that outlined obstacles and solutions. I gathered information that was of particular interest to issues we face in Falls Church and decided to offer them as a way to add to the dialogue here at home.

Obstacles to Development:

If Everything Is A Priority, Nothing Is A Priority. Near term urgency trumps long term sustainability.

Inflexible Regulations. For the most part, zoning regulations are antiquated and do not allow for a flexible platform for innovation. Solutions tend to be addressed with overlay zoning districts and ordinances on existing codes instead of re-writing codes to reflect the desire to have a “livable” community.

Are We Risk Takers? Risk aversion and a lack of tolerance for innovation limits what a city can do. There always seems to be a reason not to move a proposal forward. Local governance structures don’t allow for design progress.

Conflicted Civic Engagement. Some public processes and programs discourage civic engagement where intent battles efficacy.
Solutions to Obstacles:

New Models of Civic Engagement. Support projects promoting civic engagement through implementation rather than just dialogue.

Formalize Design Expertise. Local governments need an “Office of Design” or “Chief Design Officer” or “Designer in Chief” to work with developers, city staff and boards and commissions. Also use philanthropic, private, and regional partners to convene in development projects.

Incentivize Innovation … Enable Flexibility. Incentivize well designed projects and reward innovation through design and zoning reforms. “Walkable urban development should be by-right” -Chris Leinberger, Brookings Institute.

Promote Innovation. Invent new procurement/RFP processes that promote creative innovation.

Place-Based vs. Mode-Based Funding for Transportation. Take advantage of a variety of transportation choices such as bus, light rail, bikes, cars and walking – specific to the community needs – that can better add to the overall quality of a place and its economic goals. (For example The Street Car system in Portland was a $55 million public investment that has led to $3.5 billion in private development.)

Innovate in Funding and On-Going Financing. The National Endowment for the Arts’ chairman Rocco Landesman spoke about his hometown St. Louis Metrolink light rail system that connects several arts destinations. His take is that funding for projects like this should come not solely from transportation dollars but arts/economic development dollars since it enhances those disciplines too.

Small Projects Can Have Big Impacts. Examples in transportation: bike lanes on existing roads, effective sidewalks, street trees and on street parking should not be saved for implementation only on large-scale new projects. Communities should constantly evaluate how neighborhood-to-neighborhood/block-by-block connections can be made.

Reveal The True Costs Of Transportation Choices To The Community. Budget impacts are frequently placed hard and fast on public transportation but rarely on what it takes to support a car-centric infrastructure. That includes parking.

Integrate….Collaborate. Move to an integration of systems, partnerships, and funding.

Public Land is Our Greatest Civic Asset. The foundation of a new public realm depends on the public’s commitment and political will. The public realm and the city’s public land is an opportunity.

Overall Conclusion. Cities/metropolitan regions are where citizenship happens and where the majority of our populations are moving to. Steps need to be taken using design to make these places thrive.

Bob Burnett is the Vice President/Creative Director of GVI, Washington, DC.