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It's the Little Things that Count (Too!)

Here at the Foundation, we endeavor to help people identify “heart and soul” elements of their communities, and to work with them to celebrate, maintain, and build upon these elements in the future of their communities. This means incorporating those elements into planning policies and practices, and through institutions and programs within the communities.

Planners are trained to see the big picture –What are the big trends, and how can communities, regions, states best accommodate those trends? What land use plans and policies will serve the community well?  It can be a particular challenge to look also at the little things - What are the small ingredients that make up the unique DNA of any community?  Are there particular landmarks? Views? Gathering places? Special vegetation or water features? Perhaps there are important elements as small as a community bulletin board, or a work of art or garden crafted by a distinguished citizen. Even more difficult, are there practices that are unusual and held dear by the community – some special events hosted by local institutions that have become important local traditions?

I like to think about this, even apart from my job at the Foundation. In my own community, I think of a particular bulletin board, two idiosyncratic general stores, kids fishing on the creek bridge, hidden swimming holes, fire department suppers, a set of likely-illegal but wonderful handmade signs, the village center buildings, the exchange corner at the transfer station - I could on and on.

I do the same thing when I visit other places. I just returned from Nicaragua, where I had the pleasure of observing the small stuff of places….. comedores along beaches with a table or two among the chickens where you can eat fresh fish and the local gallo pinto; tiny, historic hotels around postage-stamp gardens; steps in front of a church that go nowhere, yet are conveniently arranged to invite seated people-watching; families on Sunday outings in the parque central; the well-organized chaos of the local market. It is this kind of uniqueness that beckons so many of us to travel and revere the wonderful mosaic of places that make up our world.

Of course it will always be important to understand the important and “large” social, economic, and environmental factors that must underlie any good planning effort, but we need to add the practice of looking at smaller and sometimes more nebulous aspects of communities to the planners’ normal way of doing business.

I know that I am not alone, and that others enjoy thinking about the minutiae of communities. Historic preservationists, architects, and conservationists, to name a few, are among those who are trained to look at distinctive aspects of place.  But I do believe that there are opportunities to broaden this thinking – to get more people to consciously think about the DNA of the places where they live. The Foundation has recently researched organizations engaged in what we call “heart and soul” planning, including some organizations only loosely related to planning. We applaud the people and organizations doing this kind of work, and will be on the lookout too for people, programs, and organizations even far afield from planning who join us in a campaign against “Generica,” helping communities to continue to be the special places we love.

Helen Whyte 

Of Communities and Creampuffs

Not many people know of my early career as an actress—perhaps because it peaked with The King’s Creampuffs, presented by my 5th Grade class.  At the time I enjoyed the play because we scheduled rehearsals in place of penmanship and it involved sampling creampuffs.  Lately, however, it has come to mind more for its unlikely relevance to planning and our work here at the Foundation. 

A brief synopsis: Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there lived an old king with an unfortunate weakness for creampuffs.  He ordered his royal baker to make batch after batch, and with each batch his stomach obligingly grew larger.  One day, however, the cunning Witch of All Witches (that was me) stole his creampuff recipe in an effort to undermine the entire kingdom.  Furious, and suffering from withdrawal, the King ordered the baker to try to remember the recipe.  The baker baked away, but never managed to create a good creampuff again.  In a final act of desperation, the King sent his last few creampuffs back to the kitchen so that the baker might pick them apart and thereby discover what was in them.  As we might expect, the result was nothing more than a big pile of crumbs and a very unhappy king…

Much of our recent work at the Foundation has focused on the complex question of how to identify the character, or the “heart and soul,” of communities.  One common method is to identify all the parts of a community—the businesses, the organizations, the values, the people, the history, the land—and assume that the whole is the sum of these parts.  As we learned from the King, however, a pile of crumbs hardly adds up to a creampuff.  Other methods for identifying community character focus less on the substance than on the glue that holds the substance together.  “Community capacity” consists of the collective efforts, abilities, and desires of citizens, all of which are necessary for progress and action.  If the King’s baker had focused solely on the process, however (positive thinking, the temperature of the oven, the force with which he stirred), I doubt he would have been any more successful.

Can any process truly identify the precise combination of ingredients, timing, and techniques that make a creampuff heavenly or that make a community hum?  Creampuffs, communities, character, even the carbon that pervades them all—each is an unlikely amalgamation of atoms, forces, circumstances, and more than a dash of magic.  I’m starting to think that a complete identification process is a physical and philosophical impossibility, and I’m also starting to think that the attributes of the people experiencing the character may be more important than the character itself.  In a world of unimaginable complexity and urgent challenges, deconstruction often seems the only manageable strategy. While it has its uses, deconstruction fundamentally assumes that the end product (character) is a constant, experienced the same way by all people.  At times we try reconstruction instead, as in a planned community: start with a pile of ingredients, sit back, and wait for character and cohesiveness to materialize.

We might instead look for processes of “superconstruction”—ways of identifying and linking together all the seemingly disparate elements of places and people, all the satellites and derivatives of character.  We might look for processes that ask what it is about circumstance, what it is about geographical, temporal, philosophical, physiological differences, that make people experience character the way they do.  It’s a no-brainer to imagine that people immersed in deep poverty would be less impressed by the friendliness of a community than those who are well-off, but does gender matter?  Age?  Favorite color?  The weather on the day you happen to ask?  The prospect of considering so many (perhaps infinite) factors is disarming and even discouraging, but also intriguing.  If character is influenced by so many variables, then there are also countless ways to protect character, to strengthen it, to share it, and to celebrate it.  If community heart and soul is as much a result of experience as it is of substance, then a downtrodden town may need little more than the passage of time or a change of heart to reawaken.

Like most children’s fairy tales, The Kings Creampuffs wrapped up neatly with the requisite hackneyed lessons: The Witch of All Witches was defeated (I got over it), the King got his recipe back and once again gorged himself on perfect puffs, and all lived happily ever after.  Our quest for community character will hardly end with the same tidy resolution, nor should it.  Character, like creampuffs, is a difficult and delightful thing.  Recipes evolve over time and so do places, and so must our understandings and experiences of them.  Here at the Foundation and in communities and organizations across the country, we will continue to search for ways of identifying character.  We will improve, and we will fall short.  Then we will try again, and again, ardently ever after.   

Rebecca Sanborn

Confessions of an Omnivore

While grocery shopping, I have often struggled with the decision to buy organic or buy local. Yes, the organic is better for farms’ environments, farm workers, and for consumers’ health (at least in the short term).  But if the organic food is shipped in from Argentina, what are the costs in terms of fossil fuel consumption and emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases?  This question on the origins of our food has implications not only at the grocery store, but also in our work at the Foundation.  We cannot ignore food production when we are talking about communities’ futures, and there are lessons on sustainability that farms can teach those of us working in the planning field. 

Having read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, I was thrilled to see that he had a new book that dealt exclusively with food and where food comes from.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma addresses the question of what we, as omnivores, should eat.  Our dilemma is that, since we can eat pretty much anything, how do we determine what is good to eat and what will kill us?  Pollan’s book discusses with humor and detail the “natural history” of four sample meals as a means to explore this question.  Pollan also looks at the omnivore’s dilemma by questioning  the larger effects of our food choices on the world around us. 

I came away convinced that, while local organic food is the best on all fronts, local food (organic or not) is in many ways superior to imported organic food.  His description of an almost completely self-contained small farm that is supported by the local economy is a glimpse of a model for community sustainability.  In an era of globalization, the local farm where consumers literally see where their food comes from, start to finish, ensures best practices for raising and harvesting both crops and animals.  The transparency of the process is vital for the farm’s customers to feel as though they are getting food that they can feel good about.  Likewise, transparency in the planning process leads to processes that citizens can feel good about.  Providing community members with the opportunity to know exactly where the community’s plan for the future is coming from and offering them opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way is the best way to get sustainable plans for the future. 

While we will always need a few things from outside our communities, farms that cater to local needs and are in sync with the local environment should be considered our best resource—both for food and for examples of sustainable systems and processes.

Jocelyn Hittle 

Tomorrow's Yankee Values

I've been reflecting a bit on the Foundation's  Little Equinox project and what I think was a clash of values -- a more traditional value set that honors a romantic, pre-industrial, pastoral Vermont and a more emergent set of values that expresses people's desire, as a recent Manchester Journal article put it, "to live a simpler life . . . to achieve the goal of living a less materialistic lifestyle." I would add independence and self reliance to this set of values. Good old Yankee values/virtues, which is to say the values themselves are quite well established in our culture. What’s new and “emergent” is their association with high technology like solar panels and wind turbines, and not just in micro applications but at a commercial scale. Energy, and in particular renewable energy, is a physical proxy, just like ridgelines, for the abstract, disembodied beliefs and attitudes people hold dear.

I think we're gonna see a lot more competition between these particular sets of values in the years ahead, and that's a good thing. For in the friction and clash will come, I believe, a new understanding, a new synthesis, a new value system in which the choice between protected ridgelines and renewable energy facilities is no longer seen as a competition, a zero sum, but a continuum. As our WindViz visualization tool showed, Little Equinox is just one in a long string of ridgelines, one piece of a much larger puzzle. Perhaps if people started to think and act like a mountain range, or a watershed, or a region, and not just like an island, the continuum approach would trump the competition approach, and we’d all be better off for it.

In this globalized, networked, climate changing world, local values and customs, themselves changing and at often at odds, are increasingly having to reckon with regional, national and global values. Many scales, many dimensions, all wrapped up in any given planning situation. Now that’s a challenge worth taking on.

Detroit, Hollywood and the Next Innovation Opportunity

With the Foundation’s mission of promoting vibrant and sustainable communities in mind, I can’t help but follow with great interest what’s going on in the US economy right now.  For us planners, things like land consumption, taxes, cost of housing, demographic shifts are the usual targets of concern.  But two stories from off-script have caught my attention recently, giving us, I think, a very clear look at the current state of the traditional American economy, and, perhaps, the future of American society.

The first is the decline and imminent fall (save for yet another possible US government bail out or merger with non-US firms) of Detroit and the Big 3.  I was struck this weekend by the piece in the NY Times Week in Review about how 30 years ago Iacocca and his cronies, from both management and the unions, demanded the Japanese build factories in the US or face further import restrictions.  Thirty years later, the Japanese have not only complied, but thrived, and not because state after state wooed them with tax incentives, etc., but because (a) they build a far superior product and continue to innovate with technologies like hybrid engines, safety systems, etc.; (b) the product is responsive to what most consumers want: fuel efficiency, good design, low operation and maintenance costs, etc.; (c) they pay their workers upwards of $25/hr.; (d) some, like Honda, take maverick stances on issues like emissions caps, building a constituency among progressive consumers, even while they build big gas guzzlers like SUVs and pick ups.

Japan accepted the challenge 30 years ago and is now, as the Times piece put it, driving all the way to the bank.  A pillar of American industrial and economic might, still standing (and only because of their sheer force of 50 years’ worth of momentum), is crumbling before our eyes.  It’s about time. . . .

Turn the page to the Business Section in Monday’s Times and we read about yet another keystone American institution, Hollywood, our principal cultural engine and major economic driver.  What’s the news?  The headline says it all: “More Than Ever, Hollywood Studios Are Relying on the Foreign Box Office.”  Hollywood, it seems, can no longer depend on domestic sales to turn a profit.  For a variety of reasons, Americans are declining to buy what Hollywood has to offer.  One of them, for sure, is the quality of the product which, in a word, sucks.  How interesting, then, that Hollywood has turned to export as a solution (a page from Detroit's playbook?). 

So what’s the connection here between Detroit and Hollywood?  Well, it’s not that there’s a movie called “Cars” currently on the big screen.  It’s that what these sacred cows of the American economy and culture have to offer is increasingly being rejected by the American people, on quality grounds, and these institutions seem ill-prepared, if not unwilling, to do anything about it, save for scapegoating, exporting or simply buying up the competition.  Arrogance combined with incompetence.  Deadly.

OK, so what?  Why should we, in the planning business, care? Because I think Detroit and Hollywood’s loss could be our gain.  Yea, there’s a ton of leading edge, world class innovation still happening in the American economy/culture, especially in the technology realm.  But it seems to me we should be celebrating our (relatively) open economy and society and its embrace of foreign companies who choose to build factories here and employ our workers, even if it comes at the expense of their US counterparts.  Likewise, if Hollywood can’t make the pictures most of us want to see, let’s let Netflix and, perhaps, Bollywood, Italy, Britain, et al. do the talking for us.  Perhaps Hollywood will eventually respond, or perhaps not, which, according to Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” theory, is perfectly OK.  The marginalia is becoming ever more accessible to the average consumer.

The real opportunity, it seems to me, lies not in American economic innovation (whose potential is still significant) but in civic/social innovation.  I think the next frontier of American leadership/hegemony  (if I might be so provocative as to use that term) is in devising new social mechanisms and institutions to enable our increasingly global, pluralistic and post-industrial cities and towns to govern themselves in a way that takes the fullest advantage of the new technologies, tastes and temperatures (i.e., global warming) that are coming to define our age.  From wave-energy farms to green/modular affordable housing to internet-retail in rust-belt downtowns, how can/will we develop the civic will and means to build this new order, literally and figuratively? How can we use technology and good ol' American ingenuity to create and implement new models for community and economic development?  How can we take advantage of the turn toward dispersed, distributed and decentralized strategies for energy production, capital formation, economic/cultural development, etc. to build new, bottom-up, regional systems of governance that leave our cities and towns less dependent on the big, clunky old institutions and more in control of their own destinies -- economic, cultural, environmental?

To dispute GM's Chevy ad campaign, the real new American revolution is not the Chevy Malibu but, like the original, governance.  What will be the new constitutions, laws and policies that lead us to the new frontier?  As in 1787, we need innovators who can build these institutions, with a strong constituency in tow.

The train is already leaving the station.  The question is, will we, as a people, communities, country get/stay on board and help direct where it goes, or will we cling to what we've known, a now-degenerative pattern of survival for survival's sake.

OK, hyperbole notwithstanding, the future is looking ever more interesting, if not challenging.  An exciting new Age of Civic Innovation is dawning. . . . 

Paint Me a Picture

Everywhere I turn these days, contemporary artists are taking on land use and changing patterns of place as core themes for some very powerful social commentary. Of course, artists have been constructing and deconstructing visions of the land since the very roots of art in the Upper Paleolithic. But increasingly, it seems, artists are taking on the growing gulf between our romantic view of the American landscape and the reality we are creating with each decision we make - or defer.

For example, in the July issue of Metropolis, there’s an article about a new exhibit at Arizona State University’s Museum of Art called New American City: Artists Look Forward. Most striking in this exhibit of Phoenix artists is Matthew Moore’s monumental land art intended to explore his ambivalence at the sale of much of his family’s Maricopa Co. farm to developers. Moore’s 30-acre installation recreates the plan of a subdevelopment proposed for the farm – including driveways, cul-de-sacs and 250 homes – using sorghum and wheat! It’s not, refreshingly, intended as a protest piece so much as a way to stimulate critical thinking about changing patterns of land use in one of the fastest growing corners of America.

The same issue of Metropolis featured an exhibit called REimaginations that’s billed as the “world’s first wind energy art exhibit.” Curated by Andrew Perchlik, a Vermonter and Executive Director of Renewable Energy Vermont (an association promoting wind energy for the state), REimaginations is an effort to use art to show the beauty of wind turbines as symbols for a sustainable future. Like Moore’s work, the pieces in this exhibit are meant to provoke new ways of seeing.

Finally (and this is all in one week!), I stopped into Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts on a rainy day last weekend and was mesmerized by the large-format color photos of Laura McPhee now on display there. The photos in River of No Return were all taken in central Idaho (including Blaine County, where we have a Foundation project) and capture “images that address Americans’ conflicting ideas about landscape and land use and our values and beliefs about our relationship to the natural world.” These images subvert the iconic-ness of the West’s landscapes. While each image draws you in with its gorgeous color and execution, on closer observation you come to see that all is not well on the range.

All just further confirmation that planning is as much art as it is science. These artists are doing us all a great service, creating what John Thackara calls “social fictions” that hold up mirrors to our current behavior and point the way forward toward new ways of seeing and being in this world.

John Fox

Shopping Wherever, Living Wherever

A recent Boston Globe piece claims that "shopping's social value fading for those online". . . . Think about this new data alongside (a) the Manitowoc, WI example I looked at in this blog last December (rust belt downtown revitalized by internet sales behind brick storefronts); (b) the trend toward growth centers/downtowns here in Vermont and elsewhere (Is Manitowoc the exception or the new rule?; if the former, will our downtowns become less about commerce and more about residential uses and other non-economic uses?); (c) with commerce and other economic activities moving online, are we not seeing a trend toward "resortification" in otherwise non-resort zones?  That is, if the internet is making location-neutral the norm, and technology is enabling all manner of environmental/amenity restoration (mining towns becoming mountain biking towns; cities rebuilding waterfronts and wetlands; Denver's South Platte River kayak course), are we not heading toward a new "resort age," where the American dream has morphed into a desire to live in a place not because of a job site or economic opportunity and the associated benefits (a quarter-acre lot and 3 BR cape)  but because of the non-economic opportunities that rise to the surface now that commerce/work can happen anywhere, anytime?

Wildlife on the Move

In Unto the City the Wildlife Did Journey, Andy Newman writes in the New York Times that “Bears, a moose, a coyote and other animals have visited the New York area, and a fair degree of chaos has ensued. Another illustration of cities becoming more "rural" (wildlife) while rural areas and exurbs become more urban (housing, people, etc.).  More people are moving out from our central cities and suburbs to find cheaper housing and a better quality of life, trading mortgage sticker-shock for 2 hour commutes (one-way!), while businesses go in search of the same under the banner “location-neutrality.”  In some cases, the two are one and the same, no commute necessary.

Wall Street in the woods of Litchfield County; Farmers markets in Union Square; Artist lofts in old mill towns like Easthampton, Massachusetts; Seals off Staten Island.

The puzzle pieces are starting to create an interesting picture. Urban-rural, rural-urban:    We’re fast becoming one continuous geography, a seamless web of wildlife and Wi-Fi. But what does it all mean? Is this seamless fabric just contributing to sprawl? Are the wildlife islands or peninsulas being created by random development sustainable ecozones the way true wildlife corridors would be? Should city-dwellers be seeing moose and bears in their yards or is that in fact a problem for both animals?

Celebrating Jane Jacobs

April is truly the cruelest month.  Or at least, with the news of Jane Jacobs’ death, the saddest. I had the great pleasure of getting to know Jane back in 2000 via a conference in her honor I helped organize with my Boston College Law School colleague Zyg Plater and a group of law students (BC houses her papers).  We stayed in touch, though infrequently.

This from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her magnum opus:

It may be romantic to search for the salves of society’s ills in slow-moving rustic surroundings, or among innocent, unspoiled provincials, if such exist, but it is a waste of time.  Does anyone suppose that, in real life, answers to any of the great questions that worry us today are going to come out of homogeneous settlements?

            Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain seeds of their own destruction and little else.  But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.

Impassioned and opinionated, Jane was a maverick, a genius, a curmudgeon, a celebrator, an urbanist, an ecologist, a peace activist, an intellectual, a citizen planner and so many other things. 

She got us thinking about sidewalks and busy streets, to be sure, but she really got us thinking about our collective soul, the spirit that animates and energizes our places, that gives them life and authenticity. 

The death and life. . . The title seems so fitting now.  Surely she will live on in the hearts and souls of every community worthy of the name.

Long live Jane Jacobs.

Going Home Again

My tenth high school reunion is coming up in June and my friends and I have decided to go.  In general, I’m looking forward to going and doing some reminiscing, but mostly getting to know people anew.  For better or for worse, no one will be the same as ten years ago.

The impending competition (isn’t that what these “reunions” are really?) has gotten me thinking about my home town. Fort Collins is more of a city actually, yet in high school it still felt small to me. It has a great downtown, fun local hang-outs, and high school football rivalries (go Lobos!). There was also space—corners of major intersections still had fields where you’d see foxes and coyotes, and a mile from town the sky was actually dark at night.   

It doesn’t feel small now. Part of the Front Range growth boom, Fort Collins has grown by something around 21,000 people since I graduated - 21,000! This number gives me pause. Selfishly, I want my hometown to be the same as it was 10 years ago, and it obviously is not. But as John Fox noted in his entry, “Looking Forward to Some Action,” getting cranky and nostalgic won’t get me, or anyone else in the Front Range, anywhere. Still, a good hard look at the flabbergasting growth that’s happened here—with a dose of “what we have and what we’ve lost”—can help Front Range communities learn from the past ten years and allow for the kind of growth that enhances their assets while reducing development patterns that many Coloradoans are just plain tired of seeing. (Like the many unflattering photographs of Colorado in Dolores Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl).

There is real opportunity here to shape the way the Front Range grows in the next ten years in ways that are positive for natives and newcomers alike. My hope is that the class of 2006 can attend their reunions in towns across the Front Range and recognize their downtowns, enjoy similar mountain views, and go to the same local ice cream shops. Their towns will be bigger, there’s almost no doubt of this, but with attention to informed and collaborative planning now, I hope that they will also be better.

Jocelyn Hittle



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