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Talking with new PCJ contributing writer Della Rucker about “Welcome to the Tightrope Act”

Note from PCJ Editor Wayne Senville: Della Rucker is planner with an extensive background in economic development. She's also a talented writer. We're pleased that Della will be joining the Planning Commissioners Journal as a regular contributing writer. I recently asked Della several questions both about her first column for the PCJ, included in our just published Spring issue.

Wayne Senville: We've just published your first column, "Welcome to the Tightrope Act." In it you say that planning commissioners "stand in the center ring" and need to balance market forces and community needs. I think many people would think of planning commissioners as focusing pretty much on developing the local comprehensive plan and reviewing development proposals -- not dealing with local economic concerns. Why do you take a broader view?

photo of Della RuckerDella Rucker: The reason why I emphasized that approach comes from both my experience in what works best to make communities successful for the long run -- and the practical matters that I have observed over many years of sitting in planning commission meetings!

Rucker-quote1-may11First, the big picture part: We have to start thinking of our communities less like sets of separate systems, and more like an ecosystem, where all of the parts directly impact each other. The land use decisions that a planning commission makes, and the physical and functional character they promote, don’t just impact what the place looks like -- they also impact how people feel about the community, whether they believe that the community is a worthwhile investment, and whether they have confidence in the community’s future.

Similarly, when other agencies make decisions -- whether transportation, park and recreation departments, neighborhood and downtown nonprofits, school districts -- those decisions have a direct impact on the issues that are supposed to be the planning commission’s main responsibility.

We know all that in our guts, but the systems we are given to work with pretend that these issues are separate, and they often keep us from acting on that gut understanding. Since planning, by its nature, is a bit more, shall I say, omnivorous that some of the other systems, like engineering or recreation, the planning commission often becomes the place where the impacts that one decision has on other elements of the community most fully come out.

The second reason why I say that is simple observation: every planning commission in the country finds itself in that center ring sooner or later, trying to manage a whole range of impacts, and often without a whole lot of useful tools. And planning commissions often get the blame for the unintended and unexpected impacts of what other parts of the local government or other community organizations do. That’s why the article is titled “Welcome to the Tightrope Act” -- like it or not, as a planning commissioner, you’re part of the circus!

Wayne Senville: In what sort of ways can planners and planning commissions better address their community's long-term economic needs?

Rucker-quote2-may11Della Rucker: For me, the most critical things we need to do are to think more carefully about the potential long-term consequences of our planning decisions, address clearly how these systems fit together, and make it a priority to build upon our local assets to make our communities unique.

Many of us have a tendency to cut corners and make assumptions. One of the most dangerous assumptions is that the future is going to basically be an extension of the past. We default to the future-basically-the-same-as-the-past assumption because it’s simpler than dealing with a cloud of uncertainty.

What we have to do -- if we are serious about making our communities work for the long run -- is systematically think through all the possible future scenarios we might encounter and set up our plans and processes to give us the best odds. That means that we plan for: buildings and places that can be used flexibly; transportation and land use patterns that give us a diversified portfolio of moving, working, and living options; and community programs that are reviewed and readjusted on a regular basis.

How we build on local assets goes by a lot of names -- asset-based management, economic gardening are two. But the fundamental strategy is straightforward: that which makes you unique makes you valuable.

The analogy I often use is about buying a toy for one of my sons for his birthday. If he hasn’t asked for anything specific, I can go to virtually any old store and pick up one of a wide range of things. But if the one thing he wants is a very specific action figure or Lego set or something, I am more likely to seek out a store with a more specialized selection, even if it’s less convenient to me, and I am likely to pay a little more to get it.

In economic development, that’s called a niche business, and it survives because it offers something different and desirable -- not to everyone, but to a subset of people. Our communities, especially smaller communities, are really niche businesses. We aren’t going to appeal to everyone on the planet, but there will be something in our mix of assets that will appeal to some subset of the market of potential residents and businesses. And those people who want what we have to offer will place a much higher value -- and will be much more willing to invest in our community -- than someone who doesn’t want our assets or is looking for any old place.

That doesn’t mean that we put ourselves in a time capsule and never permit change, but it does mean that when we evaluate potential improvements we ask the question: will they help us maintain our authentic uniqueness? If planning commissions and planners can use their "center ring" position to help move their communities into more rigorous and realistic future thinking, and also into building on the community’s inherent assets, then they will have a profound impact on the long-term economic vitality and resilience of their community.

Wayne Senville: In your Spring PCJ column you mention the erosion in state and federal financial assistance facing communities across the country. How do you see this as affecting approaches to local planning and community development?

Rucker-quote3-may11Della Rucker: Two things: first, the assumption that any growth is good is probably on its last legs, because the accounting of the real costs and revenues of growth is becoming much more transparent. Building a road as an enticement to new businesses is going to require more money from the local community and less money from the state or the feds, and that’s going to make the cost-benefit analysis much more transparent (and much more painfully obvious when there’s no way it the project is worth the costs).

Second, I think that communities are going to have to become more self-dependent. There are simply going to be fewer, and smaller, non-local pots of money to tap than in the past. I don’t think that state and federal funds are going to vanish entirely, but they are going to be more strategic, more strict in their permitted uses, and more competitive to get. That’s scary in the short term, especially given the huge costs in infrastructure and services that a lot of local governments are facing. Long term, I think that shift is actually a cause for some optimism. It will force us to make better decisions and understand the impacts of our choices better than we often do today.

Wayne Senville: You have a background in both planning and economic development. How has this shaped your career -- and what got you interested in combining the two fields in the first place?

Della Rucker: I actually got into planning, and later into economic development, because I started my career doing historic preservation and downtown revitalization work. That gave me a first-hand view of how the physical landscape and organizations impact economies and vice-versa. When I went back, ten years later, and got my masters in planning, I assumed that everyone saw those connections. I learned that wasn’t always the case.

A lot of my clients back then were small businesses and nonprofits. And I was a small business owner myself. That gave me a deeper understanding (and sympathy for) the challenges that small businesses and small organizations experience.