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The Planning Commission at Work

Reinventing Your Community From the Inside Out – Part II

[see Part I of this post]

Local assets often provide strong potential for communities to reinvent themselves from the inside out.

In today’s economy, there are generally limited opportunities to attract industry from somewhere else  -- that is, to grow from the outside in. But local assets often provide strong potential for communities to reinvent themselves from the inside out.

We showed in Part I how cities like Asheville, Detroit, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh have taken cast-off land uses and re-purposed them to spur local entrepreneurship. These success stories didn't just happen. Each case involved a blend of innovation, opportunism, partnership, preparedness, and time.

Grow local, eat local, buy local -- we've all increasingly hearing those words. They reflect a truth: growing consumer awareness and demand is creating new local entrepreneurship opportunities. In turn, creative and interesting options are opening up for communities to solve vacancy and blight while also fostering job creation.

But how can you as a planning commissioner help your community reinvent itself from the inside out?  As with everything else in life, there is no single answer, but there are steps that you can take to proactively position your city or town for locally-driven economic advantage.

Housing and gardens at Billings Forge in Hartford
The Billings Forge project in a low-income Hartford, Connecticut, neighborhood has made use of an old factory building for a mixed-use development providing housing and job opportunities. For more details, use the link to "Anchoring a Neighborhood" in the sidebar on your left.

1. Re-evaluate your plan’s growth goals. You recall that we began Part I with the story of Hannah Twaddell’s experiences helping Binghamton, New York develop a new vision plan when most of the community had not yet let go of their vision of a restored manufacturing base. It took one young newcomer to suggest that perhaps Binghamton’s best opportunity was to quit waiting for growth and instead make itself the best smaller city it could be.

As a planning commissioner, it is important to take a hard look at your community’s demographics, economic forecasts, and population projections. Is it realistic to continue to expect your community to grow?  Or is your best opportunity to become the best smaller community you can possibly be? Adjust your plan’s goals to reflect the most likely growth scenario based on hard data.

2. Asset-based planning. Look around for your special places, the assets that you can connect to and build on for community vitality and your own unique sense of place.  Then evaluate what would help people to use and enjoy them more. Improved access?  Improved relevance? Improved public safety?

Ed McMahon, a Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute and a long-time writer for the Planning Commissioners Journal had this to say about the importance of “place” in communities:

"Land use planners have spent too much time focusing on numbers: the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building, and not enough time on the values, customs, characteristics, and quirks that make a place worth caring about. ... To foster a sense  of place, communities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are uplifting and memorable -– and that create a special feeling of belonging and stewardship by residents."

-- From “The Placemaking Dividend” (Planning Comm’rs Journal; Fall 2010)

Listen to the stories that community members can tell you about these places, how they use them, and what emotional connections they have (or don’t have) to these assets.

It’s important also to review maps of your city or town to see what physical connections allow or block the flow of people to the special places that people have identified. Often the relevance of these places can be increased by improving their connectivity to the community.

Next, take an inventory of what you have in your community, paying special attention to assets that are no longer being used as originally designed. On first blush closed-down factories, vacant warehouses, churches up for sale, boarded-up housing, are perceived as intractable problems. But has you community looked at ways of allowing these resources to be used in a different way?

A story circle
Story circles are an easy technique for helping your citizens tell their stories about the community. For more information about using story in the planning process see Lisa's article listed in the sidebar on your left. Photo by Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy.

Listen to neighborhood residents’ and property owners’ stories -- what life has been like, their aspirations for their future. Challenge them to envision a future that does not include the return of what used to be there, and gain their support for local innovation. With some creativity and the spark of local partnership, they can be the feedstock of reinvention -- and you may end up creating new economic opportunities.

3. Prioritization. Based on the new opportunities that emerge from your planning process, prioritize the appropriate development or redevelopment of the assets you've identified. Follow through with zoning amendments that are sufficiently flexible to promote adaptive reuse and revitalization.

This will aid in: (1) solving those community problems; (2) directing development energy into areas that already have the infrastructure to support growth, and (3) helping minimize costly sprawl.

Adaptive reuse can also be the foundation for a community green building program, since the greenest buildings are the ones that are already in place. Moreover, potential tax credits may be available to owners and developers if the structure proposed for adaptive reuse is historic.

Respect and facilitate the role that private and non-profit investment plays in implementing your plan.

4. Implementation. Identify those local partners who can help encourage and finance a home-grown economy, and link them with local entrepreneurs to empower and create start-up opportunities. Remember that actions in your plan don’t necessarily have to be carried out by local government. Respect and facilitate the role that private and non-profit investment plays in implementing your plan.

5. Celebration. Utilize existing resources to their best potential (this is true sustainability) as this continues the story of community revitalization -- a story that the community tells and a story that each individual tells about their place. Hold that ribbon-cutting, open house, street festival, or other celebration to promote the success. Engage people, and build their enthusiasm for a reinvigorated community.

6. Integration. Your community’s plan is not simply a project, and neither are the specific improvements that result from plan implementation. Your city or town is a fabric woven from its built, natural, and social environments -- and each new enterprise adds color, texture, and energy. Your plan should recognize how each revitalized component becomes a part of your community’s ongoing story.


photo of the SegedysJim Segedy, FAICP, worked for many years in Ball State University’s Community Based Planning program, providing assistance to more than one hundred communities and many plan commissions (as planning commissions are called in Indiana). He is currently a member of the Edgewood (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission and previously served on the Delaware County (Indiana) Plan Commission.

Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, AICP, is the Associate Director for River Restoration for American Rivers’ Pittsburgh field office. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she spent over a decade as a circuit-riding planner for a regional planning organization serving the western fringe of Metropolitan Atlanta.