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Talking with new PCJ contributing writer Beth Humstone

Editor’s Note: Over the past 35 years, Beth Humstone has worked as a planning consultant on a wide range of projects in rural communities and small towns. She serves as an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is a Board member of the Portland, Maine, Downtown District. Humstone is the former Executive Director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl (now Smart Growth Vermont) and is a past member of the Burlington, Vermont, Planning Commission, and former Chair of Vermont’s Housing & Conservation Trust Fund Board.

Some of you may recall that Humstone wrote, “Getting the Density You Want” for our Spring 2009 issue. She is also a co-author of Above and Beyond: Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas. We’re pleased that she’ll be regularly contributing to the Planning Commissioners Journal.


Wayne Senville: What first got you interested in planning?

Beth Humstone: I am the daughter of a city planner. When, as a child growing up on Long Island, I ventured forth from my leafy suburb with its tiny village center on the Long Island Railroad line, I observed — often with my father’s help — the changes brought about by highways, subdivisions, and shopping centers. At the same time, I noticed developed areas, like industrial lands in College Point, Queens, being abandoned. As growth moved further and further out from New York City consuming resources at high rates, other places were being vacated and underused. This didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

The book by Virginia Lee Burton, The Little House, also influenced me. I found it profoundly sad. The sprawl depicted seemed so inevitable. I just couldn’t accept that.

I have always wanted to find a better way for communities to grow than what I saw growing up. I’m intrigued by how and why change happens and challenged by the desire of citizens for more sustainable futures in their communities and regions.

Wayne Senville: What planning-related issues most concern you today?

Beth Humstone: Right now as an advisor from Vermont to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I am concerned about the lack of public understanding of the critical role of preservation in community revitalization. At the national level, we are seeing preservation as a tool undermined even in the new administration. Yet, study after study illustrates that preservation is a job generator and has turned around many communities and neighborhoods that experienced serious decline.

Preservation projects have leveraged public and private dollars, made better use of existing public and private investments and brought new coalitions together. But somehow the message of the importance of preservation is not getting out, especially at the state and federal levels.

Other issues that I’m concerned about include both urban and rural abandonment and decline. We are wasting valuable resources — infrastructure in our cities and natural resources in our rural areas. Another very important issue we’re facing across the country is the need to develop a better public transportation system. We all need to advocate for this, from local commissioners on up.

On Planning Commissions

Wayne Senville: From your experience, what can planning commissions do to position themselves to take a productive leadership role in their community?

Beth Humstone: To take a productive leadership role, planning commissions must be credible. They must be trustworthy, dependable, reasonable, fair, informed, open, and accessible to the public — and accountable to those who appoint or elect them. People need to know that they will get a fair hearing before a planning commission and that the commission is a source of necessary and accurate information. The planning commission is responsible for integrating and prioritizing the diverse needs and priorities of the community. This also means taking a long term view, while understanding short term needs.

Wayne Senville: If there’s one piece of advice you’d most like to give to a new member of a planning commission, what would it be?

Beth Humstone: Read the town plan and the implementing regulations and get to know them well. They should be guiding your actions. Ask questions about them. Keep them up to date. And help others to know them as well.

Dealing With Density

Wayne Senville: In your upcoming article for the Spring issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal (“Future Housing Demand: Problem or Opportunity”), you speak about the need of suburbs to consider raising densities and providing greater diversity in types of housing. How can planners deal with the resistance this often generates, especially when there’s talk of increased densities?

Beth Humstone: Many people have a knee jerk, negative reaction when they hear that densities may increase, often without an understanding of what it means in the context of their community or neighborhood. It is the role of the planning commissioner to communicate what more density means, what it looks like, and how it will be applied in each case and to be sensitive to the character and conditions in the places where more density will be encouraged.

Wayne Senville: In your article, you also talk about shifting consumer preferences, especially for smaller, greener, less expensive housing? Do you see this happening nationwide, and do you think this is a long-term shift or more reflects the impact of the past year’s deep recession?

Beth Humstone: Because of the demographic changes taking place throughout the country — in age and household composition — and because the era of cheap oil is mostly over, I think over the long run consumer preferences will continue to shift to smaller, greener, more efficient housing. While there will be some who will still strive for a larger home, or more land, or a more remote location, for a majority I think preferences and patterns are changing.