Author Archives: rmbradshaw

Farewell & Good Luck

After two years here at Renew Lehigh Valley, first as a Community Fellow and now as the Director, it is a bittersweet Friday.   I will be leaving RenewLV to get married this fall and head north to Connecticut to join my fiance in the next chapter of our lives.  Today is my last day here at RenewLV, but before I left I wanted to say a few words over the blogosphere.

First and foremost, thank you!  It has been an exciting two years to witness change and growth here at RenewLV.  Though our initiatives have shifted since our foundation, our mission remains the same– promoting smart growth and efficient governance in the Lehigh Valley to create an environmentally and economically sustainable future for the region.  The addition of Envision Lehigh Valley, the three-year Sustainable Communities regional planning grant, has gotten stakeholders and communities talking and excited about planning for a sustainable future for the Lehigh Valley.  It has been a privilege to work with so many wonderful and talented people and to talk with so many enthusiastic and active community members across the Lehigh Valley.  RenewLV’s continues to promote regional collaboration and efficient governance through regional crime data-sharing, regional collaborative management of water/wastewater systems, and inter-governmental cooperation for delivery of services in the Slate Belt.  There are many exciting things on the horizon, including our first annual smart growth conference on October 24th and the return of our Brown Bag Discussion sessions.  I’m sorry to be leaving at such an exciting time!

I hope you will welcome my successor (who you will meet shortly) with open arms, as you welcomed me into this new position, and support them in their new role.  This is a long-term agenda, but through this collaborative network that continues to grow, I trust that even more promising things will blossom from the cooperative efforts of the Lehigh Valley.  Though I may be four hours north, I’ll certainly be closely following the progress of this region that has become home.   So thank you to you all for your support, your input, and your conversation over the past two years.  I hope you will continue to support RenewLV and our efforts as we ALL work together to create a sustainable future for the Lehigh Valley.

With all the best,

Rachel

Comprehensive Planning with the Community

Discussing comprehensive planning is not typically at the top of people’s list of things to discuss over the dinner table or with neighbors in the evenings.  But what many of us fail to realize is how important the Comprehensive Plan for a region can be.  The Cambridge, Maryland community was similar, until plans for a large development project that would have changed the whole character of the town forced community members to pay attention to zoning and land use planning.

In 2008, a 1,000 acre project was proposed for the community that would have added 3,200 homes and a golf course to the community of about 1,200.  Such a large project and the possibility of drastic change in the town got the community’s attention.  Together with local planners, city officials, and university architecture schools, community members and main street groups decided to change the course of planning in their communities.  They held over 75 public meetings to gather public input, asking residents what they envisioned for the town.  This public input and collaboration process assisted the creation of a new comprehensive plan for the community that was designed to “help prioritize community needs and investments…publicly announce and renew commitments to people, places, and to ideas, [and] give direction to all who would accept responsibility for the well-being of their city.”  After the adoption of this new community-driven comprehensive plan, Cambridge is now working to update zoning regulations and will recommend a draft Unified Development Code.

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission engaged public input for the creation of an updated comprehensive plan back in 2005.  I’m betting that most people have not read the entire document, but the Comprehensive Plan…The Lehigh Valley 2030 certainly should be more familiar to community members and municipal officials.  The region will be adding another 145,000 people to our communities over the next 20 years.  Where will these people live?  Will there be affordable housing options?  What will the impact be on infrastructure and public services?  How will such growth impact economic development and job availability? Just as Cambridge, Maryland received assistance from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities for its planning efforts, so too has the Lehigh Valley received federal assistance.  Envision Lehigh Valley is a grant-funded project through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities aimed at enhancing our Current Comprehensive Plan to make it more sustainable.  And, just as Cambridge asked the community for input on their vision for their communities, so too are we asking the community to envision the Lehigh Valley’s future.

I won’t sugarcoat it; planning and codes is not always the most exciting topic for evening discussion. But it is absolutely necessary for us as a community to be aware of the implications these comprehensive plans have on our future.  We need your input as the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and other members of the Sustainability Consortium work together to create a regional sustainability plan for the Lehigh Valley.  Cambridge, Maryland has proven that it can work with very positive results.  Join us and share your vision for the sustainable future of the Lehigh Valley and public forums scheduled this fall focused on fair housing, fresh food access, affordable housing, economic development, transit, and energy efficiency.

How to Make a Great Place– Top 26

Being the tech-savvy Millennials that we are here at RenewLV, I happened upon a tweet from our friends at Sustainable Cities that I felt I had to share with you to get your input.  The folks at Project for Public Spaces authored the initial post, who also happen to have a connection to the Eastern Gateway project in Bethlehem after doing some work here a few years ago.  After taking Rep. Bob Freeman’s class at Lehigh University about growth management and what “place” really means (and passing with high marks, I might add), I found this particular list intriguing.  Put these 26 items into play in your life, and you will have designed a “great place.”

The following list is excerpted from the new e-book How to Design Our World for Happiness, edited by Jay Walljasper and the ace team at On the Commons.

  1. Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions.
  2. Notice how many of life’s pleasures exist outside the marketplace—gardening, fishing, conversing, playing music, playing ball, enjoying nature, and more.
  3. Take time to enjoy what your corner of the world offers (As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once declared, “We are bigger than our schedules.”)
  4. Have some fun. The best reason for making great places is that it will enliven all of our lives.
  5. Offer a smile or greeting to people you pass. Community begins with connecting—even in brief, spontaneous ways.
  6. Walk, bike, or take transit whenever you can. It’s good for the environment, but also for you. You make very few friends behind the wheel of your car.
  7. Treat common spaces as if you own them (which, actually, you do). Pick up litter. Keep an eye on the place. Tidy things up. Report problems or repair things yourself. Initiate improvements.
  8. Pull together a potluck. Throw a block party. Form a community choir, slow food club, Friday night poker game, seasonal festival, or any other excuse for socializing.
  9. Get out of the house and spend some time on the stoop, the front yard, the street—anywhere you can be a part of the river of life that flows past.
  10. Create or designate a “town square” for your neighborhood where folks naturally want to gather—a park, playground, vacant lot, community center, coffee shop, or even a street corner.
  11. Lobby for more public benches, water fountains, plazas, parks, sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, and other crucial commons infrastructure.
  12. Take matters into your own hands and add a bench to your front yard or transform a vacant lot into a playground.
  13. Conduct an inventory of local commons. Publicize your findings, and offer suggestions for celebrating and improving these community assets.
  14. Organize your neighbors to prevent crime and to defuse the fear of crime, which often dampens a community’s spirits even more than crime itself.
  15. Remember streets belong to everyone, not just automobiles. Drive cautiously and push for traffic calming and other improvements that remind motorists they are not kings of the road.
  16. Buy from local, independent businesses whenever possible.
  17. Form a neighborhood exchange to share everything from lawn mowers to childcare to vehicles.
  18. Barter. Trade your skill in baking pies with someone who will fix your computer.
  19. Join campaigns opposing cutbacks in public assets like transit, schools, libraries, parks, social services, police and fire protection, arts programs, and more.
  20. Write letters to the editor about the importance of community commons, post on local websites, call into talk radio, tell your friends.
  21. Learn from everywhere. What can Copenhagen teach us about bicycles? India about wellness? Africa about community solidarity? Indigenous nations about the commons itself? What bright ideas could be borrowed from a nearby neighborhood or town?
  22. Become a guerrilla gardener, planting flowers and vegetables on neglected land in your neighborhood.
  23. Organize a community garden or local farmer’s market.
  24. Roll up your sleeves to restore a creek, wetland, woods, or grasslands.
  25. Form a study group to explore what can be done to improve your community.
  26. Think yourself as a local patriot and share your enthusiasm.

To be honest, I think some residents of the Lehigh Valley already do many of these, which is why the Lehigh Valley is such a wonderful place!  But we want to know what you think.  Anything you would add to the list or take off?  What would you recommend we focus on first and foremost to make the Lehigh Valley an even better place?

You can also share your thoughts for the future of this great “place” by visiting www.envisionlehighvalley.com

Regional Smart Growth Concerns With the LCA-Allentown Lease

The City of Allentown chose Lehigh County Authority (LCA) as the top bid in a lengthy process to lease the city’s water and wastewater system for 50 years.  Whether you like the lease scenario or not, LCA will be taking over control of the Allentown water system by August 2013.  This large deal is meant to assist Allentown with its large legacy obligation, a grave financial problem many other municipalities are also facing.  Is the lease perfect? No. Are there some real concerns about the environmental impact, given both LCA and Allentown’s history with overflow in the Lehigh River and Little Lehigh Creek? Yes.  Are there also real concerns about how this lease will assist the city with its debt obligations? Again, yes, but there is a lot of opportunity to make this work for the region.

Now Renew Lehigh Valley has been involved with LCA and the City of Allentown for a number of years discussing the possibility of consolidating the two systems to realize efficiencies, cost savings, and other benefits of regional consolidation. Though the current deal did not come about as we had hoped, it certainly is an opportunity to once again review the possibilities for and benefits of regional consolidation of water and wastewater systems in the Lehigh Valley.  Did you know there are more than three dozen water and wastewater authorities in our two-county region?  RenewLV developed a series of “Guiding Principles” as we moved through the water and wastewater discussions.  (You can read our Guiding Principles on our website.)  In accordance with these principles, RenewLV did support LCA as a public option during the lease discussions because a public authority with public oversight provides the opportunity for further regional collaboration of systems; whereas, a private entity would have taken that option off the table.

Since LCA now has the bid and the wheels are turning with the transfer getting underway, RenewLV does have some concerns about the lease and LCA and Allentown’s practices over the course of that lease.  I attended one of the public meetings LCA held to inform the public and answer questions.  Unfortunately, the turnout was disappointing, given the population of Allentown and the size of LCA’s service area.  That said, I think it was an important first step by LCA to begin a dialogue with the public throughout this process.  Some information about the transfer of billing and other details for the consumer were shared.  Open, transparent conversation between the public, LCA, and the City of Allentown must be maintained in order for this lease to be successful and an effective model for other regional consolidation (albeit, under slightly different circumstances– sans the financial implications of a lease.)  The following is a summary of some of RenewLV’s concerns and recommendations with this lease.  A full copy of the position paper can be found on our website.

  • All monies received by the City of Allentown from the LCA under this lease must be kept in a Restricted Fund for the sole purpose of paying for Pension Costs
  • Adopt sustainable practices for water resource management
  • Undertake regional water services planning, cooperative projects among water systems, and consolidation of systems
  • Prioritize the use of existing water system assets over the creation of new infrastructure
  • Encourage water and sewer infrastructure projects that promote revitalization of older communities (cities and boroughs)
  • Prohibit projects that contribute to suburban sprawl
  • Apply best practices for the environmental stewardship of our watersheds
  • Transparent and inclusive stakeholder and community engagement by the LCA and Allentown in providing access to materials and public meetings
For more information about LCA and the proposed lease, visit http://allentownwatersewer.com/#

The Cost of Suburban Sprawl and Why Smart Growth Yields Greater Tax Revenues for a Community

For decades it was a given that growing suburban communities benefit from the development that comes their way. Township supervisors were eager for development to expand the tax base of their municipality. It didn’t take long, however, for residents and local officials to begin to see the downside from sprawl as open space disappeared, roads became jammed with traffic, and the unique crossroad villages of their previously sleepy rural township became consumed by an endless, mind numbing array of strip malls, track housing, and nondescript industrial parks. The local sense of place was lost to the ubiquitous auto-bound culture that is suburban sprawl.

Early studies indicated that not all development was good for the tax base. Although industrial development generated revenue and made little demands on services and commercial development usually was a break even proposition, residential development most definitely did not pay for itself when built in a low density fashion. Housing brought kids which put a strain on the school system, requiring more teachers and class rooms to teach a burgeoning student population. Transporting students by bus across spread out distances added more cost to educating our youth. More residents meant eventual need for a professional police department, perhaps a professional fire department, and expanded demand for parks and other recreational amenities. Single use zoning required more roads to connect the dots of life among sprawl and all of this cost more than property taxes on residential units would be able to sustain over the long term.

Now a new report from Smart Growth America provides additional evidence that sprawl is expensive and costs a lot more than traditional neighborhood development does. Surveying 17 studies of compact versus sprawl development across the country revealed that compact development cost 38 percent less in upfront infrastructure than sprawl because it requires fewer miles of roads, sewer, and water lines than the low density pattern of development that is the norm in suburbia. Compact development also cost 10% less in ongoing service delivery costs by reducing distances that police, fire protection, and garbage trucks have to travel to serve residents. On top of it more traditional, compact models of development yield, on average, about 10 times more tax revenue per acre. It’s all pretty obvious but culturally elusive that traditional town development would yield higher revenues, while reducing delivery of service costs, and reducing infrastructure costs too.

Building in a more compact, denser form does not mean overcrowding. Indeed, some of our most cherished communities in America are built with anywhere from 10 to 15 residential units an acre and accommodate both the car and pedestrian in a walkable, multi-travel-route street grid with tree shaded sidewalks. The mixed use nature of traditional development lends itself to greater walkability, convenience, vitality, and the vibrancy that come from a mixed use setting of homes, shops, schools, parks and places of employment all within a compact form. Think of places like Georgetown, Savannah, Park Slope in Brooklyn, or the Lehigh Valley’s extremely stable and desirable neighborhoods of College Hill in Easton, Allentown’s West End or Bethlehem’s downtown neighborhood located around Main, New, Church, and Market Streets and you begin to get the picture. In addition to the wonderful quality of life factors that come from traditional patterns of development and foster a true sense of community, more compact development simply yields a better tax base with less of the costs that come from the spread out, overextended pattern of development that is suburban sprawl. For more details on the Smart Growth America report, go to: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/05/quantifying-cost-sprawl/5664/.

Our guest blogger, Representative Robert Freeman, represents the 136th Legislative District of Northampton County.  During his previous 12 years in the House, Freeman served as chairman of the House Select Committee on Land Use and Growth Management (1991-92), which recommended ways to improve growth management and reduce sprawl. He was one of the leaders in revising the Municipalities Planning Code in 2000 and authored the Elm Street Program designed to revitalize older residential neighborhoods. The Elm Street legislation was signed into law in February 2004.  He also teaches a course at Lehigh University entitled on growth management and the politics of sprawl. Representative Freeman joined the Renew Lehigh Valley Board of Directors in 2013.

Chuck Marohn’s Message Resonates in Lehigh Valley

As a follow-up to last week’s blog about Chuck Marohn’s Strong Towns presentation, guest bloggers Ron Beitler and Scott Alderfer co-wrote the following post. Ron Beitler – Ronbeitler.com, Ron is a local smart growth advocate. Scott Alderfer – Scott’s blog “streamhugger”, Scott is Chair of LMT’s Environmental Advisory Council

“Earlier this week, we had the opportunity to attend the lecture by Chuck Marohn, author and Executive Director of the Minnesota-based non-profit group Strong Towns that Ron mentioned guest blogging here on ‘Crossroads’ two weeks ago.  The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.  Chuck stopped in Lower Macungie last Wednesday as part of his week-long, 11-town lecture tour of Pennsylvania.  (Here is a link to a news story about Chuck’s talk in Lancaster, PA, later the same day that I heard him speak. )

Drawing on his experience as both a civil engineer and a land planner, Chuck argued that the way U.S. municipalities have been growing since World War II has been based on an unsustainable Ponzi scheme that funds continually-expanding suburban development without considering the long-term costs of that development.

Strong Town’s website explains that, since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

  • Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.
  • Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.
  • Public- and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

But these developments rarely generate more revenue than the taxpayer invested when governments take into account long-term obligations.  New, short-term gains in public revenue must then be used to offset the long-term costs from the “next big thing” of 20 years ago.  That’s because the costs to these governments in long-term maintenance or added debt service were not accounted for when the politicians were being courted by the developers decades earlier.

Chuck’s take home message was that any private development project that is seeking public assistance (e.g. utility or transportation subsidies or financing incentives) should present a realistic cost-benefit analysis.  And that includes all long-term costs.

When we … exploit land development ordinances that fail to recognize Smart Growth principles, we get more and more big box stores and strip malls on the outskirts of developed areas.  In other words, we get more sprawl.  They try to sell it to us with a fairy tale about how many more jobs their big box will create and how much more tax revenue the development will generate if the municipality will “partner” with the developer to extend roads and utilities to the cornfields that they want to pave over.  But widening our local roads to accommodate more sprawling developments only gives the illusion of prosperity in our local communities.

Developers and municipal officials, who may either be naïve or have ulterior motives, will continue the Ponzi scheme of getting governments to subsidize the infrastructure for more sprawl until there is a grassroots push to demand cost-benefit analyses for these train wrecks of cinder blocks and asphalt being touted as economic development.

Strong Towns’ mission to help towns become financially strong and resilient by making better-informed decisions is a mission that should appeal to folks of all political stripes.  For tree huggers (or stream huggers) like Scott, it means putting the brakes on unchecked development of greenfields, because most developers would have to fund more of the infrastructure improvements themselves. For fiscal conservatives, like Ron, it means making development pay it’s own way. Both of us see the value in both approaches. Either way the Strong Towns perspective is something to consider.”

Strongtowns.org Message Coming to the Lehigh Valley

Guest blogger, Ron Beitler, from Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie, will blog today and tomorrow about the Strong Towns presentation being held tonight in Easton at Lafayette College and tomorrow at Lower Macungie Township Offices.  To view location details, visit http://www.strongtowns.org/pennsylvania-tour/.  This is his report:

On January 9th, Charles Marohn will bring the Strongtowns.org ‘curbside chat‘ message to the Lehigh Valley. The chat is a presentation, followed by a community-specific discussion, about the financial health of our places.

The Strongtowns message is important because it transcends politics. Personally I get nervous when folks assume one particular party has ‘ownership’ over the smart growth issue. At it’s core smart growth is a fiscally conservative philosophy. Some such as Kaid Benfield have went so far as to call the Strong Towns message a conservatives manifesto against sprawl.

While many associate “sprawling growth patterns as rooted in their effect on the landscape, the environment, and severely compromised populations left behind,(All very important messages!) Marohn is all about the money.  As Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Marohns book) makes quite clear, Chuck believes that sprawl is a Ponzi scheme and we the taxpayers are the ones left holding the empty bags.” – Benfield NRDC Switchboard

The chat addresses the following fundamental issues:

  • Why are our ‘places’ short on resources despite decades of robust growth? What went wrong?
  • Why do we struggle at the local level just to maintain basic infrastructure?
  • What do we do now that the economy has changed so dramatically?

The answer according to Marohn is in the way we’ve developed and the financial productivity of our places. The Strong Towns message takes the traditional smart growth narrative and looks at it from a fiscal sustainability standpoint. Marohn explains a growth Ponzi scheme in the following way:

Swapping long-term obligations for near-term cash works for a while, but as with any Ponzi scheme, it ultimately collapses under its own weight. We have grown in a pattern that is inefficient, making poor use of our resources and investments.

Friends LMT‘, an East Penn smart growth advocacy group brought Marohn to the area a few months ago via webcast. I found the presentation eye-opening. I will definitely be attending the Lower Macungie Township visit to see Chuck in person. The message is relevant to a place like Lower Macungie that may be falling into the trappings of hyper growth for two decades and only now beginning to feel the effects of the second life cycle of developments.

What: Chuck Marohn Curbside Chat 

Where: Lower Macungie Municipal Building

When: January 9th 8-9:30am

Free & Open to the public

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Crossroads 2012 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for Crossroads.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 8,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 14 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Coming Together in the Venn Diagram

The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley has taken an excellent approach to Community Health.  Their recently released “The Road to Health” evaluates the health of the Lehigh Valley community.  If you haven’t read through it yet, definitely read through it now.

This new report gives an excellent overview of the state of health in the Lehigh Valley, something Renew Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium touched upon at the State of the Lehigh Valley luncheon in February 2012.  But this report follows up on the call to action issued at the end of our luncheon; it shows where we are and where we have to go in order to be healthy.

A healthy community is a sustainable community.  And it’s one reason why I wanted to highlight the Health Care Council’s work.  When organizations like Renew Lehigh Valley and outreach efforts like Envision Lehigh Valley seek to plan for the future in a smarter and more efficient way, we often get into our silos. Yet, why can’t we see the larger picture?  Envision Lehigh Valley may be one effort to plan for a sustainable future for the Lehigh Valley to ensure a high quality of life, but “The Road to Health” is doing the same thing just in a different arena.  We all are working for the same goal. 

It’s like a Venn Diagram.  One outreach Imageeffort in the Valley is focused on land use and economic development, another is focused on community health, and yet another is focused on education and the connection to the neighborhoods.  They all have the same goal, and that center area where all the circles overlap is where we must focus our efforts. If we are to make the Lehigh Valley a sustainable community, we must all work together and support our various efforts.

So, I encourage you to join us at one of the Health Care Council’s two health forums being held in our area.  All those efforts in the Venn Diagram are seeking public input, as they should in order to truly have community support.  So come out Wednesday, November 28th to the Fowler Family Center at Northampton Community College (511 E. 3rd St, Bethlehem) from 7-9pm OR join them Thursday, November 29th at the Salvation Army (144 N. 8th St, Allentown) from 7-9pm.

We’re all seeking to ensure a high quality, sustainable life in the Lehigh Valley. Let’s all work together to see the bigger picture, rather than individual puzzle pieces.

A Placemaker’s Seven Keys to Stronger Community

Everyone has different ideas about what makes a community.  Eric Jacobsen, author and pastor, noted that “even if you get the physical elements right, there’s no guarantee that a place will function as a true community, as more than just a place.”  That really struck me.  Even if we create an aesthetically-pleasing facade for our streets, it doesn’t mean we will have a functioning and cohesive community.

The article I read this morning reviewed a fellow planner’s short list for keys to a stronger community. (You can read the full article here.)  The planner, Scott Doyon, compiled the following list:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

I must agree with Kaid Benfield, the blogger also commenting on Doyon’s short list, that I’m generally pleased with the list.  I think it’s great to combine physical features with less tangible elements to create a sense of community.  I also agree with Benfield when he notes that he would alter the list to include a point about controlling sprawl.

Here in the Lehigh Valley we certainly know about the sprawling development.  But have we ever stopped to think about its effect on the sense of community?  As development sprawls outward, we lose many of these elements that create a close and cohesive community. The neighborhoods aren’t walkable.  It’s difficult to develop programming and events for people that don’t feel connected to one another.  And I certainly agree that good governance is key; however, RenewLV would argue that this “good governance” should also be characterized by reduction of redundancy in the government.  “Good governance” should be efficient and effective stewards of its resources, working through partnerships within the community and region.

Overall, I think Doyon and Benfield have the right ideas.  Here in the Lehigh Valley we have such unique communities.  But maybe it’s time we stop to think if we have all the proper components to be a truly cohesive and effective community.  We must work together, and I think that means working beyond the municipal boundaries and extending to others.  The Lehigh Valley has unique communities, but as a region I think we can work together to preserve and enhance these areas in order to become a regional community.

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