Blog Archives

Why Should We Have a Smart Growth Book Club?

1. Some people have never heard of smart growth. What a pity it is to be unaware that we’ve been sold an inefficient way of life, and that there’s a beautiful, simpler, less expensive way to live. This book club is a vehicle to raise awareness and do our part to build a critical mass in society that will effect change that will improve air quality, our health and create stronger communities.
2. It’s a forum for smart growth devotees to network and share information. Meeting together is an enjoyable and easy way to learn. We blog face-to-face, if you will, and get to know who else is out there striving for common sense in our communities. Smart growth is about community, right?
3. Together, we may brainstorm ways to practically make the Lehigh Valley a better place to live, work, play, and worship.
4. We can make ourselves available to help one another recalibrate our own communities. For example, we may share ordinances and codes which have worked, or even attend each others’ township meetings.
5. It is hoped that this will lead to local, bi-partisan community support, and commonsense behavior. Smart growth is a broad-based cause that I believe is supported by everyone who understands it. Conservatives ought to be behind it because it aids families and the economy and saves money. Liberals should back it since it is a framework for better social parity and environmental sustainability. The need for it reaches every person’s life.
6. And of course, the book club is an excuse to better educate ourselves and thus make better choices.

To date we have held two meetings, and the conversation has been enjoyable, enlightening, and encouraging. We’re still working through James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, an engaging book that will draw in the novice as well as give talking points to the experienced. Our December meeting “covered” only the book’s first half, so in order to do it justice, let’s discuss the second half in January. As always, if you can’t read the book, you won’t be left out in the cold; your presence is important. We hope to see you at The Allentown Brew Works at 6 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 21! Please spread the word.
If possible, sign up on Facebook, or email Joanne Guth at joguth@live.com to let me know you’re going.

Envision Lehigh Valley’s Virtual Town Hall Review

Did you catch Envision Lehigh Valley’s virtual town hall meeting this week? If so, you were one of 99 viewers who tuned in to hear planners for Bethlehem, Easton, Allentown and the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission discuss growth projections and planning in the cities.

Particpants learned about the timeline for the catalytic projects in each of the three cities and how each city went about choosing the specific project that they undertook as part of the Envision Lehigh Valley grant. In addition to working on the rewrite of their city’s comprehensive plan, Becky Bradley a planner for Easton, discussed the 13th Street Corridor project that will begin soon in Easton. Darlene Heller, a planner for Bethlehem, discussed the planning and progress being made on the Eastern Gateway project in Bethlehem and Mike Hefele talked about all of the exciting development happening in Allentown as well as the Little Lehigh Industrial Corridor that he is working on as a planner for Allentown. Mike Kaiser, retiring executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, shared information and maps showing the expected growth in population for the next thirty years in the Lehigh Valley. He broke it down by municipality and demographics, as well as discussing the implications for employment and transit.

After briefly presenting their projects, the panel took questions from participants in the live chat and from those e-mailed prior to the live feed. Planners were asked about transportation and fresh food access and explained the process of comprehensive planning as a city and as a region.

Despite a brief blip with the audio in the beginning of the meeting, viewers tweeted and chatted excitedly about the discussion the planners were having, as well as the idea of a virtual town hall to discuss other Envision initiatives. It was especially convenient for those who couldn’t make it to a public meeting in person this past fall; anyone who was interested could watch the meeting right from home and still participate!

If you’re kicking yourself for missing the meeting, or want to catch the audio from the introduction that we missed – don’t fret! The full video, with the full 60 minutes of audio is going up on Envision Lehigh Valley’s YouTube channel and you can watch the whole thing, advertisement free!

Based on all of the positive feedback that we got for this meeting, we hope to hold another one soon! Stay tuned!

Corporations Now Reporting Sustainability

While sustainability is usually associated with nonprofit organizations and government planning, corporations have begun to take sustainability seriously and are reporting their progress to their shareholders.

These Corporate Sustainability Reports (or CSRs) are popping up on the websites of major companies like Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Coca Cola, Nike, GE, UPS and Nokia. These reports can include data on carbon disclosures, emissions, water usage and challenges in implementing sustainable growth policies.

CSRs should be transparent and authentic, as they are telling their customers and stakeholders what they are doing to help people, the planet and the economy. Data should be measured comparatively and the corporation should provide a baseline for the statistics that they provide. Sections can include balancing short and long term profitability, management of economic and environmental issues, risks and opportunities.

If you’d like to read some real reports, here is a list from Triple Pundit that ranks the top 10 sustainability reports from the past year. Does your company produce a sustainability report? Will it in the future? Hopefully at least one of these answers is yes!

Are We There Yet?

Sitting at home last night watching the Phillies I saw a commercial that got me thinking, not about the car they were trying to sell, but rather about the state of the our community.  It was that commercial with the little kids all asking the age-old question, “Are we there yet?”  Of course, you think they are asking about the end of a trip, but in reality they’re asking about the automobile technology.  And that’s the part that got me thinking– are we really “there” yet in terms of planning the future of the Lehigh Valley?

I would have to say no, we’re not “there” yet.  Certainly we’re doing great work among the many organizations involved in economic development, city planning, open space preservation, provision of affordable housing, assisting people in finding jobs or starting their own businesses.  But are we really “there” yet?  No, we still have quite a ways to go before we can confidently say we have a solid plan in place to handle the inevitable population growth that will hit in the next 20 years– more than 144,000 according to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.  With the increased number of people comes increased demand for housing, increased traffic, increased demand for jobs.  Not all of this is bad, don’t get me wrong, but we absolutely must plan for a sustainable future for this community.  Otherwise, we’ll drown in the overwhelming needs and lack of resources to provide for those needs.

That is why the Envision Lehigh Valley project is so timely and so necessary.  We have been given an opportunity to create a regional sustainability plan for the entire Lehigh Valley.  And the best part is that everything is driven by public input.  Any regional plan or update to the Comprehensive Plan… The Lehigh Valley 2030 that will come out of the Envision Lehigh Valley project by 2014 will be generated based upon input gathered from those who experience the Lehigh Valley daily.

So, are we “there” yet?  No, not yet.  But the key word is yet.  We can get “there” and we must do it together as a region.

Want to get involved?  Visit www.envisionlehighvalley.com to find out how

Neighboring New Jersey Preserving Land Through Compact Growth

Our neighbors in New Jersey have implemented a new way to hem in urban sprawl using new municipal ordinances.  Noncontiguous clustering is an innovative tool “that preserves farmland and open space with private funds by an alternative to conventional subdivisions; instead of building homes on large lots, a developer may use the developmental potential of a parcel or parcels where preservation is desired on a different, nonadjacent property.”

A recent report by the organization New Jersey Future, provides insight into the study of the nine municipalities currently utilizing the planning tool.  The study, “Preserving Land Through Compact Growth: Case Studies of Noncontiguous Clustering in New Jersey,” provides a detailed description of the situation in each of the nine townships with visuals to highlight the plans in place.  Read the full report here.

The nine townships featured in the report that have adopted noncontiguous clustering ordinances are Delaware, Hillsborough, Hopewell (Mercer County), Middle, Monroe, North Hanover, Ocean, Plainsboro, and Robbinsville.  One of the authors did note, however, that only four projects have been completed over the 16 years that such ordinances have been available.

Still, it is encouraging to see that townships in neighboring areas have adopted ordinances to combat the spread of sprawl.  Municipalities within the Lehigh Valley could learn a lot from these townships by studying what worked for them in the process and what obstacles hindered progress.  Farmland and open space can be preserved.  Smart planning and development can be achieved.  It takes smart policies with the power of enforcement, as well as cooperation among local government and developers, in order to prevent more sprawl.

Social and Health Implications of What We Build

It’s been difficult to think about the future since the recession began late in 2007.  And, even though economists assure us that this seemingly bottomless downturn ended in 2009, the aftershocks and adverse effects are still very evident.  Recovery, slow though it may be, allows us to envision a future once again for ourselves and for our communities.  As we refocus we notice changes that have occurred while we were busy coping with endless bad news, and we begin to consider again what we want to happen for our ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.

Last week, my colleague, Professor Tom Hammond, showed me Sanford Insurance Company maps of the Lehigh Valley dating as far back as 1885.  Anyone who thinks that the changes are over should study this series of maps– better yet, visit the new Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, the Overlook Park neighborhood in Allentown, or the Silk Mill project in Easton.  While we once thought of community architecture as a matter of aesthetics or economics (what could we build?), as we look forward we see stunning health, social, and economic benefits that are possible when communities are designed in thoughtful ways.

New interdisciplinary research on the Built Behavior and Health is being conducted by teams of urban planners, architects, developers, social and health scientists, economists and others, and is funded by the federal government.  The findings from this research reveal significant relationships between the design of the built environment and multiple health and social outcomes, including obesity, asthma, mental illness, cognitive functioning, educational attainment, and all-cause mortality.  Further, we are beginning to understand how to strengthen “social capital”, or the fundamental sense of “community”,  at the same time.  How we design our future community, then, will undeniably affect our well-being.  Moreover– when input from residents, stakeholders, and cultural groups is considered in community design and redesign, results are even more beneficial.  Collaborative events, called “charrettes”, are increasingly common and involve a series of design-input-revision sequences that seek diverse perspectives– even from the children who live in a community– about what is most needed.

In sum, we can think about the future in ways that will benefit our children, our elders, our health, and our economic well-being if we consider evidence and findings from this new field of inquiry.  As we continue to pull ourselves out of the economic downturn, we can turn our attention back to the social and health implications of what we build.  The benefits will be tangible.

Our guest blogger, Dr. Arnold Spokane, is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Lehigh University.  Dr. Spokane specializes in the transdisciplinary study of person-environment interaction in work and urban community settings across cultures.  A long-time contributor to the vocational psychology literature, he is increasingly working in the field of public health psychology, disaster mental health, and the nature of individual and culturally-driven responses to both extreme and damaged environments.  Contact Dr. Spokane at ars1@lehigh.edu.

West Ward Meeting on Master Plan

Photo courtesy of S. Feller

Easton’s West Ward Neighborhood Partnership is planning a meeting to discuss the master plan for the neighborhood and city residents are encouraged to attend. The Express Times reports:

It’s the longest block in the city and includes 57 properties, 113 apartments and about 215 residents served by six bus routes. It serves as the transition between Downtown and the West Ward.And city officials say the 600 block of Northampton Street is also one of the most challenging in Easton.

“This block for a very long time has seen change, transition, disinvestment,” said planning and codes Director Becky Bradley.

Neighbors and residents are encouraged to participate in shaping the plan. Though many city officials have been going door to door with surveys, there are many voices who have not been heard yet. Attend the meeting to discuss the proposed master plan for the 600 block of Northampton St — this Wednesday, November 17, 6pm at the Salvation Army, 1110 Northampton St. You may also fill out a survey on the plan online; visit the Easton planning website.

Lower Density Contributes to Real Estate Bubbles?

So alleges recent research on the issue. Matthew Yglesias reports on the latest findings by Haifang Huang and Yao Tang (PDF) “Residential Land Use Regulation and the US Housing Price Cycle Between 2000 and 2009″ on his blog. He cites this from the research –

In a sample covering more than 300 cities in the US between January 2000 and July 2009, we find that more restrictive residential land use regulations and geographic land constraints are linked to larger booms and busts in housing prices.

This provides some food for thought about the way land-use planning is regulated within our nation. Standard planning — one that relies on outdated zoning laws  — favors low-density design. Yet, as is suggested here, this may not be good for the economy.

Regional Planning in Rural Living

Mark Muro at the New Republic reports on the Rural Innovation Initiative, “a plan to increase the economic viability of rural communities by promoting a regional outlook in the planning and coordination of rural development programs at USDA.”

The initiative intends to make regional planning — which has traditionally been considered a tool for more metropolitan areas — more attractive for rural communities. Muro writes about the incentives of the program:

[T]he initiative provides additional money for staff to provide technical assistance and support for rural communities developing Regional strategic plans. That way, rural communities will receive useful help as more and more of them realize they are better off working regionally to compete globally, especially by leveraging regional assets and creating win-win partnerships with nearby metropolitan and micropolitan hubs.

It looks as though both rural and more metropolitan areas can benefit equally from a more regional approach to planning.

Thoughts?

Federal Role in Revitalizing Older Communities

The Brookings Institition released a report last week by Alan Mallach (Senior Fellow) entitled Facing the Urban Challenge: The Federal Government and America’s Older Distressed Cities. The report focuses on the federal role in helping out former industrial powerhouses that have been losing populations and jobs since the end of World War II, triggered by “suburban flight, deindustrialization and automobile-oriented sprawl.”

While some cities have rebounded, others continue to struggle today. The report stresses that these cities should focus on the goals of: strengthening core areas by building on key assets, preserving viable residential neighborhoods and housing, and identifying long-term “non-traditional and green uses” for vacant/abandoned lots and buildings.

Mallach argues that the federal government needs to play a stronger role in passing policies that help distressed communities achieve these goals. His recommendations for the federal government include:

  • Providing support for new comprehensive planning efforts.
  • Helping cities plan and carry out land management strategies.
  • Pursuing opportunities for investment in transformative projects and already-established assets.
  • Expanding the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
  • Focusing on retaining middle income households within these cities.

Overall, the message that I received from the report is that there is an absence of a coherent strategy and lack of coordination on the federal level for assisting distressed municipalities. Federal policies that promote more comprehensive land-use planning (and reward regions that participate in such planning efforts) would go a long way in providing the tools that some of these municipalities need to bounce back.

You can read the full report on the Brookings website. If you’re interested in keeping up to date on all news related to land-use planning, make sure to join our e-mail list by visiting RenewLV’s Join Us page.

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