We did not stay up too late last night to talk about planning issues. The early morning car ride down and long day had us all a little tired. Plus, we had a little bit of real work to finish up. Even so, we all got up early enough today to make it to the opening keynote, Rebuilding America. Like yesterday, I'm planning to blog live today as the conference unfolds for me, sharing my thoughts, notes and observations throughout each session.


Rebuilding America

I'm not sure which one of the three speakers the one is, but he is saying a lot of the things we have discussed at TPB.com. To summarize: We have a lot of debt, that debt is going to force us to make choices, we don't have the money to maintain all of the infrastructure we have. He suggested that the Obama Administration and some legislative leaders are looking for engineers to give them a priority list, essentially, if we can't do it all, what is the most critical infrastructure to work on.

This is a comment that parallels forecasting we have been making for some time. At some point, our debt is going to force us to set priorities on what infrastructure to maintain. We have a power-shift away from rural areas and, combined with the fact that small-town spending does not have the bang-for-the-buck that urban/suburban spending has (small-town subsidy just allows people to live a desired lifestyle, not create jobs or import-replacing endeavors), I can't see large government subsidies being lavished on our small towns.

The next speaker now is talking about the next great issue: greenhouse gas emissions and cap and trade. He just had a map up showing the emissions/?? (?? might have been Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)). The map showed that urban areas have a lower emission/VMT than suburban and urban areas. This is largely because of the multi-modal options in urban areas.

Regardless of what you think of the global warming issue, this line of reason is going to be central to our political thinking for the foreseeable future. That is probably not a bad thing because we need to become more efficient as a country, but again it is clear that this is not an issue that is going to manifest favorably for small towns. Small towns and rural areas, as currently being built, are dramatically less efficient than their urban and suburban counterparts, largely due to government subsidy. If the subsidy goes away it will force efficiency, but in a really painful way.

The view from the cheap seats here in the main auditorium at APA.

One of the discussions we had last night in the off-hours (which is the true value of attending this conference) is the status of the Federal Highway Trust Fund. i must confess that I do not have an intimate knowledge of the fund, but the speaker now just indicated that this fund is being funded by revenues in addition to gas tax and other user-related fees (debt and general fund, is what it sounded like). I'd like to know more about the workings of this fund. He is calling for a gas tax increase to make this fund solvent, but is not optimistic it will happen. 

One other interesting point from this speaker: he indicated that the highway Trust Fund rewards states that have a higher number of lane-miles and Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). Obvious, yes - another unintended consequence of big-government spending: we are actually rewarding those places that operate the least efficiently by allowing them to be even less efficient. Anyone have any book suggestions on the Highway Trust Fund - I'd like to know more.


Creating Effective Form-Based Codes

As I was sitting in this auditorium waiting for the session to start, I noticed the session Ben Oleson went to included John Adams as a speaker. John Adams of the University of Minnesota is one of the best, if not the best, professors I ever had. I learned more life-altering facts from his course than any class I had taken before or after. So I was pondering switching sessions until this one started.

There are two speakers here; one of the is a guy named Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design Inc. I knew the name was familiar, but then he held up his book and it all became clear. He is one of the authors of Form Based Codes: A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities and Developers. I have read and have relied heavily on this book in generating ideas in my quest to create the Code for Strong Towns. Now I am excited to hear what he has to say.

Oh good - lists. I love lists.

Tips for writing Form-Based Codes 

  1. Use physical form, instead of use, as the organizing principle of your code. Make sure that the use is not the driving factor / organizing principle for the code. He indicates that use often creeps back into FBC's, so you need to resist that.
  2. Analyze your entire city for potential application. Whoa - he is saying that, during your comp plan, take a look at the entire community and determine if FBC can apply. May be a good idea in a more urban or surburban area, but I can't see that making much sense in our small towns with surrounding rural areas. I get what he is saying, and it may have some application in some of our larger small-towns (Brainerd as opposed to Pequot, as a local example).
  3. Analyze your existing code. Look at the worst-case buildout under the current code in each zone. you want to allow the same amount of development potential, but make sure it fits. He has a great slide that superimposes a 3-story apartment building into a residential area. The idea here is to let people envision what their current code would allow and produce and contrast that with a FBC approach.
  4. Choose an organizing principle for the code. He is now showing the rural-to-urban transect that the SmartCode suggests. This is perhaps where I have struggled the most with the Code for Strong Towns....what is the organizing principle. I'm fairly sure that it needs to be street-based, not transect-based. Again, that approach may not work once you get beyond a Pequot-sized community and into a Brainerd-sized community. In the latter, the transect approach may make the most sense. I think in terms of our model code, the aim would be more towards Pequot-sized communities, with the principles certainly applicable to Brainerd-sized communities.
  5. Reduce the number of zones. One of the principle reasons for this is to make the code more usable.
  6. Use existing development as the DNA for the form-based code.

Some other notes:

A code may have two types of zones - a Form-Based zone and Special Districts, which is where auto-dependent uses would go. He is advocating regulating them differently and not trying to force walkable where you already have auto-oriented established. FBC is about creating a special place, so don't try and mix the two, especially if it waters down the FBC place.

Go ahead and identify "districts", which are uses that are by themselves and like it that way (airports, industrial areas....), and create a special district for them. 

He pointed out that historic communities used to be built, in a walkable way, around schools. What a beautiful thought, actually. Too bad we can't recapture that in many areas.


I was able to run over and chat with John Adams briefly before heading to my next session. Very nice to see him. I then ran into three former CGI planners - all Humphrey Institute graduates and all attended the sessions with Professor Adams. They all made me feel really bad for missing it because, as they attested, he was brilliant, as one would expect.


Automating Land and Zoning Management

I headed to this session to see if I could learn anything that would help in development of CGI's Land Use Tracker, our permitting program for small towns. It took me about three minutes to come to a realization that this was 100% big-city and I was not going to get anything really good out of the session - at least nothing worth the time.

The great thing about APA is that, in that circumstance, you get up and walk out and go to another session. That is how I got here:


Ethics in Planning

I was informed between sessions that I am required to get two continuing education credits in the area of ethics in order to maintain my AICP certification. I'll have to check into the actual requirement. This session gives me 1.5 credits (can I round up?), so here I am.

The whole idea of professional ethics is one that has always prompted lots of discussion and thought on my part. Here are a few thoughts.

Part of AICP's code of ethics is something along the lines of "promoting social justice". Now I know what they mean, I think. The base it is along the lines of ensuring that situations like New Orleans don't happen - that we overlook the disadvantaged in our work as planners. I agree with this, but it is too complex and difficult an issue to reduce to a single slide or point in a Code of Ethics. If you look at New Orleans, there is on one hand a kind of helplessness (what can one planner do within such a system) and a kind of pragmatism (I can't help everyone, but I can help some) that arises. Where is our duty?

Is it more ethical for me to help a town create the plan they envision, even if it is completely unworkable. We have communities all the time that want a comprehensive plan because they think it will help them get grants and advertise their businesses. When we help them get to a point where they have to make difficult decisions, and they pass or choose an approach that is self-destructive (we're going to zone everything commercial), what is our ethical duty? Do we listen to the public or do we not? I don't know the answer.

Before I was a member of AICP, I had an ethics complaint filed against me over my involvement as city planner in a development project. The project had been submitted and I had been working with the elected and appointed officials to process the application. We had worked through most of the issues they had and had reached the statutory time deadline for review, so we needed to make a decision. We recommended approval, which is what the Planning Commission did. Before it was heard by the Council, a neighborhood group petitioned for an environmental review. The petition was granted and the environmental review went forward, so I switched from processing the application to processing the environmental review. When the environmental review did not go in the direction the neighborhood group desired, I was accused of a conflict of interest (the notion was, since I had recommended approval of the development, I was incapable of working on the environmental review without being biased towards the earlier recommendation, thus overlooking issues with the development). It got pretty rough, with an attorney preparing a multi-page affidavit basically asserting the conflict (along with doctored evidence as testimony).

So what was the ethical thing to do. AICP says to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. In this instance, I certainly had nothing even remotely financial to gain from the development being approved. In fact, if one were cynical, I would have more to gain by postponing the process since I was being paid hourly for the work. I had also worked with the city for six years and had their trust along with a good understanding of the community, so I was in the best position to represent their priorities. On the other hand, these residents were not going to accept anything I worked up, and they certainly believed my earlier recommendation was professionally binding to me, making me incapable of looking at the situation with an open mind. 

This session is not interesting, and it doesn't answer these real-world situations (although I am getting my credit by being here).

For small towns, is it ethical for us to help them get funding for their project today if that, while solving their immediate problem, only puts off the long-term day of reckoning? Does the answer hold when the decision makes that long-term problem more severe. Seems like two planners could make two different decisions - does this make one ethical and one not?

They recommended an episode of The Office about ethics. I'll have to try and find it.



After a good lunch with our friend Loren Wickham from Nisswa, MN, Ben and I opted to take a session off and tour the exhibitors. I always enjoy this portion of the conference and typically find something useful there. While the pickings were kind of bare this year, I was able to collect some information on permitting software. (For some reason everyone believes massive complexity, and high price, is the way to go - I think small towns are going to like the Land Use Tracker once it is available outside of our Network Communities.) I also bought a couple of good books (I am to planning books what Amielda Marcos was to shoes), so it was time well spent.


Blending Use and Form Standards

Another presenter from Clarion Associates was the deciding factor that hooked me in to this session. The premise seems to be that form-based codes are not the answer for an entire jurisdiction, so some blending of approaches is necessary. He is even arguing that we have gone too far with form regulation and need to keep use in mind. A cartoon example is given of two identical buildings next to each other, one labeled "school for marching bands" and another labeled "home for those with migraine headaches". 

I'm not necessarily converted to the notion that the predictability of Euclidean zoning is a value that trumps the advantages of the market, as manifested through the use of FBC. 

Some of the presenter's point on why use matters: 

  • Preserve safety - limit dangerous processes/materials in key areas
  • Maintain predictability - citizen expectations taxation and infrastructure planning
  • Ensure administrative ease - enforcement, interpretation, application of development standards like parking
  • Protect preferred uses - for example, industrial zones

I guess I am not going to argue that FBC are THE solution that solves every problem, but these arguments do not sway me into keeping Euclidean zoning, especially since the basis of the humble approach that is FBC is that it is not possible to regulate all solutions. The elegance of the FBC, especially in small towns, is that it does not presuppose to know the type of uses that will be demanded in the market. It just provides for the form, or how that use will address the public realm.

But certainly we need hybrid codes (my thought). The Code for Strong Towns, as envisioned, is a hybrid code. But it is a simplified approach and I do not anticipate block-by-block performance standards, for example.


Open Mic Night for Planning

This is the last session of the day, and APA definitely got this right. I was recently made aware of the idea of Pecha Kucha by friend-of-TPB.com, John Commers. The idea is that each presenter gets 20 slides with 20 seconds each slide for a total presentation of six minutes and forty seconds. It keeps things moving, keeps things sharp and focused and, if the presenter stinks, well there is a new one coming in just six minutes.

The first speaker, while I was booting up, gave a great presentation on water. He talked about runoff, natural landscaping and thinking differently about water and water resources. Wonderful presentation with tremendous graphics and delivered with a lot of passion - exactly what Pecha Kucha is all about.

The second speaker is a guy from Minneapolis talking about foreclosures. I'm a fast reader and I am having a hard time keeping up - too much text, although there is a lot of good data. I love flow charts, but you can't do this type of presentation with a complex flow chart. Whoa - a whole page of text......aaarrrrgggghhhh!

The next speaker is from the Federal Reserve in Richmond. Standard disclaimer, then into the presentation about poverty studies. "Infrastructure alone is not enough to move people out of poverty," she indicated, following that things like housing, employment, education and leadership capacity are also critical factors. It is nice to hear someone from the Fed talking in these terms. I would love to have access to the statistics that those at the Fed have access to (update: maybe we can), although I am sure that at times like these they still probably feel like they don't have enough. She is getting near the end and talking about a lack of leadership in struggling communities, and a lack of capacity to lead. We see that too, and since she is out of time, I won't know if she has any answers.

Planned Unit Development is the next subject. The speaker is from MFRA in Plymouth, an engineering firm that we have seen working here locally. Text, text, text, text. Oh no - all text. I'm just going to stop commenting at this point lest I post something I should not. Oh no - he has text and main words spelled wrong. Seems like a nice guy, but I feel bad that our two Minnesota speakers have not represented.

Last speaker is from Washington DC - sweet, she has music. Jazz music. The topic is Union Station, I believe. I love Union Station, and she is doing a good job of presentation. What does Union Station want to be when it grows up? That gives a great mental image to go with the images on the screen. Now slides about stakeholders....too many to manage. Great slides. The study to be completed next month is going to give options for updating Union Station. I get it - great presentation and great presenter. Very nice.


Tonight the team is off to a dinner at the Humphrey Institute and connect with some old CGI friends. More blogging coming up tomorrow.

Ben Oleson and Megan Schlegel at the HHH dinner monday evening.