Friday, November 23, 2012

Like Things Of The Past

In the past several years the leaders of our community have brought in, sometimes at great expense, recognized experts to assist in our downtown planning. Folks like Jeanne Gang, Omar Blaik and Gary Bates have contributed their talents to specific projects and usually, very limited parts of our collective home, Lexington Ky.

Each time great care was taken to collect detailed physical data and a distilled compilation of opinions from the “stakeholders” of the project de jour. The results of these “expert” visits are then revealed with much ballyhoo and flair, which is then followed by the common nit-picking and nay-saying of the newspaper commentators, the search for political will and the greater funding with which to pull it off. Our success rate in the last decade is less than spectacular and maybe even abysmal. Certainly the rate for the last several decades is shameful.

Maybe the downfall for these expert plans was the consistent, limited scope of the individual project or the often trendiness of the solution which, as all trends do, fell quickly out of favor. Some of the trendy plans were misapplied and failed, even before the fad could run its course.

One sure element which has been left out of nearly all of these “solutions” is the need for the “human scale” elements, that's us humans, to interact between the various loci without mechanical intervention. In other words can we walk safely, comfortably and quickly from place to place and without feeling like we were wandering the Sahara. Traversing a treeless stretch of sidewalk or parking lot, either in the summer or winter, is no fun with or without a bunch of kids in tow.

I am currently read the new book, Walkable City - How downtown can save America, one step at a time by Jeff Speck, and though I could try and blast through it, I am taking the time to really compare how Lexington stacks up to his suggestions. So far, our city is in dire need of his thoughtful suggestions.

Speck claims that we “know” how to build successful walkable cities. Or we used to, because there are very walkable, older areas in many cities which are the remains of how it used to be done. I seems that we just “forgot” the process some 70 years ago and for four decades we went about doing something different. Those four decades were enough to allow many folks to believe that “this is how we have always done it” and “it shouldn't be done any other way”.

Not being a math whiz, I can still figure out that 70 years or so ago was in the later half of the 1930s. Just about the time that we let the streetcar system in Lexington die and the automobile culture really take over. It was also about ten years after a noted “expert” was brought in to write and give direction to The 1930 Comprehensive Plan. The end of the Great Depression, assisted by the Second World War, brought many “progressive” ideas on modern life and we began to forget how to build walkable elements into our lives.

Some 25 or 30 years ago, some planners began to notice that the human element was being left out of the new buildings being designed for our downtowns and other civic areas, while others noticed it missing from our subdivisions and suburban shopping centers also. The problem was that they were going up against the previous 40 years of growing, conventional “wisdom.”

That 40 years of conventional “wisdom” is alive right here in Lexington as evidenced by the continued use of bloated parking requirements, great swaths of residential development on barely navigable cul-de-sacs and large retail developments which lack any type of walkability. Even though changes are becoming evident in public thoughts and actions (housing choices and driving patterns), the plan updates show no real changes in land use designations or transportation choices. In most cases, I feel that we are operating under the land use and development codes of the 1960s, albeit with some nuanced tweaks and adjustments along the way.

In some minds, we really do need to make our city walkable - but that just means doing some enhancements to the downtown area or making sure that sidewalks are included in all new subdivisions. Downtown is the major focus whereas the whole city should be the target and for those intoxicated by the kool-aid of conventional “wisdom” the downtown is a wasteland and more or better sidewalks are not the answer.

It is my belief that our local planers, though raised on the conventional wisdom model, do desire to institute real change. They have all heard and read about the re-awakening of urbanism as a development model but as long as the property owners and their developers are still meeting the calcified standards of old, then what we have will be what we continue to receive.

So the question now stands, how do we bring about the change necessary in Lexington? Will we get to a point that the conventional “wisdom” begins to cost us in terms of attraction and retention of the talent displayed by the “creative class” Millennials so desired by our city. Some already believe that the brain drain is in progress, but I have heard that for most of my adult life. Will the change come from our leaders or from the residents as they relocate to desirable areas – here or elsewhere? Also, how will the use of conventional “wisdom” impede the change so needed?

The latest edition of Business Lexington details the recent addition of two planning professionals who are looking for the change that Lexington needs to make. Dr. Derek Paulsen and Jeff Fugate may be just the people who can debunk some of that conventional “wisdom” but old habits run very deep. We may need to look to our past for some solutions.

In the past we have brought in “experts” and sometimes we listened, is it time for another?

With my ear to the ground, till next time.

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