Believe it or not, Lexington has an image problem.
The problem does not lie in whether we are the home of a high caliber basketball program or the capital of thoroughbred horse breeding. No, our stumbling block is that we either cannot see or refuse to see our city as others see us. This is something that we NEED to fix - soon.
Events of the last week seem to have gone out of their way to drive this realization home to me.
First, were a few quotes from Erik Carlson, the new editor for Business Lexington, as a way of introduction. He said, “We’re fans of Lexington and want the city to succeed economically... But we’re not a cheerleader. We can’t be. … Dissension is necessary for proper growth. It must be respectful, but being polite and keeping everyone happy all the time cannot trump Lexington’s desire to advance as a city.”
Second, was the discussions of the Planning Commission's work session, where I understand the staff's proposed wording of plan elements appear to paint Lexington in a bad light. Having worked closely with planning staff members for over 40 years, I feel that I know the city's shortcomings and the staff's desire to overcome them. Identifying our many problems and proposing reasonable solutions should be the very starting point for a 20 year plan. Like Business Lexington, the Commission should not be a cheerleader. They should be the leaders in pushing the good solutions.
Back in 1929, when Lexington's first Comprehensive Plan was being written, the planners looked at what the existing conditions were and looked to remedy the problematic ones. They proposed a city in which they wanted their children (and others) to live. Subsequent plans seem to have backed off the identification of problem areas and more emphasis of making what we have available to more of the population. Strange, have we not seen the growing disparity in our economic classes both here, nationally and globally?
When the staff speaks of growing suburban poverty levels and a lack of adequate basic services like food and healthcare within an easily traveled distance, should that be ignored or downplayed? When the need for affordable housing is demonstrated, should certain factions on the Commission question the authenticity of the demonstration? It may be time for those making the guiding decisions for Lexington's future to take off the rose colored glasses.
From a post by Carl Schramm, a well respected economist comes a different view pertaining to urban planning. It does have some nuggets of truth and maybe some elements which Lexington can consider in future plans.
Several things are almost never spoken of when perusing a community's comprehensive plan. These items may also be considered benchmarks as to the success of following such a plan.
Plans seldom speak of what the city’s population might be at the end of the planning period. They may have varying, wide ranges of population but nothing specific for having followed the plans recommendations. A good measure of success is how many people chose to live there or have the jobs to keep them in a particular place.
Plans have no answer to the question of what the profile of persons in poverty will be by the target year. Since the usual goal of a plan is to toward success for all of a community's residents then the change in poverty profile should me measurable or predicted. Any plan should have goals and recommendations to stabilize and grow the local economy, with the ultimate purpose of making it sustainable for all.
I don't think that I have ever seen a plan which discussed measures concerning the day to day operations of running a municipality. Most plans never relate the location or timing of land use decisions to the true cost of providing city services. Should a plan be as cognizant of where city employment goes as it is how it affects the long term pension and retirement programs.
So, what do these plans speak of?
Many cities give themselves high marks on their diversity of population, the cultural mix evident in their public schools, yet the US education system is behind just about all of the component countries. They trumpet the stability of most neighborhoods and praise the strength neighborhood fabric while ignoring the frayed edges and the sometime missing elements that are so desperately needed.
Environmental sustainability is spoken of strictly in terms of the natural environment while leaving the talk of sustainable infrastructure investments to the whims of politics. Are the green, environmentally friendly buses or high mileage city vehicles any more important than the lower wattage LED street lighting which is available? Would our city streets last longer if we restricted the weight of not only our own city vehicles but many private ones to boot?
How about the changing nature of our economy? We set goals for increasing employment but rarely lay out the steps for reducing the current unemployment levels. When we talk of creating new neighborhoods, why are they centered around the creative class and called “Arts” or “Entertainment” districts? Can the creative class not build a district that they want for themselves?
If a plan is to be useful it may need to see cities first as the economic communities that they are and have been from their beginning. “Build it and an economy will come” is proving to be a fallacy , it was the other way around. People came and the city followed later. It was the commerce which the people brought that enabled the city to grow. Neighborhoods, like cities, that no longer produce sufficient commerce to sustain themselves become dependent on others.
But can a neighborhood produce more than it consumes?
New technology in residential solar and wind generation can,under certain conditions, produce a reverse flow on electric meters. Combine that with lower wattage, yet brighter, LED lamps and you will aid in the power part of that question.
Increased connectivity, both vehicular and pedestrian, will reduce the consumption levels of outside resources, raising sustainability chances.
Home or community gardens will reduce the dependence on external food production.
So, WHY do our plans not encompass the discussions which can bring about a real progress in Lexington?
I surmise that it may be the above referenced growing disparity in our population classes. Our Planning Commission members serve in a purely voluntary role, and are supposed to represent the various interests of the whole community. Many will say that they came from humble beginnings and have worked hard to achieve some level of success. But who now represents those who have failed, for whatever reason, to escape that humble situation, or fallen through no fault of their own.
I see on our Commission, representatives of the farmers and downtown, our home builders and developers, our neighborhoods and even racial issues. I do not see an advocate for the homeless or housing challenged. I do not see truly innovative entrepreneurs pressing for alternative methods of progressive development.
Planners do not get off Scot free either. The planning field has a serious flaw. They have no reliable source for the candid, consistent critique of their plans. We award great plans but we don’t scold bad ones. Why is that? It’s because planners don’t have a consistent logic for what makes a great plan (and conversely, a bad one).
So, is there some which can be done to change out image problem?