Speaking for the Trees, Small Businesses, and Modern Community Planning

“I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees”. I read Dr Suess’s The Lorax to my kids so many times that I can pretty much recite it word for word. It seems practically prophetic that my profession led me to work for a triple bottom line organization where I speak for not just the trees, but the people, the community and economic prosperity by advocating for small businesses. Just this past week, I had the opportunity to speak for two clients about their projects. Both projects were visionary and bold. Both projects essentially presented a challenge to last century’s zoning codes, rules written in the 1990s that don’t reflect the reality of how we live today.

COMM Sonora1 CSegerstrom 2017 09 copyThis reality of course is that the rate of change in social, economic and technological systems has far outpaced our policy and laws, making it difficult to fit the notorious square peg into a round hole. Thomas Friedman discusses this concept in his recent book, “Thank You for Being Late, an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations”.

This challenge is real. The trade off between economic development and thoughtful community planning is often a puzzle. Policy makers and community planners must ensure that they are not setting precedent for a free-for all with permitting by deviating from development codes. They are often asked to make exceptions, or variances that will impact a neighborhood for generations to come. Do they follow the rulebook to the letter, or do they acknowledge the policy lag and the notion that perhaps something that someone else wrote, a long time ago, probably even borrowed from another code, just might require some flexibility – or dare say it, an update. A tough call, no doubt.

For context to this compelling problem, lets look at how something as benign as parking can test the most community minded planners, business owners, neighborhoods and the environment. Most zoning and planning codes were written for 20th century circulation patterns, dominated by the car, suburbs and freeways with no concern over the negative impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from driving. Twenty year old generic parking guidelines were set based on maximum demand for parking in areas with no other transportation choices. They do not take into account 21st century developments that decrease parking demand such as ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber, desire for walkable communities, public transportation, telecommuting trends, bike lanes and bike sharing programs. This shift in market-based solutions, demographics and mobility patterns should be considered in establishing project specific parking requirements. Generic codes that are typical in most cities and towns were written for peak demand – the proverbial, “design the church parking lot for Easter Sunday”.

For many communities, codified parking guidelines do not necessarily reflect the actual 21st century demand given multi-modal transportation trends. Generic parking codes actually incentivize driving, systemically adding to traffic congestion and carbon emissions. It is vital that our community planners view transportation, parking and mobility as a whole system that enables sustainable economic development without erecting barriers.

Progressive communities recognize the negative impacts parking minimums can have on housing affordability, historic preservation, small businesses, walkability, community vitality and the environment. They are moving towards innovative alternatives and context specific minimum parking requirements. For example, Strongtowns.org recently published a blog titled “One Line of Code Can Make a World of Difference” by the Director of Planning and Community Development for Sandpoint, Idaho about the benefits they have seen since taking a bold action in 2009 by removing all minimum parking requirements in the downtown area. In a nutshell, the elimination of parking requirements led to investment in new and expanded businesses, historic building renovation and hundreds of jobs. Money that would have been used to literally pave paradise to put up a parking lot was re-deployed with positive outcomes, contributing to community vibrancy, economic development and an increased tax base.

As for the environment, encouraging more driving and parking on an impervious surface is just about the worst thing you can do. In California, transportation is the largest contributor to GHG emissions. Once you pave over a piece of permeable earth to make a parking lot, any rainwater runoff carrying toxins, oil and decomposed rubber, no longer experiences the natural filtration process through layers of soil to reach an underground aquifer. It now collects as much debris as it can and flows directly into man-made catchment systems or watersheds. Community development decision-making is difficult. Every project has someone who doesn’t want change in his or her backyard. But it’s encouraging to see communities like Sandpoint take a bold move towards progress. It is encouraging to watch a public process where city staff listens and works with the project developer to collectively make a better project.

The take away here is that sometimes we just need a blinding flash of the obvious to understand that while rules are necessary for social order, outdated codes prevent new ideas from flourishing and can be a barrier to social good. Sometimes, it’s important to step back and look beyond the codebook to what is really happening on the ground and do what makes sense. Sometimes, we just need to speak for the trees… and the community… and small businesses and, as it turns out, common sense.