On a recent Seattle trip, I went to MOHAI –Seattle’s new Museum of History and Industry.  While exploring a temporary exhibit on houseboats (not that great) I stumbled upon their permanent exhibit on Metro – the area’s regional planning and infrastructure entity.  The exhibit chronicled the challenged start of Metro, and the early detractors who felt regional planning was an anathema to the American way of life.

There is a relatively recent adage in planning circles that goes ‘there are two things Americans hate: density and sprawl’.  I would add to this list regional planning.  Even with such significant legacies as RPA who has shaped the New York City metropolitan region for over a century, regional planning is still in its infancy in the U.S.  This is in direct contrast to other countries I’ve worked such as Australia and Canada, where regional planning is not seen as an intrusion into lifestyle, but keeper of the greater vision.

Over the past two decades the sustainability lens has migrated from the box (building) to the community, and recently it has moved on to the regional scale.  This is a logical outgrowth of the basic tenet of sustainability – ‘seeing the whole’.  It is difficult to have a green building when it sits amid sprawl, and it is challenging to create a sustainable community if it is the only bastion of environmental responsibility within an irresponsible watershed.

But planning other people’s land is often seen as politically impossible, and perhaps even illegal depending on how far one takes it.  But this is all changing, and like trends noted in previous posts, I am gaining confidence that the battleship is turning.

The most obvious evidence is the EPA/HUD/DOT Partnership for Sustainable Communities  which has provided challenge grants of significant size and duration to bring communities and regions into the same room to talk about their future.  The fruits of these efforts are still to be determined, but it will only be through the combination of collaboration, education and informed dialogue that sustainable changes will take root at the scale we need.

At the other end of the spectrum is recognition that many landowners and government jurisdictions are employing a shared planning approach.  While not solving regional scale issues, this certainly moves infill and redevelopment from being piecemeal or government subsidized projects to a collaborative process that should yield agile and market responsive outcomes.

Recently, I was invited to participate as a team member with Civitas Design of Vancouver BC in a paid ‘co-opetition’ within the City of Calgary.  This unconventional format brought together four different land owners, the city of Calgary, and three planning and design firms to explore acres new approaches, land planning concepts  and strategies for development of almost 2,000 acres of land on the City’s far west side.  Done conventionally, each developer would have pursued their own plan, most likely competing with each for the same market, while the City tried to cobble together a comprehensive vision that linked networks and systems between all four parcels.  Alternatively, the City may have embarked on a visioning process of their own, but that usually results in a lack of sensitivity to the market realities that exist on the edges of metropolitan regions.  Bringing  all parties together at once provided the potential for a real vision – the ability to create greater integration and optimization of open space and infrastructure systems, while achieving a differentiated, market responsive approach to multiple market segments.

Last year I was invited to discuss economic strategies as part of an RFP process for ‘Envison Alachua’ in Florida.  This remarkable regional planning effort was catalyzed by private sector Plum Creek as the major landowner in the region, and was facilitated by MIG out of Berkeley, California.  Under the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, Plum Creek recognized that creating value on their landholdings would best be served by creating a conversation about what may be best for the region’s future, a catalysis nd how development of individual lands can be both catalysis and synergistic with a larger strategy that drives regional economic development.  The process demonstrates the potential of a long term landowner taking a bigger view to help their community first and thereby help themselves.

We are likely a long way away from institutionalizing regional planning in the U.S.  But the idea that a cooperative approach with everyone at the table to have a voice in determining their destiny may be a more appealing and enduring approach than the top down models of the past.