The planner’s sidekick

If Boise wants to become an elite city in the west, proper infrastructure planning will be essential. Other cities in the west are investing in infrastructure as a catalyst to propel their economic growth and increase the productivity, sustainability and livability of their cities. This was the message presented by urban planner Ed McMahon (not Jonny Carson’s side kick) last week at an Urban Land Institute (ULI) conference in Garden City. McMahon’s presentation drew in an audience of top government officials, lawyers, developers and planners in the area. He delivered a spirited presentation that combined personal stories with interesting and relative research. He listed ways the U.S. is getting left behind in infrastructure development by China and Europe and showed some of the recent economic success of US cities who invested heavily in infrastructure. These examples were used to promote local collaboration in Boise and drive the point home that investing in infrastructure is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our communities.

McMahon occupies the Charles E. Fraser chair for sustainability and environmental policy at the Urban Land Institute. He has been recognized as one of the nation’s leaders with his ideas for creating unique and successful places. He writes articles for various planning journals and magazines, reviewed below are two of his most recent contributions relevant to Boise.

Building Healthy Places: Three Models in Colorado

In this study, posted in the ULI magazine, McMahon takes a look at three different communities and assesses the design and layout of the built environments and its effect on the health and fitness of the population. Walkability was cited as a key ingredient to healthy communities. McMahon states that to improve walkability there must be both attractive and important destinations (healthy downtown, parks, schools) and fun, safe paths to connect them. Unfortunately, McMahon fails to provide some examples of unique walking path developments. He mentions the undesirable areas where people don’t want to walk but does not mention any innovative layouts that encourage walking. We have a perfect example of this right here in Boise. Take a look at the greenbelt and the way it links destinations. You can make your way from Lucky Peak Dam to the center of the city by simply following the peaceful path of the river.  McMahon also states that new infrastructure will not fix the health problem alone, but programs that encourage regular use of the facilities need to be put into place. He brings in the example of a walking school bus, a perfect example of an exercise minded program that promotes use of walking infrastructure. Walking school bus is a system where volunteers walk around neighborhoods and pick kids up one by one just like a bus would.

The Distinctive City

This is another contribution of McMahon via the ULI magazine, where he discusses the relationship between a city’s distinctiveness and its progress, a common issue in the planning practice. He states that distinctiveness is often lost in the recipe for successful cities. Competition between cities is causing the adoption of many of the same architecture, building materials and chain stores that diminish the “sense of place.” McMahon argues that a city’s progress does not have to come at the expense of the area’s uniqueness. This distinctiveness is what makes a population care about its surroundings and creates appealing communities. So what features here in Boise distinguish it from others? What about Boise makes people want to care for and protect it? Are we losing some of our distinctiveness? These are important questions to think about for our cities future. McMahon mentions that in all his years of planning, the most important things he’s learned is that “a community’s appeal drives economic prosperity.”

McMahon’s ideas, though at times are very vague and don’t apply to particular communities, still provide an extremely important component of the planning profession: the ability to promote collaboration within a community. Through his work as an educator and motivator Ed McMahon embraces this challenge. Leadership like this is needed in the planning community. Planners often have difficulty relaying their messages and goals to the general public, which is what sets McMahon apart. The planning practice would benefit greatly by having this leadership more readily available. Think of having a majority of the population not only educated but engaged in what is going on in the planning world today.  Continued efforts of the ULI and leaders like Ed McMahon will be key components in achieving this sort of public participation.


One thought on “The planner’s sidekick

  1. Tod, though a lot of positive press is often given to the Urban Land Institute what is often overlooked is the organization’s inherent bias towards Sprawl development. Though McMahon decries the seemingly endless non-place pattern of suburban shopping centers and cookie-cutter retail outlets, he fails to mention the preponderance of the ULI general membership’s reliance on that development pattern as their primary source of income. To me, such rah-rah presentations are like listening to a Fellow from the Cato Institute railing against Libertarian excesses at a NeoCon conference, while the crowd snaps up its publications on government de-regulation. While he cites the Walking School Bus as a “great” example of infrastructure (and I must point out that THIS IS NOT A PIECE OF INFRASTRUCTURE), I imagine he failed to point out that these volunteers put things like this together to overcome unwalkable neighborhood patterns as they struggle to find safe ways to get their kids to their schools — without letting them get squished by cars. I would remind folks like Ed McMahon that they can’t have their cake and eat it too — and I don’t hold myself out for any special exemption to this criticism. I was a member of this ULI Idaho Chapter, and I designed a lot of suburban Sprawl while working for architects. I agree that every community has its own unique character, and deserves an opportunity to champion its preservation, but when we show images of those select, character-giving aspects of a community we are simultaneously being asked to forget about all those edge-conditions (with marginal uniqueness) that are often cited by financiers as the economic engines that “afford” those cute districts. I’d love to see a photograph of Fairview Avenue or Chinden Boulevard in such presentations — and hear a set of recommendations about how these marginal conditions can be remediated (without having to solely rely on volunteers who are afraid for their children’s safety).

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