Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What's Old Can be New Again

Here is an article that appeared online in the High Plains Reader.  It will interest those dealing with redevelopment pressures in their communities that are resulting in the loss or undervaluing of important community features and assets. 

Beyond the characteristics described in the article there are many others associated with planning and designing healthy and successful communities that are equally important, including: 

- value of neighbourhood schools; 
- improved property values for areas surrounding well maintained "historic" buildings; 
- improved community quality of life, health, and desirability for development associated with walkable neighbourhoods/communities; 
- improved educational outcomes for children that can walk/bike to school; 
- economic benefits of quality urban design and walkable communities;
- improved and streamlined development review processes with sound design standards;
- improved social health for seniors with well designed neighbourhoods;
- et cetera.

It is time that communities make sure they undertake work programs that involve holistic contemporary updating of their planning and capital improvement strategies.  These should be focused on Healthy Community Design; Asset Based Community Development and Strong Towns approaches.  Additionally the processes will be as important as the outcomes, because meaningful citizen participation is critical.  

Our towns and cities evolve through development.  It's time to make sure that our planning strategies work to ensure that these changes build and enhance what has come before, and not diminish communities' assets.    

In with the new—and the old

By Kris Wallman
Contributing Writer
The Board of Education in the city of Fargo has recently taken on the task of revisiting and updating the District’s Long Range Facilities Plan. This workload is being shared by the school’s Administration as well as two consulting firms the Administration hired for fact-finding. One firm is assessing demographic information; another has expertise in buildings and space utilization. A timeline has been set for different aspects of the process including data reports from the consulting firms, community reflection and input, and a rough timeline for honing a plan. We are now embarking on engaging the community.
The board is tasked with reviewing this data, working alongside the administration, consultants, and public representatives to take a balanced and objective look at what is best educationally, foremost, but also fiscally, and with an eye to what is best for the district and city as a whole. There are many moving parts to the process and it often feels like herding cats, but everyone involved is committed to letting the data guide the outcome, and letting the voices of stakeholders be heard.
Many know that Kennedy Elementary School in South Fargo is in duress space-wise. Something must be done to alleviate its squeeze and maintain the integrity of the educational experience of children in that part of our District. Adding an elementary school on the South Side makes sense, but we do not need to lose a school to gain one.
Having said that, I believe those of us who make decisions that shape the future of our city need a paradigm shift. We need to stop thinking that old is obsolete and new is always better. I am not anti-growth or anti-progress, but I would be remiss if I didn’t bring a voice to an aspect of the current LRFP process that is on the minds of many, but has struggled to find its way into the dialogue. That is, the reason the “price tag” on capital improvements to our core schools is so high (independent of the question of the real necessity of all the upgrades) is that incremental ongoing maintenance investments have fallen short.
In other words, these buildings have been at the bottom of the list of capital upgrades and building needs, both by philosophy and action. It is my view and the view of many I have spoken with that it is inherently inequitable and illogical to use the lower priority of older-school upgrades and consequent price tag, as a reason in itself to revisit closing our core neighborhood schools. Our city’s older, smaller or “paired” schools are working well in the education our school children receive in them and in the value they bring to our neighborhoods and city as a whole.
The question I hear from folks who were involved in “saving” these schools 10 years ago is this: Have they been regularly updated as part of an ongoing deferred maintenance budget? How did the maintenance price tags get so big?
City Planner and Urban Design writer Rob Voigt offers these insights:
“In the planning profession this perspective often results in our attention being cast to the new/undeveloped lands and “providing services” for them. This is considered ‘forward looking.’
“Conversely, those areas of our communities that are aging are somehow not seen as needing appropriate care and maintenance. These areas often have utilities/services that have been paid for over time, and are just in need of care to maintain their function at a fraction of the capital cost of new projects. However, they are left to be seen only in the rearview mirror as we drive toward the shinny new development. Continued investment in community wealth that has been built over time is passed over for vastly larger “investment” on unproven ground (figuratively AND literally).
“There is a sense by many in the planning profession that older/existing areas of a community are undergoing an entropy that is unavoidable and a necessary sacrifice. There seems to be a lack of understanding of these areas as aging. They are seen as being in decay, and somehow this IS the natural movement of progress toward a better future. The problem of course is that eventually these sacrificed investments of the past them become completely run down, having lost (used up) almost all their value.
“At that time they are then seen as being in need of a complete rebuilding at substantial cost to the community. These neglected areas then become the new ‘undeveloped’ or ‘underdeveloped’ areas that NEED large scale investment to ‘turn them around’ ... and then off we go to repeat the cycle.
“Why do we as planners (an inherently forward focused profession) help create and maintain processes that consistently codify neighbourhood stagnation (with overly restrictive zoning); develop unwieldy expectations for necessary capital investments (with absurd comprehensive plan visions and policies); and, link community well-being only with new developments (with capital improvement plans that ignore existing opportunities and incremental betterment of what already exists, the ‘improvement’ in CIPs)?
“I’ll end with one final question: If this approach would be an unacceptable strategy for our personal homes, why is it ok for our neighborhoods, towns and cities?”
It’s undeniable that Fargo is growing and that in our long, thin city we’re growing to the south. But my philosophy as both a resident of an historic neighborhood in this fine city, as a parent with young children attending one of our older, paired elementary schools, and as a member of the Fargo School Board, regards our core neighborhood schools as an asset to our community that should be cared for rather than cast off. Rehabilitating older buildings doesn’t have to be done all at once. A reasonable timetable and cost for capital upgrades is doable.
I want to see our city grow and thrive, but to do so, we must start thinking differently about maintaining our core, collaborating among elected bodies and growing smart. Let’s start talking about in with the new and the old.

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