By Eve Picker
Most elected officials have no background in real estate development, architecture, design or place-making. Their knowledge extends no further than the home mortgage process. It should come as no surprise then that elected officials have little if no civic skills. Politicians are elected based on their charm and popularity – not on their ability to understand every issue affecting their constituents. And certainly not on their place-making skills.
This lack of knowledge has had some unfortunate consequences. But if we were to educate local leaders and focus on helping them to develop civic skill sets, perhaps we’d remedy many place-based issues. New development opportunities for investors and developers alike may even emerge.
The following are some mission-critical study items which would turn politicians into place-making ninjas.
Place-making is to study and deploy strategies that relate to designing, planning, and managing our shared public spaces. Place-making draws upon social, cultural and financial capital to better the health, life satisfaction and general well-being of a city’s residents. A basic understanding of place-making can help local authorities to plan long-term improvements for their citizens. Many wildly successful redevelopments have embraced this holistic approach, including edge cities like the Rosslyn–Ballston Corridor in Arlington or Walnut Creek, both of which transformed from sleepy suburbs to among the region’s premier shopping, retail, and residential areas.
Zoning refers to rules and regulations enacted to ensure the general welfare of residents through control of the built environment. Zoning should also ensure the most efficient and equitable use of the land resources in a city or town. It can have tremendous impact on the quality, type and accessibility of housing, commercial and industrial businesses, and of course, the character of a place. For instance, a 2016 Presidential Report found that a major contributing factor to the urban affordability crisis is onerous and overzealous zoning laws. Zoning changes have the potential to dramatically reshape and improve an area, and vice versa.
The physical structure of the built environment can have a profound effect on the physical and mental well-being of residents. Architectural design elements can alter air quality, physical activity, sunlight and even opportunities available to residents. An embrace of participatory design practices can help create more inclusive communities and bridge the substantial gaps between the quality of housing for lower-income and disadvantaged groups and those with better economic circumstances.
An in-depth understanding of public and private financial housing resources is an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving housing affordability and sustainability. Alternative methods of generating revenue for new projects, or new ways to incentivize development using bonds, taxes, or federal funds can give municipalities and other governing entities a significant advantage when planning and promoting new development.
It isn’t easy to create fantastic places, inclusive communities and the next generation of comfortable and affordable housing. But there are plenty of educated professionals with the knowledge to make it happen. Let’s make sure we equip elected officials as well, giving them the very best resources and knowledge to tackle today’s challenging urban issues.
Image of Rome, by Eve Picker