Guest Blog: Reflections on Community Planning


by Anthony Dater, APA (former AICP), Kennebunk, ME

Here are several reflections looking back over a career in community planning from 1969 onwards. The legal framework within which planners work should be enlarged from serving public health, safety, and welfare to serving public beauty, health, safety, and welfare.

What is meant by public beauty?  It should not be an afterthought but a central goal to community planning.  It should be understood as more than mere decoration of public spaces to meaning place-specific planning initiatives that foster community well-being by a sense of a welcoming physical space.  In this regard, beauty means benefits from ‘green’ or environmental compatibility and delivering public spaces, technology or infrastructure as much on the human scale as possible.  These are not new concerns; we have had environmental impact statements for large projects for 50 years, but have less developed methods to assess community development on human health, safety, and welfare.  Several examples.

One such example is in an 0p-ed article in the New York Times (‘Green Streets Can Reduce Violence’, October 10, 2021) Eugenia C. South of the University of Pennsylvania Urban Health Lab describes how placed-based projects that develop green spaces from empty lots, tree planting and rehabilitating derelict buildings has brought a significant reduction of violence in the poor neighborhoods in which these projects were done.  Some of the place-based community greening projects have come from the communities themselves, bottoms-up community planning.  The Penn 0p/ed reports that for every $1 spent on the space-based greenings up to $333 was saved in subsequent medical, policing, and jailing costs.  One Philadelphia respondent to the greening projects said he no longer felt neglected by the city but now felt important.  Yes, there are long-term maintenance costs for public green spaces but compared to long-term medical, policing, and jailing costs these were found by Penn to be considerably less.

It is widely known that placed-based ‘complete streets’, those with sidewalks, esplanades, street trees, vegetated roundabouts, and other median islands produces ‘traffic calming’ by reducing vehicle speeds thus enhancing public safety (and lowering its costs) as well as reducing fuel use and greenhouse gasses.  Compare this to the no-man’s land of concrete treeless streets, blasted by too-bright street lights obliterating a sense of place. On a larger scale, consider the catastrophic effects of limited-access freeways slicing into the heart of cities built in the 1950s and 60s causing the splitting of mostly communities of color.  We have since been trying to figure out how to restore those communities by introducing beltways with multiple avenues into cities among other fixes such as more overpasses.  One elegant solution may be seen in Barcelona, Spain for arterial streets being inviting boulevards with vegetated center and side medians and outer service lanes.  These allow both thru and local traffic but keep the ability for pedestrians and bicyclists to safely cross, which keeps the community un-split.  Bustling retail and residential development abuts both sides of the boulevards. The side service/parking lanes allow for merchandise delivery.  Do we really need to go 65 mph in the heart of cities?  Or would 40 mph do?  Median-located or underground streetcar lines are part of some boulevards which reduces the number of rush-hour vehicular traffic, thus enabling urban streets to be designed for normal traffic rather than enlarged solely for the morning and evening commuters mostly in single-occupant vehicles.  Yes, boulevards are expensive to build but they take up no more space than expensive freeways–how do we put a cost to the communities thus saved from being split and dissolved?

The recent introduction of outdoor LED lights that significantly reduce both cost and carbon footprint, while a good thing, has also introduced unnecessary light pollution and glare from poorly designed fixtures.  In the name of public safety these poor streetlight fixtures are especially egregious by blocking out the night sky, producing sideways light trespass into streetside residences and for sometimes shadow-less glare for pedestrians and motorists alike, creating a sense of surveillance.  The streetscape can sometimes no longer be perceived by residents as their own but rather experienced as serving a non-resident occupying overseer.  An elegant place-based planning approach to these community threatening problems is offered by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) in its five principles for responsible outdoor lighting: (1) all lights should have a clear purpose;  (2) light should be directed only to where needed; (3) light should be no brighter than necessary; (4) light should be used only when it is useful; (5) use warmer color lights where possible.  Taken together, these measures assure the unblocking of the night sky from sky glow, prevention of sideways light trespass into roadside residences, and an amount of intensity and color of illumination allowing, in short, preservation of the sense of place so important to our human perception that our surroundings are truly our own.  In fact, streetlights are for the amenity of pedestrians and bicyclists.  Traffic signals, street signs, and road striping are for motorists’ public safety. All outdoor lights more than 25 feet high should be banned in or near urban and residential areas except for airport lighting, stadiums, and night-time recreation sites such as tennis courts (but turned off after 11 PM).  Recall tower lights along highways that obliterate the night sky and reduce the surroundings to an undifferentiated menacing glow with little perceivable details of the environment.  So planning, design, technological, and engineering gigantism in the name of efficiency does not necessarily serve a sense of place and community.  The night sky is as important an element of the green environment that brings a sense of our human place in the world as the surrounding landscape.

Planning practice has over time tackled place-based human-scale design through several approaches:  ergonomics such as place-finding and identification, environmental quality and greening, or as quality of life enhancement.  In effect, the place-based approach recognizes quality physical environments to be as important and (more) cost-effective than policing, mental and physical health, educational and recreation services applied alone to distressed as well as to other neighborhoods.

Public beauty, health, safety, and welfare are not absolutes.  If they were, for example, no private motor vehicles would be allowed.  So planning tackles these objectives through the comparison of benefits versus risks and benefits versus costs.  Can we make the environment for motor vehicles safe enough in urban areas to be more beneficial than the risks and costs involved?  The complete streets movement using public beauty (along with traditional law enforcement) would say yes.

Place-based planning, rightly so, responds directly to current equity concerns in planning by emphasizing its application to distressed neighborhoods primarily, under the realization that the welfare of the entire community depends upon the welfare of every part of the community.  So community planning should strive to make every person in every neighborhood feel not only seen and heard but as important as every other person in the wider town or municipality.  We can and should strive for no less.