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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

How to strengthen a town with prudent investment and common sense

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 25, 2011 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably

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  downtown Skaneateles NY (by: Joe Shlabotnik/Peter Dutton, creative commons license)

Recently I was speaking to a professional friend about branding, and we agreed that “Strong Towns” is a fantastic trademark for the good work that Chuck Marohn and his associates do to bolster the economies (and, as a direct result, the environments) of smaller cities, towns and neighborhoods.  I’ve been a fan of Chuck’s Strong Towns Blog since I first found it, and I’m delighted that he and I will be speaking at the same conference this spring, since we’ve never met in person.

His latest post is a terrific beginning point for understanding the blend of financial prudence, smart investment, historic preservation, neighborhood-building and just plain common sense that the strong-towns approach includes.  It posits ten “starter strategies” to build upon (often literally).  You’ll have to read the whole post to get them all, but here are some of my favorites:

  • Coordination of park investments with economic development – a colleague and I were discussing at lunch just yesterday how green space often gets left out of land development because of the piecemeal, parcel-by-parcel approach that development usually takes.  village green, Danville VT (by: J. Stephen Conn, creative commons license)Chuck believes that being strategic about municipal park development can strengthen private sector investment, and my park-guru friend Peter Harnik would agree.  I love this sentence:  “If you are a city official and are designing a park facility that includes a parking lot, you are either building the wrong type of facility or are locating it in the wrong place.”
  • Walkability study – “All cities need to perform a walkability study to determine where the areas of low and high connectivity are and where they can get the highest rate of return (induce the most value and private-sector investment) by improving connectivity.”
  • Form-based code throughout historic neighborhoods – Chuck argues that a form-based code [guiding the mass and placement of buildings and their relationship to the street, but not their uses] works especially well in traditional neighborhoods, such as a small-town street grid around an old railroad stop, because a compatible neighborhood pattern already exists in the street layout.  The effect would be a streamlined approval process.  Chestertown MD (by: ceiling, creative commons license)“These neighborhoods are the places cities need private sector investment the most because those are the areas with the greatest amount of public sector obligation (sewer, water, storm sewer, streets, etc...) Establishing a permissive and compatible regulatory environment is critical.”
  • New road and street standards – Part of a form-based approach should include new street standards, especially but not only in traditional neighborhoods.  “The standard approach today creates streets that do not fit with the neighborhood context, doing so at enormous cost. Streets with a neighborhood context will provide more value and cost less to build.”  John Norquist is an evangelist on this issue, and it’s a good one.
  • Small business subsidy plan – Don’t waste time and money trying to attract large, greenfield-based businesses in places that require expensive new infrastructure.  The approach of most cities to business subsidies is geared towards attracting large enterprises that usually locate in greenfields. “The reality is that most of the jobs in most communities are going to come from expansion of existing small businesses, or new small business startups.  Cities need to develop a set of streamlined business incentives scaled to the businesses they are actually going to attract.”   

The rest of the blog post covers financial and planning points that are also essential to success.  Go here to read it.

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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Comments

Matthew MontgomeryJan 25 2011 02:33 PM

This post is spot on. I especially agree with the comments addressing green space and parks. Any green field developer realizes the benefits of green space, hence the huge premiums they are able to charge for frontage on small lakes, drainage easements, and open space. Infill development is needs to take a page from approach. Rather than giving money and incentives to develop sub-par product, cities need to add value to the overall neighborhood by improving and marketing the existing assets such as open space, parks and walkable commercial districts. Another important point made is the insistance of local municipalities on trying to attact large greenfield business to these areas. Perfect example of putting a square peg in a round hole.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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