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Most Exciting Trends in 2012: Sustainability, Equity, Transparency

End of the World

We’re more optimistic about 2012 than some…

2012 could be the end of the world as we know it. Or not. Either way, some things definitely will be ending–for example, funding for the Sustainable Communities Initiative program hasn’t been renewed for 2013.  Despite the end of funding this year, or perhaps because of it, I’ll point again this year (as I did last year) to the SCI program as something I’m excited about for the coming year.  2012 is our chance to get as much information out of these processes as possible and apply lessons learned to future regional or local sustainability projects (in whatever way they are funded). The projects that were begun in 2010 are well underway, and are already providing a slew of lessons learned for the 2011 grantees and sustainability planning in general.  Grantees have been tackling problems like data acquisition, equitably engaging citizens, managing large groups of partner organizations, and working collaboratively with groups opposed to the SCI process.  PlaceMatters is working with several 2010 grantees, and will be starting work with two more 2011 grantees (the Denver Regional Council of Governments and Erie County, PA).  We also are Technical Advisors around equity and scenario planning for the full program, so we will be sharing our continued lessons learned throughout 2012. Continue reading

Looking Back at 2011: Augmented Reality, Mobile, and Regional Sustainability Planning

Augmented reality applications haven’t yet reached their potential as a community decision-making tool, but they are maturing quickly.

Way back in January of 2011, I asked my colleagues here at PlaceMatters what they were most excited about for the new year. Here’s a quick look at how our expectations for 2011 tracked to what the year actually held:

Ken was excited about how the rumored addition of a camera on the new iPad would enable very cool augmented reality apps that might include, for example, information like bus routes, Walkscores, and zoning proposals. As it turns out, the iPad 2 rocks but the augmented reality technology still has a ways to go before it really plays a role in community decision-making. Nonetheless, augmented reality technology is advancing, including implementations by Bosch Home Appliances, CASA, and Wikitude Drive. Ken was also excited about integrating interactive touch tables into public meetings (which we’ve been doing a bunch), about emerging online community dashboards (which are more and more common now), and about the PlaceMatters Decision Lab, which in 2011 started to find its sea legs and is poised for some great work this year.

Jason pointed to mobile apps. He was excited about the growing smartphone adoption rate (Pew reported 35% mid-year) and technological advances in the apps themselves enabling low-cost and high-value engagement tools. And he was right in his prediction about the expanding use of game-based approaches to civic participation, as well, like Crowdsourced Moscow 2012 and those Jason described in a May blog post (“Can Games Save the World?“).

Jocelyn’s enthusiasm was more focused on federal policy and funding rather than technology, in particular the ramping up of the HUD Sustainable Communities Grants program. Forty-five regions and communities across the country begin implementing HUD grants, kicking off a fundamental shift in the way the federal government tackles regional planning. PlaceMatters has long championed the integration of transportation, land use, housing, and environmental considerations in regional planning, and to watch this integration begin occurring in so many places across the country was truly exciting. And in September, HUD announced the recipients of a second round of grant awards, including two that PlaceMatters will work on (Erie County, PA and the Denver Metro region).

PlaceMatters at the White House: Suburbs and Sustainability

The South Lawn.

Presenting at the White House (photo by J. Urdaneta/Urdaneta Photography).

The short version of our White House story: inner ring suburbs have to be a central part of the conversation about sustainability in metro regions.

The longer version . . .

PlaceMatters had an unusual and exciting opportunity last month to spend a day at the White House, presenting on a panel during the Forum on First Suburbs, Inclusion, Sustainability, and Economic Growth. During my presentation, I offered three observations about metropolitan policy and the challenges faced by inner ring suburbs. First, I pointed out that the policy discussions about metropolitan areas sometimes focus heavily on the urban core, and sometimes on the outer ring suburbs, but rarely focus on the unique challenges and opportunities of inner ring suburbs. Second, I noted that sustainability policy discussions are often sidetracked by fiercely ideological conversations, and that finding less charged ways of talking about these issues will help us tackle those conversations. Finally, I highlighted the difficulties but great promise of regional collaboration, as exemplified by our regional collaborations here in the Denver Metro area. Imperfect, to be sure, but important and powerful nonetheless.

What are the implications of these observations? I noted three:

1) Federal policy matters. Federal transportation policy in the last century enabled and encouraged traditional suburban land use patterns. The decisions that the White House and Congress make now will continue to shape those patterns well into the future.

2) The White House and Congress have a wealth of options for promoting stronger metropolitan regions. Through policy, funding, and legislative efforts they can support a range of helpful goals: encouraging more compact growth, investment in transit, diversity in housing options, and access to jobs among them.

3) If we are respectful of the potential ideological differences and mindful of the challenges of regional thinking, there is a substantial intersection between the constituencies focused on the challenges of metropolitan region vitality and the challenges of environmental sustainability, housing diversity, social equity, and job creation.

Inner ring suburbs offer a potpourri of contradictions. They are increasingly diverse (ethnically and economically), they are easy to bypass in building out regional transit systems but are often cheaper to accommodate because of their proximity to the inner core, they face declining property values yet they provide consideration redevelopment potential.

In other words, the development of inner ring suburbs often epitomized a suburban sprawl land use paradigm, yet they now can offer exceptional opportunities to integrate smart growth with a thoughtful vision around housing, jobs, and sustainability. Indeed, given their significance in terms of area and population, any metropolitan strategy that overlooks the unique challenges and opportunities of inner ring suburbs is likely to fail.

Just One Word: Glass

It’s in the top 100 list of repeated lines from movies more than a couple decades old. In The Graduate (1967), Mr. McGuire pulls Dustin Hoffman (as Ben) aside: “I’m going to say one word to you, just one word… Are you listening?… Plastics… There is a great future in plastics.”

On the one year anniversary of the BP oil spill and with studies and books on plastics like Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story getting heightened attention, the future of plastics (and their polymer granddaddy) is not looking so great.

Enter glass, while the process of making scratch and impact resistant glass is an energy intensive process, the chemicals used to make glass tend to be more environmentally benign (in contrast, Freinkel adds IV bags to the list of concerns about vinyl plastics with reports of DEHP getting into our blood stream and interfering with testosterone).

Now we’re seeing thin layered glass showing up on many of our technology devices (smart phones, iPads, screens, etc.) in parallel with amazing touch technologies. Here are excerpts from a Corning video showing what’s in the not-so-distant future (or you can view the full video here. )

It’s cool to see some of the touch technologies we’re dabbling with becoming polished and perfected. The object-aware technology many of us first started seeing with the Microsoft surface provides some neat opportunities with data seamlessly transferred from one device to the other. The woman at the bus stop was a good example.

We would love to work with Corning and others on a “sustainable future” version for The Future We Want exhibit we have been incubating with others, utilizing some of these new technologies for tackling some of our tougher energy, water, and waste problems.

It is amazing to think most of this technology is either available or right around the corner.

International Making Cities Livable Provides Conference Presentations via “eConference”

An FYI Post:

The International Making Cities Livable Conference was held in Charleston, SC in October of 2010 and focused on Planning Healthy and Child-Friendly Communities.  Conference organizers are making the presentations from their set of presenters (including some pretty big names in planning and urban design) available as an “eConference.” You have to register and pay (it’s not terribly cheap), but then the presentations are available until May.  Could be worth it if you couldn’t or didn’t attend–audio presentations, transcripts of keynote speeches, slides, and papers presented are all available from keynotes (like Randall Arendt, Reid Ewing, Stephen Kellert, Charles Royer) and 70 other presenters.

Joe Schilling of VA Tech Looks Closely at Sustainability Plans

I sat down quickly with Joe Schilling, Interim Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech and the Institute’s new Sustainable Communities Initiative director, at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference a few weeks ago.  PlaceMatters worked with Joe to support the Eco-City Alexandria process via an Eco-City Summit a few years ago, and it’s always great to reconnect with him.  I snagged Joe as we were headed into the final lunch and plenary (hence the background noise!) and asked him to update us on what he has been doing.

Joe and his students have been looking at city and county sustainability plans across the U.S., evaluating their content.  They’ve been finding that sustainability is a priority for many new communities, not just the ones that have been tackling sustainability for years (e.g., Portland).  He also pointed out that many of the sustainability plans are not connected to land use and other existing plans and codes, so the next task for planners and sustainability directors may be to make these plans more integrated.  Lastly, Joe pointed out that implementation can be a challenge, although less so in communities with sustainability offices or dedicated sustainability staff.

By sharing this information, Joe hopes that communities undergoing sustainability plans (and those about to undertake the HUD Sustainable Communities grant projects) will be able to learn from what others have done in the past.

Grist to the mill: can people be seduced into a low carbon lifestyle?

Over the months I have been collaborating with Bill Becker from Natural Capital and Jonathan Arnold from Arnold imaging on a website, exhibit, and suite of resources to help communities imagine a more sustainable future.  The central premise is that people need inspiration, not just dooms-day projections, to be motivated to pursue a more sustainable future and that many of the actions we can take to reduce our ecological footprint, can have multiple quality-of-life benefits.

Jonathan Hiskes with Grist, recently reviewed our beta website, The Future We Want.  He gave us some praise but wrapped up his blog with a healthy dosage of skepticism.

I’m intrigued. I’ve been wondering about this sort of thing and highlighting similar works on the hunch that lots of people are convinced it’s time to move beyond our sputtering fossil-fuel dependence and on to something better… The bigger problem, though, is the same reason Hollywood turns out so many dystopian movies. Danger alerts us, grabs our attention. Danger is sexy. Safety lulls us to sleep. It’s tough to make compelling drama out of a happy-green-prosperous future — even if that’s where we want to live.

I think the October issue of WIRED magazine, highlighting the huge impact the Tesla has had on the electric car industry, is a nice counterpoint to this argument.  Really well designed low carbon/high tech can be fun and enticing.

Nonetheless, I share Hiskes’ skepticism when he challenges any notion that we might be able to convince people to change their lifestyle simply by showing them beautiful 3D renderings of the future.  No doubt, it is going to take much more than that. Getting people to choose a more sustainable path for the future is less about individual choice and more about engaging in a collaborative  process with others. Along the way, people need access to good information to help them see the trade-offs and benefits of different strategies and choices.  That is why we propose a comprehensive suite of tools and resources on this site to assist communities.

Visit our beta site at and send us your comments.  I also encourage you to contribute to the debate emerging on the Grist site.


Just read this article in the Science section of the NY Times (one of the things I love about Tuesdays) about the highly accurate 3D image of the NYC that will be created from flyovers using Lidar remote sensing (the Science section also has another article about the use of Lidar in archaeology).

Part of the broader sustainability work of PlaNYC, the 3D image will be used for, among a variety of things, finding “areas most prone to flooding, the buildings best suited for the installation of solar power and the neighborhoods most in need of trees.”

With a pricetag of $450,000, this technology is obviously not affordable for most cities, but the amount of information to aid decision making that this project will give the City is staggering. Especially for other coastal cities where accurate flood and sea level rise information is essential, or cities where substantial amounts of energy could be generated via solar panels, creating such an accurate 3D image could be worth it. Not to mention the fact that this digital image will probably be incredibly cool.

Livable and Sustainable

It’s interesting how these two words have come to dominate the urban design vernacular (not to mention other large swaths of the public discourse about community), and while they had both already accrued widespread currency the Obama administration’s adoption of the Sustainable Communities Initiative (built on six “Livability Principles”) sealed the deal for at least the next several years. They are an odd choice of words, though, and I worry that their very sturdiness is both a cause of their ascent and an explanation for their lack of inspirational vigor. As my PlaceMatters colleagues have pointed out, anyone describing their marriage as “sustainable” probably needs to spend more time focused on their relationship, and anyone describing their home as “livable” may want to think about moving if they have the option. I’m not sure we know the answer – our updated mission statement (in addition to having many fewer syllables) will rely more heavily on “vibrant” – but it’d be nice if the words we build community movements and political energy around were themselves more vibrant and inspiring.

Vehicle Travel as a Community Sustainability Indicator

If you were looking for a single indicator with which to measure reductions in a community’s environmental impact, vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) would be a solid contender.  It has the added benefit of capturing a lot of quality of life investments as well, since the steps you might take to reduce VMT are often the same steps you would take to increase walkability, bike-friendliness, downtown vitality, and transit accessibility.

A recent StreetsBlog post (“What Do We Want from the Place We Call Home?”) explored some of the factors that shape people’s decisions about where to live, to which one commenter suggested using VMT as a measure of community-building.  We work with a lot of cities and towns around the country on increasing community sustainability, and we don’t see VMT discussed very often as an indicator or a strategy.  One reason might be that it’s pretty tough to measure at the local level.  In Golden, Colorado, where I serve as mayor (in addition to my work here at PlaceMatters), we’ve adopted a VMT reduction goal (15% in ten years) but are still sorting through the best way to measure baseline and trends.  One of the more promising approaches seems to be a series of longitudinal vehicle counts at specific locations we think collectively will show community trends, but that’s obviously a highly imperfect approach.  I’m curious to know what tools others have developed or found.  Any approaches that you’ve considered and dismissed?  Any you think might work well?