Diversify Your Planning Portfolio

Have you ever experienced a place that just doesn’t seem to reach its potential? Let’s take the example of a town square that was, in days long past, the social and economic heart of its community. It has amazing historic architecture, some unique little stores, a charming diner, perhaps an old theater. A few times a year, during one of the big annual events, its streets teem with vibrancy. Otherwise, it feels a little sleepy, a little less lively than it should, with too many empty storefronts and dead zones.

To some in town, the square might seem like a relic, an old forgotten place with little hope of revitalization. But to others, it is a treasure, the heart of their community, too valuable to simply abandon. Depending on the place, that may include a mayor or councilperson; city manager or planning director; property owner or business owner; the pastor of a downtown church or the head of the local historical society. Such people know the district’s potential and they invest the care and resources to help make it work.

When I visit such places, I see blank walls that could be perfect canvases for artists, vacant storefronts that could foster and incubate unique small businesses, empty lawns that could be filled to the brim with locals enjoying a band or movie every Saturday night. I see ways to leverage existing events to help the community reach their long-term goals, and strategies to help mom-and-pop local investors to build the types of modest, high-quality buildings that serve as the fabric of an extraordinary downtown. And when I talk to the people who invest their time, money, and passion in the district—the stakeholders, to use an overused term—they tell me about opportunities that I didn’t immediately see. There are always new ideas that could use existing resources to try and make a difference. Not all of them would work, but some of them will. There’d be new excitement, new opportunities, and—very soon—new private investments.

Seeing those opportunities is always invigorating to me, even when I explore several such towns over the course of a weekend. But it’s also heartbreaking, because, whether it’s a small town, a suburb, or a big city, a wealthy community or an impoverished one, what I hear is almost always the same. We’re not doing any of these things. Instead, we’re waiting.

So what are we waiting for? We’re waiting for the new budget, so we can spend a bunch of money on a downtown plan. Or we’re waiting for a new council with the political will to take big action. Or we wrote the downtown plan, but now we’re waiting for the road project, for the new housing to be built, for the civic center to be reconstructed, for the downtown hotel. And then, we won’t have to pay all that attention to detail. Downtown will be wonderful. Until then, we wait.

Commonly, the wait is so long, and the plans sit on the shelf for so many years, that little happens until they’re once again waiting for the next plan to come around again. Sometimes, things do get built. Unfortunately, much of the time it doesn’t quite work as planned.  They’ve done the plans, made major investments, and undertaken big projects with lots of potential. After all that time and investment, sometimes the human experience is less than satisfying. Sooner or later, people get sick of planning. And they tire of investing all this energy and money into a place that isn’t giving them a clear return on investment. They’re frustrated - if perhaps not as frustrated as the young people who find themselves with little to do and big plans of escaping to a more vibrant locale.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A more action-oriented approach has been proven in communities around the nation. It’s true that our downtowns and neighborhoods need long-term plans. They need roads and other infrastructure. They need developers to build things, and some of those things may be large projects. And yes, a once-in-a-generation investment, such as a convention center or stadium, can be transformative. But that doesn’t mean we need to wait, do nothing, and hold off on taking action because those things are coming later. Most downtowns—and walkable neighborhoods which are similar to downtowns in scale and function—have enormous opportunities to do the simple-but-important things that can help to jumpstart their district. To do that, they need to see things with a fresh approach.

Fortunately, a growing number of cities, developers, and firms are focusing more of their planning efforts on this type of strategy. We are not abandoning “big picture planning,” which will always be necessary. Rather, we take a more balanced approach woven into the details of the human experience. Ash+Lime was born as a response to this movement. We co-founded the Downtown Collaborative, a cross-disciplinary team of nationally-respected planners, placemakers, developers, market research analysts, and other professionals who share this passion.

Over the next several months, we’ll be writing about the various ways we can help. This includes a tailored assessment, a results-oriented action plan, a place management strategy, and public engagement tools proven to get active public support for projects. All of our tools have been developed to take short-, medium-, and long-term actions which get measurable results.

Keep an eye out for updates or reach out if you’d like to know more.

Rik Adamaski