Change is Never Easy, But Sometimes it is Necessary
Change is never easy, especially when there are millions of dollars, jobs and lives of citizens at stake and established patterns that many believe are "the right way". Yet, change is exactly what I believe our communities need to do. The fiscal and environmental impacts of the post-WW II development pattern are starting to reveal themselves. Infrastructure maintenance obligations continue to pile up as subdivision streets and utilities initially built by developers are now showing their age, water supply is strained, traffic congestion refuses to go away, and the quality of water in our creeks and rivers is reaching unhealthy levels. Meanwhile, most communities are heavily reliant on growth and debt to fund infrastructure repairs and new improvements, and incentives are used to lure new businesses to town. There is enough evidence available now to show that these patterns are extremely fragile. Unless the dominoes fall just right, these patterns cannot be sustained over time, the quality of the neighborhoods gradually declines, and the businesses and residents a city worked so hard to get start bailing.
As citizens, we must change our expectations for how we move around, how we irrigate our landscapes, and how much (or how little) we expect pay in return for certain types of lifestyles. Local government leaders should look beyond the next few years and identify solutions that not only create best places to live, work and play in the near-term, but that will position neighborhoods and communities to be resilient and prosperous well into the future. And as professional planners, engineers and developers, we need to put what's right for our places ahead of what may be the best project for our firm, even if it means fewer big, fancy projects. For engineers in particular, part of our professional promise is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. Are we really doing that when we continue to lobby for extravagant, overdesigned projects that we know will push our governments further in debt and abuse natural resources? I don't think so. When you weigh pros and cons of different investments over 10, 20 or even 50 years, it can change perspective and hopefully actions and expectations as well.
Change is scary. We like to be comfortable and predictable. Lucky for all of us, there are people and places trying new approaches that we can learn from and apply to our own communities and projects. Non-profit groups like Team Better Block and Strong Towns are advocating for incremental, tactical improvements that use low cost projects to test out bigger ideas before big investments are made. Developers like Monte Anderson at Options Real Estate are revitalizing downtowns and communities one building at a time. At the city level, it's places like Detroit and Memphis, were desperation has led to innovation. The Oregon DOT has been piloting a new program to pay for maintenance of roads and bridges that is based on vehicle miles traveled. The shared space work of Ben Hamilton-Baillie and the drastic measures Poynton, England took to revitalize their community are previews of where mobility in our downtowns will likely go. We're pretty proud of the work we're doing here in north Texas to integrate green infrastructure into developments and infrastructure projects at the regional, community and neighborhood scales to improve water quality, create more walkable places, and increase property values. There are many more. All that's needed is for more people to be open to listening and willing to try new approaches on a small, incremental scale. If it doesn't work in a certain location, we learn and try something else. But if it does work, we can then work to scale it up and make bigger investments that make the concepts more permanent. Low cost, high return. Chaotic, but smart. A little scary, but absolutely necessary.
Our team will continue to advocate for change, share ideas and best practices and do our part to walk the talk, and we hope we inspire more of you to do the same.
Kevin Shepherd, P.E., ENV-SP is a co-founder and Principal at VERDUNITY, Inc. He speaks and writes often on the subjects of infrastructure, economic gardening and fiscally resilient communities.