Imagine If We Really Committed to Building Livable Communities

I spent the first part of this week at my annual professional retreat: the Rail~Volution conference held this year in Denver, CO. Despite it’s name, the conference have evolved to be about much more than just rail, or even just transit.

I’ve given up attending lots of other conferences that over the years have lost some of their glitter but I find myself coming back to Rail~Volution. Part of the pull is the simple fact that despite a career that has spanned more than 20 years now, I still work on community development and transportation issues that are at the heart of this conference. But, the greater pull comes from knowing that I will see old friends and colleagues, and meet new ones who all share a commitment to building inclusive, economically-vibrant, livable communities. My hats off to those involved in its planning to ensure a conference that is as inviting of the planning practitioner, the transit general manager, or the elected official, as to the housing developer, the public health professional, or the community advocate as Rail~Volution has become.

Reconnecting with Rep. Blumenauer and former colleagues at this year's Rail~Volution conference.

Reconnecting with Rep. Blumenauer and former colleagues at this year's Rail~Volution conference.

My experience with the conference goes back to my days working with Congressman Earl Blumenauer where I saw how public service, policy and activism can combine into a passion-filled career. To me, this combination is the secret ingredient to being an impactful planner and consultant; and to recognize the need for constant learning.

Not surprisingly, Congressman Blumenauer is being considered by Planetizen as one of the 50 Most Influential Urbanists. I won’t try to cajole you into who deserves a vote but I also can’t deny my enduring appreciation to other nominees who’ve also impacted my life and work: Shelley Poticha, Kaid Benfield, Janette Sadik-Khan, and Scott Bernstein. There are of course other deserving names missing, such as john a. powell, Angela Glover Blackwell, Dick Moe, and Bill Morrish, to name just a few, but its still an impressive list!

Taken together, it has been a week of looking back and remembering. Yet, I cannot help but look forward both to consider who the next generation of leaders will be and what issues they will face; but also to think about how time moves on and even the most influential urbanist will, hopefully, become a senior citizen. Regardless of race or gender, we experience communities differently as we age. This is not only a factor of income, leisure time, and employment or educational status but also one of mobility and accessibility.  

As a Gen X’er, I am often exasperated by the nation's obsession with Baby Boomers and Millennials. Yet despite all the rhetoric we are doing a poor job of creating livable communities for either age co-hort. For the 20- or 30-year old looking to buy their first home but maintain an “urbane” lifestyle, housing is either too expensive in many such neighborhoods or city schools remain lower performing than most of their suburban counterparts.

Driving is almost a requirement in any American suburb, further cost-burdening households. Despite an increase in vibrant town centers most suburban communities still lack neighborhood retail, sidewalks or even a community gathering place.  The same challenges facing the Millennial are the same challenges facing the Boomer who desires more urban living for health, leisure or family reasons. Despite growing demand on both ends (and a persistent demand I’d like to add from my own age cohort) we have too few walkable, urban neighborhoods.

I’ve written before about the results from this lack of demand. Housing prices and rents skyrocketing in many communities. Low-income residents and small businesses get forced out leading to cultural, racial and ethnic gentrification, and we are seeing growing suburban poverty. Greater residential segregation is exacerbating racial and economic inequality between communities. Annual household expenses just on housing and transportation leave little else in the family pocketbook to spend enjoying retirement or saving for college.

AARP is among the growing list of groups advocating for livable communities. They recognize that older Americans benefit from transit-oriented development (TOD), and neighborhoods designed to support walking and active lifestyles. TOD is a type of community development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail, and/or other commercial development and amenities integrated into a walkable neighborhood located within a half-mile of a high-frequency, reliable bus, rail or streetcar line.

Living independently can happen without a car, and with reduced mobility if communities are well designed, and affordable. Earlier this month AARP released a new study examining the ways that “Communities Are Embracing Development Near Transit.” MZ Strategies, LLC was honored to support AARP’s Jana Lynott on this work. Together we researched 26 states, 47 regions and 66 localities; identifying over 100 specific supportive actions to support livability, specifically through TOD. One encouraging finding is that those places investing to build new transit systems, are also stepping forward to support local TOD efforts. Eighty-two percent of regions that had received federal transit capital or TOD planning grants had taken supportive action.

We still have far to go to restore the walkability and vibrancy in our communities so that living well without a car becomes more viable, but many places are stepping up.  Beyond the benefits accruing to individuals, cities, states and regions also see economic development, higher transit ridership, environmental and avoided cost benefits. One case study from the AARP report looks at efforts in Atlanta, GA.  MARTA, the regional transit agency is working with state, regional and local partners to advance financing and policy opportunities that support TOD around stations and ensure that more new development is affordable to residents and business owners. In many places though, we are seeing investment in new infrastructure like transit and TOD projects resulting in loss of affordable housing. This need not be a fate accompli. Proactive strategies can help plan and ensure renter and tenant protections, mixed-income housing, and even tax abatement for low-income and senior homeowners so they can afford to remain in a community, grow their housing asset, and sell if or when they want.  

Americans are aging and will face greater mobility challenges. Autonomous vehicles may save the day for some in getting them from point A to point B, but they do little for generating health benefits or fostering a sense of community. Sadly, the number of Americans facing economic pressures is growing, despite the overall record-setting median family income. Whether you are a retired worker trying to make ends meet, or a young professional starting a family, none of us should have our choices of where to live and our quality of life limited. We need planners, engineers, health care providers, local elected officials and school board officials – really all of us --- to join in making the commitment to building livable communities where people – regardless of age, income, color or creed – can thrive, contribute, and engage. Imagine the future we could build!