Community Planning or Consultant Control

By. Neil Williamson

On Saturday (11/15) morning, about thirty Greene County residents gathered at the Stanardsville Fire Hall to participate in an activity designed to support the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s Multi Modal Study.  The exercise was led by Jason Espie of The Reanassiance Planning Group.  The stated goal of the exercise was to have Greene County residents choose how their county will develop over the next twenty years.

Prior to the exercise, Mr. Espie and Mr. Vladimir Gavrilovic (also of RPG) provided a planning “101” that linked land use and transportation.  In one slide, Mr. Espie redefined transportation planning’s goal as no longer “mobility” but “accessibility” — by creating higher density mixed use communities you keep trips off the major arterials.  In addition, he compared the past thirty years of transportation planning to planning for wastewater. 

The exercise was explained that each table would put different colored dots on the map to indicate where they wanted to place what density of residential and employment activity.  Each dot had a different density point value and each table had to achieve 200 points for both employment and residential.

Prior to the start of the exercise, one audience member asked if they should consider developments already approved but not yet built.  The answer was no this was an exercise to see where on a blank slate you would want what level of density to occur. 

I then asked Mr. Espie if the planning industry has any known figures regarding the market for high density mixed use communities and should we consider this number into planning for the future?  Mr. Espie responded that many such communities exist and they have been very successful.  When pressed by another audience member, Mr. Garilovic said the group would not have enough time to consider such things as a part of this exercise.

Interestingly, considering the focus of this planning is multi modal transportation, the final instructions on the exercise included to place the dots first and then determine how to connect them with a road network. 

So after being properly inoculated with new urbanist theory, being told to ignore what the market may want and to ignore what the community knows is already approved the exercise was ready for launch.

After 1.5 hours of work, a member from each group presented the outcome from their table.  With the exception of one group’s idea of a light rail line across Greene County, the results were predictably similar. 

Following the direction of the consultants, most groups placed higher density in the current development corridors and kept the rural areas as open space.  Like lemmings going off the cliff, community members used a large amount of higher density mixed use development to reach the required residential dot numbers.  

Wearing the consultant provided market blinders, residents were able to ignore the reality that most folks move to Greene County to escape high density residential development.  Each and every map included a new Standardsville that would be walkable with townhouse after townhouse at its core.

Was the community a true participant in this exercise? 

Was the program orchestrated from the outset to achieve the exact outcome that was achieved?      

The consultants indicated surprise at the uniformity of the results across the tables. 

Sitting in the back, I did not think it could turn out any other way.


One response

  1. A Recommendation | Reply

    You may be interested in checking out this blog: market urbanism.

    The basic premise is that a free market, stripped of all of the regulations incentivizing low-density automobile-oriented development patterns, would naturally organize itself into distinct urban and rural landscapes. Instead, we have federal government and local zoning restrictions which mandate a one-size-fits-all approach to development.

    You suggest that these citizen’s preferences were the result of brainwashing, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Maybe the market isn’t giving them what they want, because of all the impediments it faces.

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