Mainely Planning

Why plan for an uncertain future? Our world is changing in ways that we can hardly comprehend. The planning we have been engaged in over the last 100 years, is geared to a world with abundant energy, a stable climate, and a dwindling natural resource endowment that is reliant on cheap energy for extraction. That world is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Oil price spikes due to supply/demand and geopolitical concerns, water shortages (Google Lake Mead, Central Valley, CA or the Ogallala Aquifer for details), and soil depletion are just a few of the problems we face. As we move forward, the notion that we can continue with business as usual (BAU) is not going to sustain us.

Thinking creatively and making difficult decisions will test our abilities, push our cultural boundaries and hopefully shape a world where these uncomfortable realities can be dealt with in an equitable and meaningful manner. I write about things I see, think, and work on as I transition from being a planning student into the world of planning. I am neither a technological optimist, thinking we can invent our way out of all our problems, nor a doomer, believing in returning to a world much like pre-industrial times. I believe that our creativity combined with the lessons from the past will be instrumental tools for laying the foundation for the path forward. Some of my ideas may seem radical, others are just based on common sense and keen observations.

Links of Note

Mainely Rural
The Old Pine Tree
Strong Towns
Project For Public Spaces
Streets Blog
Cap'n Transit Rides Again
Human Transit
Pedestrian Observations
The Broken Sidewalk
Maine Architecture
The Vigorous North
Depot Redux
Reason and Rail
Car Free Maine
Walk Around Portland

Transportation for America State Fact Sheets

A Reason to Plan

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Asker Anonymous Asks:
You have a great blog and I really enjoy reading your posts. What is your idea of public life? Thanks Publicworksandpublicspacee.
mainelyplanning mainelyplanning Said:

Thanks! I wish that I had more time to dedicate to writing about the things I see and wonder about. I definitely believe in civic/community engagement and that takes up a good chunk of my time outside of my professional role in planning. I think about public space quite a bit and one of the things I am working on personally is gardening as traffic calming/placemaking and I am starting at home by creating gateways into the neighborhood that are decoratively landscaped. The grass around sign posts is being turned into perennial flower beds to soften the lines between mono-culture grass and the sharp steel sign posts and telephone poles. I know it is a little thing, but I think details are important. Besides, who doesn’t like flowers?

Cities levy taxes to pay for things people need. Some of those things are schools, parks, streets, police & fire protection. Understandably, nobody really likes taxes, so cities try their best to keep taxes low. In a town like Waterville, in what is considered a service center town, taxes can be a bit higher. This is largely due to having more hospitals, churches, non-profit organizations, judicial buildings, schools and colleges, than many of the surrounding communities. These places don’t pay property taxes and that is ok, because they bring people to the community for those services and the jobs they represent.

It can be argued then that service center towns will have a much more difficult time attracting residents who use tax rates as a measure of attractiveness to settle in a particular town. One solution to that problem is to focus on adding more value per acre of taxable property, thereby reducing the property tax rate and the burden on a towns citizens.

While increasing the density of value may be a difficult political sell in some respects, it represents a solution to a vexing problem of overtaxing a tax-weary citizenry. The map below is a simple parcel map of Waterville, ME that shows the value of each parcel in terms of its area (value/acre). The most valuable parcels of the town are primarily the downtown (red parcels), which also happens to be the most dense part of town.

Considering that infrastructure and other city services become less expensive as density increases (less roadway to pave, less patrolling needed, etc.), it begs the question of why we create zoning codes that promote low density development? If residential housing is restricted to 4 homes/acre (.25 acre lots) and the street that those houses reside on costs the same as a street that is zoned for 6 houses/acre (.17 acre lots), which street has a better chance of being supported by the tax revenue of the properties on the street?

When we look at downtown, you note that most parcels are either red or dark orange, representing value/acre at over $1M or $750K respectively. These represent breadwinners for the cities coffers and probably subsidize much of the low density areas infrastructure costs. Not that downtown development is right for every part of town, but any chance a city has to increase density will increase value on a per acre basis.

As a planner, I feel it is my responsibility to find solutions to how cities develop that cater to people of the broadest possible political persuasions. Reducing tax rates while maintaining a high level of city services appeals to a broad coalition. Reducing our ecological footprint by taking up less space is also appealing to many.

One of the most important things about bike and pedestrian infrastructure is that it needs to go somewhere. As important as recreation may be, taking cycling and walking to the next level by fostering active mobility for real travel to meaningful destinations is key to building a healthy and sustainable community. Waterville is ripe for just such a network because everything in Waterville is remarkably close by. The map below is a topo map that show just how close people are to downtown Waterville. Within 2 miles of downtown are a number of major work centers, Inland Hospital, MaineGeneral’s 2 campus’, Downtown Waterville, plus Colby and Thomas College Campus locations. Just outside of that is the Hutamaki paper plant straddling the Waterville/Fairfield town line.

Below is a thematic map of work centers in Waterville, that shows where the jobs are located in town. What I wanted to show was the different places people in town work and how close those areas are. In Waterville, nearly 20% of people work in town or in neighboring Winslow across the river. The map was created with a census product called: On the Map, and can display commute data in a number of ways. For this map, I just focused on where jobs were located.

While I didn’t want to focus on towns outside of Waterville for the purpose of a bike boulevard network, it is important to consider the connections to neighboring towns when working on a network design. This map has only two connections, one to Winslow across the Two Cent Bridge, and to Fairfield via Dummond Ave. heading north.

As we get closer to working on bike routes through Waterville in the public participation process, it will be important to have an accurate understanding of where people want to go. The above map is merely my perspective on some meaningful routes and might not capture all the desired destinations. What these routes do however, is focus on streets that are bike-able and some destinations that I would want to have available if I chose to bike to them.

Portland, ME has been making huge strides to improve bicycle and pedestrian connectivity throughout the city. Here is an abandon rail line that has been converted to a paved multi-use pathway (MUP). It runs from Elm Street behind the Eastern Mountain Sports/Trader Joe’s Store to the east end of the peninsula where it meets with other trails. The photo below was taken from the vantage point of Elm Street looking northeast. 

Just to the left of the trail is the commercial area with TJs and EMS, but as you can see, there is no connection between the trail and the commercial area. You must go around the block.

Here is another view that displays the abandoned rail with some existing track infrastructure.

In talking to the manager of one of the stores in the plaza, I asked them about the missed opportunity. They indicated that the owner of the plaza property was angry at the city about the trail and felt that it was a taking that negatively affected him. I don’t know what exactly happened, but I am fairly certain that the abandoned rail right of way of the rail line is not the plaza owners property. He constructed the fence as a reaction to deny access from his property to the trail.

This is all hearsay of course and am not going to speculate on what really happened. Regardless it really represents a missed opportunity for increasing connections and promoting bicycling and walking as a mode of transportation to two places that seem to attract people interested in using those modes. Below is another picture of the route one must take around the block to access the plaza.

In my daily rounds today I happened upon two picture perfect moments that describe some of my thoughts on institutional priorities at USM. The image immediately below is a bicycle “parked” next to a streetlight, which is used to secure the bike. I looked around the facility and didn’t see any appropriate facilities for bicycle parking. The next building over has a rack, that is often full, however Abromson Hall doesn’t seem to offer any facilities. However, if you look in the background, there is a large multi-million dollar parking garage to accommodate the automobile.

The next picture is worth a few more words. This building didn’t have any adequate facilities that I could see. The cyclist had few options and out of necessity parked his/her bike on the ramp. The background of the photo showcase’s USM’s commitment to the automobile and its temporary daily storage.

In light of USM’s efforts to become climate neutral by 2040, it appears they have made little headway in how to get there. It even appears that they have created a situation where being a cyclist and seeking secure bike parking, means becoming a scofflaw.

First action steps for USM if it really intends on seriously becoming climate neutral:

  • put in bike racks at every building entrance
  • put in high quality bike racks that aren’t wheel taco makers
  • give free coffee coupons to cyclists in recognition that they are making a difference and staying healthy at the same time
  • put in covered bike parking

These are just a couple easy steps that might promote sustainable mobility. There are more things that can be done, but start here now!

Well folks, its the end of the semester and Tumbling just isn’t on my mind. Apologies to those few who are reading. Some great links for your enjoyment are all I got for a while:

Strong Towns talks about the dismal state of the planning profession. I agree that there are major issues with planning, some being planner mired in mediocrity, but much is to do with institutional momentum that planners are forced to combat. Currently reading Kristina Fords, “The Trouble With City Planning" and wondering what she makes of all this? First problem I see is that this book was listed in the architecture section.

Street treatments at Prospect Park, NYC. Safer places for pedestrians. Inexpensive fixes.

Enjoy. I will check back in on the world as soon as I can.

Getting people to the grocery store is important. Food deserts, car free folks, all important considerations. However, there are 2 grocery stores not more than 10 minutes apart on GPMetro’s Route 4 schedule. One of the biggest destinations, USM, however is not on the schedule and during peak traffic periods has a 25 minute headway between the before and after stops. Considering that buses run late sometimes, it is difficult to tell if you missed the bus at USM or not, especially when there is 25 minutes between the bookend stops.

I understand that efficiency is important in designing a bus route schedule, and real estate on paper schedules is at a premium, but doesn’t USM deserve a spot on the schedule? They represent what could be a huge market for GPMetro and due to many reasons, too numerous to mention here, are largely untapped. I have mentioned USM’s climate goals before, and every step in the right direction helps out. Making transit easier for people to use will increase ridership, decrease carbon emissions, and make for better places. 

Nobody rides or walks because they feel there is no infrastructure available for them, making it unsafe. No reason to spend good money on bike and pedestrian infrastructure because nobody rides or walks. How do we change that?

Ha, I used the word hip in a sentence. I am so not hip. Want to know where the those hip places are in Maine? Look no further than the 18-34 year old age group in my opinion. How do we find out where those places are for those not in the know? Simple, use a specialization ratio if you are geeky like me.

Attached is a simple map showing a simple ratio of where 18-34 year old people over-represent the population, as compared to other places in the region. Here we are looking Cumberland and York Counties. Unsurprisingly, Greater Portland and Brunswick are there, but Sanford, Kittery, and Biddeford? Hmmm.

The specialization ratio is pretty much a location quotient that economists use to determine if your area specializes in a particular industry or not. The basic equation looks like so:

Do this for every town in the entire area and you will know which places are more specialized for whatever it is you are measuring. Spreadsheets or a GIS are much easier than doing individual equations.

Data was sourced from the census.

Below is a picture of a bus stop on USM’s campus. Can you see it? To the uninitiated it is tough to find. It is indicated by the yellow sign. For a campus that has signed onto an initiative to become carbon neutral by 2040, this is making little headway to reducing auto dependency.

How important is reducing auto dependency to achieving these goals? USM’s faculty and staff (estimated at ~2000 people) create 12% of the carbon emissions on campus by their commutes. The report doesn’t include students in its carbon assessment, but considering that there are 8,000 students, it is easy to see that emissions from students could increase that 12% figure substantially considering commute patterns and location choices.

Back to the bus stop and how this all ties in. If you want to become a climate neutral campus, you have to make some steps towards improving transit. Portland, ME has bad weather, so what about a shelter? There are steps being taken to use GPS transponders to track buses and through the QR Codes on signs, allow smart devices to pinpoint exact times buses are to arrive. That is a great step in the right direction at getting people the information they need to use transit more effectively. However, once you are at the stop, you need a dignified place to wait. Some place out of inclement weather.

I am sure there are questions about who would pay for such a shelter, but considering the asphalt parking lot and its high costs, a decent, artfully designed shelter would be pocket change to the University that wants to be carbon neutral by 2040?

Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.
- Lewis Mumford

OK, so Piscataquis County is the county where nobody lives. As of the 2010 census, there were less people in Piscataquis County than there were in the entire town of Brunswick. Below is a largely irrelevant map showing population growth rates by county in Maine, just to give you an idea of where the county is, and what the broad growth picture in Maine looks like. The dark blue counties are leaking people, red counties are growing. The largest share of growth occurs in Southern Maine. Northern Maine doesn’t grow all the much, and in the case of Aroostook and Washington Counties, they are on the decline.

So back to Piscataquis Village and why this is all relevant to anything. There is an idea out there that seeks to build a dense car free village in Piscataquis County. Details can be found at the links on the bottom of the post.

Let me jump out and say, “this is a great idea!”. Let me also jump out and say, “this is a dumb idea?”. The village looks like a cross between Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and a Medieval Village. They claim to model the village after a Medieval Village, and the description of their ideas suggest that it would achieve those sorts of densities. They propose to have a car parking facility outside the boundaries of the village.

I really like some of these ideas (well not the car parking lot one), but what really makes me question the project is: why put it in Piscataquis County? Nothing against Piscataquis County, but if the people wanted the project to have a high impact, couldn’t they pony up a bit more money and build their project on a transit route in Southern Maine or just outside of Bangor? Perhaps even buy property abutting a rail line that has good potential for passenger service. You could 86 the parking lot and instead of driving, hop a train to places elsewhere. I thin the point of the project’s location in Northern Maine is largely due to land prices. I can get a plot of land for about the same price as a cup of coffee. This is pretty attractive to home-buyers, but what is the cost of making a commute if you live 40 miles from the nearest place with more than 500 people?

What if you put the village in Vassalboro, Maine? It is on a rail route that could be served by passenger rail. It is between two employment centers: Augusta and Waterville. I am guessing land wouldn’t be as cheap, but over time the cost savings related to transportation would more than make up for the added expense of procuring more expensive land.

Call me skeptical of some aspects of the project, but actively watching for how they intend to make it work in a transportation starved location. I think it is the right idea, but the wrong place. Below the map are some links to info. about the project that are worth checking out.


So I am working on becoming a planner. Why? I harp on about oil prices, sustainability, economies of scale, schlocky strip mall development….but what I am really interested in is land use. Yes I want us as people to use the land the we are endowed with as if it means something. What we build today, where we build it, why we build it, and how we build it, should be a testament to how important that land is.

Land has more value than the money we pay for it. Some lands are productive forests, suitable agriculturally, provide ecosystem services by cleaning air and water through bio/geo/chemical processes. Some would claim you can put a price tag on it, however I don’t think they have considered time into the opportunity cost equation and the length of time it takes for ecosystems to repair themselves, which in turn costs us.

We are going to develop land. I hear rumblings that we (the world) will build the same amount of buildings in the next 50 years as have been built in all of human history. Our population isn’t going to stop growing for a few more years, our current housing stock needs to grow or in some cases be rejuvenated, in others it needs to be replaced. This I understand.

So what is a society, that values a land owners right to freely do with his or her land what they want, to do? How do we also take into account the externalities and opportunity costs of making one decision vs. another? Thinking in terms of the greater system that everything rides on, what seems apparent is that we all have a stake in determining land use decisions. How do we do this without inhibiting someone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Tough questions for planners moving forward.

What I think we are coming to collectively realize is that our development patterns of the last 60-70 years have ignored the true cost of the land. We have been able to ignore these costs largely due to cheap fuel prices and a ‘ponzi-scheme’ financial system that encourages suburban growth (for more on this, see Strong Towns) at the detriment of both the land and municipal finances.

I hope we can figure out how to grow meaningful places, that can truly account for the value of land. I like wild places where we can visit, but leave nothing behind. I like to think that we can solve much of our fuel needs on sustainably harvested forests close by. I like farms close by, that grow healthy local food. I also like solvent cities that grew in a way that reflected the notion that we need to be sustainable, both environmentally and fiscally.

I think the suburban experiment is coming to a close. It is time to re-localize and densify our cities and towns. It will be a tough change to make, resulting in quite a paradigm shift….but I think it is possible, or I wouldn’t have become a planner.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
- Edward Abbey

The Portland Press Herald ran a piece today on the slowdown of our outward expansion to exurban blah. While I believe that this is true, the 2010 census suggests that the suburbs are still growing. Below are two maps, one is the percent of population growth in the York/Cumberland County region in Southern Maine. The second is the share of growth that occurred in the region.

It is important to state this early on: I think the press herald is correct in reporting this. Information from the housing market suggests that houses in the far flung exurban markets are sitting for a lot longer, and the prices are dropping precipitously. However census data is a tricky thing, especially since it captures what has happened in 10 years, and not a play-by-play account. That is what the ACS data is for.

The percent change map below indicates that the highest population growth rate is in the exurban fringe. For the most part, the core cities in Southern Maine are on the coast. This is a historical legacy.

The second map is the share of growth in Southern Maine, basically giving us a who contributes to the regions growth the most. Add up the percentages and you should get something like: 100%. We see that Brunswick, York and Ogunquit actually had a negative contribution to the share of growth. Now think about the top map and how it has red towns in the western part of the region. The share of growth map still places the most contribution to regional growth squarely in Portland and towns in its immediate vicinity, with the exception of Waterboro. These towns & cities are where the growth is, but in terms of percentage as indicated in the above map, they aren’t growing as fast.

I largely suspect that ACS’s next release will show the complete slowdown in the exurbs that experienced the rapid growth in the 90’s and early 00’s. As we begin to consider the impact fuel prices, congestion, and long commutes, have on our wallet and ultimately our quality of life, living in the far flung suburbs will be a thing of the past. Drive till you qualify, will be replaced with a nice inner suburban home and a bus pass.

There is a great little resource on the interweb called the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index. The index looks at housing costs and compares it to housing + transportation costs. Here is picture of the housing affordability in the Portland region.

Notice how much of the area is pretty affordable, indicated by the yellow color. This indicates that housing costs are less than 30% of household income. Now, what if we add in the costs of commuting, and just the tangible costs like fuel, insurance, car payments, registration.

The story changes considerably. The Portland Peninsula, Westbrook and South Portland fall below the 45% threshold of affordability, yet the entire rest of the region is greater than 45% representing a significant burden on household budgets.

When I think about the significance of this, I am pretty sure that it has much to do with density and good mobility options within the Greater Portland Region.

What is the take-away here:

- If fuel prices continue to increase, expect more people to move in from out of the sticks.

- Creating good mobility opportunities in dense places along meaningful corridors will be key to the success of many small towns outside the central region. Places like Gorham, Little Falls/South Windham, and North Windham will be able to succeed if they have these options available to their citizens.

- Towns that are not transit served may be in for a tough ride as markets reflect the new energy paradigm. State and regional planners need to ensure that investments reflect that fact, so as to not squander the public purse.

- Recognize that some places might not make it. It is tough to pick winners and loosers, but investments can’t be applied equally across the landscape or it would result in very little gain.

- Look for ways to encourage TOD investment in small towns that can support reasonable mobility options.

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