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
Urbanophile
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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Misplaced investments abound anywhere you look. Investments whether public or private need to have a purpose and provide some sort of return. The place that I talking about today is in Portland, ME and is located just 1/2 a block north of the Amtrak/Concord Coach Station. The sidewalk is a private investment that facilitates travel between the parking lot of the Clarion Hotel and the hotel itself. Below is a handy Google Map of the site.


View Larger Map

What we see is a sidewalk that runs horizontally through the parking lot and abruptly stops nearly 5-6 feet from the public sidewalk leading to the train/bus station. Here are a photo looking out from the private sidewalk to the public sidewalk.

Notice that the fence isn’t there for security, but it does block passage through the majority of the parking area to the train station. I wonder if they thought a partial fence would be enough to keep hoodlums and vandals at bay, believing them to only put forth the effort if the fence prevented them from accessing 1/2 the parking area?

I am not sure why I am writing about this. People could in fact just walk around and through the roadway and enter the lot the way cars do. They could trample through the bushes or the hotel could have saved a couple hundred bucks in fence and spent it on completing the sidewalk. Now they have a fence that really doesn’t do anything, and an incomplete sidewalk that doesn’t facilitate travel to the train and bus station from their establishment.

I am not even sure I would have picked this up as a planner reviewing the site plan. It just seems that creating connections in logical places only improves a transportation system.

* It is noted that the private hotel owned sidewalk was built before the public sidewalk, which is the “only” way to get to the train station if one is on foot, unless you trespass on private property or walk in the roadway. Regardless, the investment should have been made by the city to link the two amenities up. The cost would have been negligible considering the entire cost of the project and reflects a serious lack of concern for how functional networks operate. It could be argued that the hotel wouldn’t want the sidewalk to be linked, which may be the case and that is their prerogative, but if an effort wasn’t made……

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.

Planning is too important to just leave it to the professionals.
- Me, probably others

What does planning and the US Postal Service (USPS) have to do with one another? Lots.

According to some quick wiki factoids, the USPS is a major employer, employing more than 1/2 million people. They have more than 200,000 vehicles that require massive quantities of energy, so much energy that for every 1 cent rise in the price of gas, the postal service pays an additional $8 million per year to fuel vehicles. Time and energy cost money, lots of it is the point. With fuel prices rising due to supply and demand issues, and geopolitical concerns, perhaps it is time to rethink some things to keep this valuable service operating. Really, at less than $0.50 a letter, the postal service is a bargain, so how do we keep it that way?

Idea #1: Why deliver mail on Saturday and how about charging a premium for weekend delivery? UPS and FedEx do it. I am neither an economist, nor a logistical wizard, but that has got to account for something. Potential blow-back items would be pharmaceuticals deliver for certain populations, and not receiving your Netflix movies in time for Saturday night movie night, but these are easy things to plan around and people will adapt.

Idea #2: What about neighborhood post office boxes? Instead of walking or (gasp) driving to every house on the block, what if people had a box on the corner of 4 blocks? How much time and energy could be saved as a result of this? I understand that some elderly and disabled populations might not be able to get their mail, and they could always request home delivery due to that, but that would save a ton of time and energy.

Both of these ideas would result in a diminished workforce for the postal service and to deal with the negative spillover impacts, they could be phased in incrementally, allowing the workforce to slowly retire.

A potential benefit to neighborhood post office boxes would be increased interactions among the community. You might be able to meet your neighbors for a change, as you take a small walk down the street. Your dog would love the walk.

As we adapt to tighter energy supplies, and thinking about the things in a system-wide perspective, this could serve as a model for waste and recycling pickup, reducing the time and energy required to go door to door picking up trash. What about a block compost bin? Neighbors could contribute their waste, let it sit for a year, then divide up the black gold, while another pile is being contributed to. More on the neighborhood compost and transfer station in another post, but for now, food for thought on how to make our world a more sustainable place.

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.

From the perspective of someone “from away”, the Town of Bowdoinham, Maine is what I would call a fair representation of Maine outside and away from the big towns of Maine, the tourist regions of the coast, lakes and mountains, as well as the three metropolitan regions of Bangor, Portland, and Lewiston/Auburn. Surprisingly there is a lot more of the Bowdoinham, Maine than the big city, touristy places of Maine. 

As places like Bowdoinham seek to define themselves through the comprehensive planning process, the role of their forests and natural areas will be a major consideration. The towns people have placed a high priority on the preservation of these resources, but as growth pressure mounts and the sale of the family forest or farms becomes more lucrative, these lands become threatened by fragmentation. Each of the areas in the map below in cross hatches represents lands that have been split in some way or another since 2004. Parcels in green or brown are enrolled in state land preservation programs. Those with both cross hatches and program enrollment represent land use patterns that are threatened in some way or another, whether they are agricultural or forestry oriented.

As a planner, I feel my role is to inform the people for whom the planning process is being conducted,  of what lies ahead for the place that they call home. Although Bowdoinham is growing slowly, it does experience some growth pressure, albeit at a snail’s pace. As they seek to match their shared values as a town, with the land ownership rights and economic realities of individual land owners, they should bear in mind that there are often other decisions that can be made in lieu of the splitting and further parcelization of rural properties. 

For now, we have made the observation that Bowdoinham has experienced some parcelization and that some of  those splits occur on lands that were at one time enrolled in programs designed to prevent the fragmentation of these lands. Whether they decide to work with an active land trust, or develop policies geared to restricting land use rights in Bowdoinham is up to them. Some combination of the two might be the best, working to preserve lands through transfer of development rights, restrictions of how much or how often land is split and developed, and growing the awareness of land-owners of what their land means to rural Maine way of life and how best to preserve it.

What does it mean to be either a  historically recognized or a historically significant place in the context of planning; especially when that place is no longer tied to the historical conditions that created it? Waterville Maine’s, South End Neighborhood is just the sort of place where the deindustrialization experienced in the Post-World War II era has left a place behind.

I wrote a paper for a class on the Waterville South End Neighborhood, and in that paper I spent a some amount of time discussing the historical significance of the neighborhood and why it is where it is, what happened to it, and how does that shape it for the future. The South End owes much to it’s water powered industrial past, but how much of that past will play into the present? In terms of planning for a future where energy is much more expensive, a place created before the advent of the automobile will be poised to do well in that future. The dense working class neighborhood of Waterville’s South End may be considered a model for future development, as well as a place for emphasizing redevelopment in an energy limited future. The easily walkable streets characterized by the dense arrangement of the built environment may once again prosper at the intersection of resource limitations (namely petroleum) and climate change.

The adjacent Kennebec River once played a significant role in powering the industrial fortunes of Waterville and its cross river neighbor, Winslow. Perhaps the already damned rivers will once again be responsible for generating much of the power needs for the citizens, industrial processes, and fortunes of these towns again. At one time the Hathaway Shirt Factory was at the heart of Waterville’s economic might. Times changed of course as firms focused more emphasis on labor costs as the criteria for profitability. This ultimately led to the deindustrialization of the region, and much of the United States as firms seek every economic advantage they can to remain competitive in a global market. Places that succeed in adapting to a changing economic landscape will be places that succeed. Places that don’t will suffer, and ultimately wither away. It is my hope that Waterville, and especially the much beleaguered South End Neighborhood will adapt, and thrive once again. This will involve creative reuse of existing infrastructure, wise use of resources, and a community effort to imagine a place that can roll with the punches and adapt to a rapidly evolving landscape.

Below is a snippet from that paper regarding the historical context. I wish I had spoken more to the role that the urban design of the late 19th century would play in an energy limited world. Alas I didn’t but here is what I wrote:

The Waterville South End Neighborhood was historically and still is the modest working class neighborhood of Waterville. The South End was originally home to French Canadian families that came to the area to work in the mills and factories located along the Kennebec and Messolanskee waterways. These waterways were originally integral to providing these burgeoning industries of the early industrial period with mechanical power, which eventually became electrical power, both allowing the region to prosper. These mills and factories focused on numerous industrial sectors important to Maine’s economy at the time, but had the strongest relationship to locally sourced wood harvests, abundant throughout the state of Maine. The locational advantage provided by a steady supply of power, close proximity to forestry resources, and a waterway and its’ abutting flat railroad grade along that waterway, allowed the region and Waterville to prosper greatly in the early American industrial landscape. The South End Neighborhood as a result, prospered as well.
            
The homes in the South End Neighborhood are modest in nature and reflect the working class roots of the community. The spatial layout of the neighborhood reflects the era in which it was built, harkening back to the days before the automobile. The neighborhood was built with a considerably dense layout, and that density is currently reflected in the housing stock seen today. Many of these closely spaced houses have been neglected in recent times, which paint a telling picture of the change in fortunes for the residents of the neighborhood. While the economic fortunes for Waterville have fluctuated throughout the last 50 years, the South End Neighborhood’s fortunes have been in a steady decline. The Town of Waterville is home to two colleges, three regional medical centers, and serves as a regional hub for retailing. This service sector economy has been largely shielded from the Post-World War II deindustrialization experienced in the United States. However, the South End Neighborhood, whose residents were largely dependent on the manufacturing sector for wage labor, saw their stable lower-middle class working lifestyles decline rapidly, as manufacturing companies sought new locational advantages, in cheap labor. No longer was the proximity to raw materials and water powered locations key components to profitability. With the introduction of cheaper fossil fuel based power, and along with that cheap transportation, products could be manufactured anywhere in the world, with inexpensive labor being the key to profitability for many firms focused on labor intensive manufacturing. These changes hit the Waterville South End Neighborhood especially hard.
             
As people adapted to these changing economic trends, many residents sought opportunities elsewhere. The strong social fabric that once bound the neighborhood together was coming unraveled. This resulted in a severe decline in the condition of housing and an uptick in crime that has further eroded the community. However, fortunes have a tendency to change and in the South End Neighborhood, they have been slowly changing for the better.
                 
The neighborhood has a strong group of concerned citizens who are playing a key role in the revival of the neighborhood. They have formed the South End Neighborhood Association (SENA), and have been active agents of change in the neighborhood. The neighborhood has also seen a resurgence in community organizations that have based their operations in the South End, taking advantage of commercial and institutional space that was vacated during the neighborhoods decline. These will play a key role in helping to shape the changes that the neighborhood needs in order to be prosperous again.