Friday, May 18, 2007

The Comfort (and Necessity) of Long Term Thinking

I often find it comforting to contemplate change over a long arching span of time. This seems to have the effect of smoothing out the rough bits. It helps me cultivate patience too, which is something one needs in abundance when trying to affect change to something like the built environment where change happens at a seemingly glacial pace.

I think this is why I love learning about Brookline's history. Great change has occurred in successive waves, brought about by bold visions, stirring endeavors and accidents of fate. Sometimes the changes brought ugliness and new problems, other times they achieved their intended purpose for renewal. As things were happening there were moments of panic and despair, courage and hope, failure and great success, yet all these individual stories blend to yield a picture of a community of people working together, whose lives were touched by a shared sense of place. Understanding all the human endeavor and natural forces that have brought us to the present makes us take very seriously our task as temporary stewards and admonishes us to think long term in our decision-making.

We are finally hearing about the logic of long term thinking for business. Couched in the profit motive and self-interest the argument can still be made that long term success can only be had with strategies that eschew exploitation of both natural and human resources and embrace self-sustaining and nurturing practices. It seems so obvious, and yet these principles, for decades have been the polar opposites of many business decision-making protocol. It has finally become obvious to the many, that we can no longer use up and abuse without regard for the consequences. Of course there have been many among us who have been saying this for many decades, who are now cautiously optimistic about this seismic shift in thinking. The same could be said for government policies, which in the recent past have sadly seemed to be more about getting re-elected next fall than making wise long-term policy. But I get beyond my point.

It's a simple tool really. When your car breaks down, or your plumbing explodes and the phone company's automated voice answering menu doesn't have an option that fits your call and you are about to pull your hair out, take a moment to think about what your neighborhood might be like in 10, 20 or even 50 years. And don't be afraid to dream big, think about all the things that make it a nice place or would make it even nicer. Will you, or those who are still here, even remember this bad day? Those folks back in 1898 had a great many obstacles to overcome too and yet they built beautiful homes and parks that we are still admiring today. When you are contemplating yourself as a part of this human community that inhabits this place we call Brookline gather courage from all those who have walked here before you and will walk here after you.

This Memorial Day there will be a guided tour of our own Old Burying Ground on Walnut St, from 12 to 2 pm. This is a chance to contemplate just how long that span of time is back to the days the first European settlers came to Brookline, and how much things have changed. Others find a similar comfort in contemplating geologic time or our place (speck) in the vast Universe. But for me, I have a hard time really connecting to those more abstract concepts and it seems to take that shared connection to our particular place on the planet to help me live in the broader continuum of time.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Brookline's T.O.D. perfect for Sustainability

Through the good fortunes of history North Brookline has a land development pattern that in contemporary planning parlance would be touted as Transit Oriented Development. It was the simple fact that much of our building occurred before the 1920's and the dominance of the automobile that dictated a pattern of concentrated development accessible by foot and rapid transit. The idea of T.O.D. today is to build nodes of density within easy walking distance of transit stops in order to minimize our reliance on the automobile. Ideally these nodes would include a variety of land use types to add further trip synergies, such as offices, convenience stores, frequently used services etc. These are not new ideas, but in the face of the real and pressing need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to retool our domestic living arrangements for changing demographics, Brookline stands out as an example of a community with much of the basic structure in place for moving forward towards the sustainable community of the future.

Urban planners around the world are struggling to craft municipal codes that would allow builders to retrofit our sprawling, land and resource wasting suburban environments into nodes of mixed-use density. Most municipal zoning ordinances would not allow traditional town centers or denser transit oriented nodes to be built today. These codes focused on separation of land uses, thus prohibiting the mix of uses that foster street life. Large lots and setbacks set buildings far apart, using up vast tracks of land and in a commercial setting making access via automobile the only option. Concentrating development near transit has the added advantage of leaving valuable open lands for preservation or farming, uses that benefit the public to a much greater extent than do 5 acre private lawns or asphalt parking lots. The planning and zoning tools of the past are primitive and left us with minimal protections, leaving communities vulnerable to the results of short term financial decision making, with little or no regard for context, long term use or the resulting public spaces. In addition to the wholesale reworking of our antiquated zoning codes, planners are becoming aware of the need to address the nuances of designing the public spaces, or as the title of one of my favorite books puts it "The Spaces between Buildings", which are in fact impacted by every design detail of both the adjacent buildings and the other streetscape elements.

A reawakened public and the municipal officials that represent them are coming to understand that they must speak up and ask for the kind of quality development that will be an asset to their community for the long term. Additional requirements are not necessarily a negative for developers. What is a negative is ambiguity. When developers make proposals that the community finds unsatisfactory, the community may try to stall and are reluctant to give their approval, but if they cannot clearly state their objections or preferences everyone is frustrated. Clarity, foreknowledge of expectations and even handed application to all proposals would be welcome by developers. We deserve quality development that makes sense for the long term goals of our community and we have a right to ask for them.