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The Far Ranging Impacts of Community Design

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | February 20, 2016
I recently had the opportunity to attend the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference held in Portland, Oregon.  I was invited to speak by a federal “smart growth” agency because of some of the unique things we’ve accomplished in Emporia’s downtown through multiple types of sustainable development strategies.  The New Partners conference is a little different in the world of community and economic development.
While most conferences are dedicated to training a single organization, vocation or community type, the New Partners conference is a heterogeneous mixture of some of the brightest minds in economics, community development, health, social justice, education, economic development, environmental practices, futurism and finance.  Each day started with an opening plenary that felt like being a part of a TEDx talk, and then broke into specialty sessions.  Because everyone there had different specialties, discussions quickly became multifaceted.  In my session, for example, I’m often asked to simplify information for mass consumption- but a full room of participants wanted to discuss the more nuanced and complex components of Community Initiated Development (which I found exciting).
I learned a tremendous amount from my colleagues, but the thing that stuck with me the most was the pervasive effect that community design has on the future of its citizens.  A lot of research has been conducted on the the town/citizen/culture relationship, and conferences like New Partners for Smart Growth provide both the raw data and contextualized information to show the impact of design decisions.  Although I may cover each one of the independent points listed below in more detail in future articles, I thought it important to release an overview to begin community dialogue.  So, here are some of my top take-away’s from the conference:
1.  The biggest determining factor of a person’s life span in the United States is their zip code. This one was a little shocking to me.  When economists and statisticians look for an “economy of

happiness”, life span is one of the data points that is easily quantifiable.  When looking for statistical correlations associated with long life, several factors like wealth, gender, race, occupation and others were considered to determine their relevance in health.  The one overriding factor in determining how long someone would live, though, was WHERE you live- regardless of other factors.  Community design and culture have a tremendous impact on our everyday lives, to an extent that we sometimes take for granted.

2.  Individual health can be linked to the walk-ability and bike-ability of a community.  It makes sense that communities that are designed to encourage physical activity on a regular basis are healthier than those that aren’t.  Beyond “working out”, the simple act of walking or biking where you need to go on a regular basis as a function of a daily routine is extremely important.  Dan Buettner, Author of The Blue Zone, noted that cultures that consistently engage in low level exercise on a regular basis form one of the pillars of long life.  If your daily walking routine simply takes you from the driveway to the house, or the parking lot to work, you simply aren’t getting enough activity to remain healthy long term.  The lack of regular physical activity is often a result of sprawl, and other poor community design decisions.  The United States has an extremely low number of public “gathering spaces” when compared to other first world (and typically healthier) nations.  People need destinations (businesses, events, gathering spaces, recreational options) that are easily accessible by bike or foot if they are to be encouraged to walk or bike on a consistent basis.
3.  The resilience of an economy relies on its diversification, which is highly dependent on a thriving entrepreneurial class.  Half of all jobs by 2040 are anticipated to be entrepreneurial in nature.

Read that sentence again…  We know that entrepreneurs need passion, work ethic, intelligence, entrepreneur specific education, logistical support and funding to succeed.  One thing we don’t talk enough about is environment: entrepreneurs need to be close to other entrepreneurs (ideally in similar businesses) to succeed.  Entrepreneurs naturally diversify an economy because they are generally relatively small in scope and they naturally seek out market opportunities.  When a community is too dependent on a single income sector, they are destined to suffer the ebbs and flows of that particular sector (see Wichita with the aircraft industry, or Manhattan with government jobs).  By designing a city commercial district in mind, you expose entrepreneurs to one another and support an idea exchange that leads to growth and diversification.

4.  Communities simply don’t have the resources to support a sprawling community design that ignores the benefits of density.  Communities have been investing for short range returns in a long

range world.  Christopher Zimmerman of Smart Growth America presented a series of fiscal studies that show conclusively the economic impacts of sprawl on the tax base.  I have slides sprinkled in throughout this e-news article from the Smart Growth folks, but it’s really common sense: the more spread out a city is, the more pipes, roads, transportation costs and other types of fees you incur per acre.  These costs quickly put communities in a quandary: do they raise taxes to pay for all of their infrastructure, or do they hold the tax line and let things dilapidate?  Of course, there is a third option: you can design communities with the financial implications of design decisions in mind…

5.  Crime rates drop significantly in areas that adopt sustainable design practices.  Walk-able, well lit areas that can easily access commercial want and needs with community gathering spaces create a

sense of “place” that encourages positive citizen interaction.  In areas that are “cut off” from business districts or amenities, or areas of the community negatively impacted by sprawl, we see less walk-able neighborhoods (and no place close to walk to).  When areas don’t have community gathering spots that they all take a sense of pride in, and can’t safely walk to, you never get to know your neighbors.  Emporia does a pretty good job of “community policing” where our officers mingle with residents of different neighborhoods, but it isn’t that way in every community (particularly those that are badly designed).  One government official at the conference explained “we know that good community design lowers crime rates more than body cameras ever will, but unfortunately that’s not what our funding allows.”

6.  Bad design decisions in relation to school placement can negatively impact student’s ability to learn.  Have you ever heard of the neurochemical cortisol?  Cortisol is sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” chemical associated with stress.  When kids have a long winding walk to school

(because of the lack of a grid system) that crosses heavy traffic (lack of pedestrian planning) or they sit in heavy traffic with stressed out parents (lack of placement planning) they get stressed out.  When kids get stressed out, their cortisol level goes up.  Higher levels of cortisol have a variety of bad health effects, and scholastic impairment is one of them.  Children with higher levels of cortisol in their systems have a more difficult time absorbing and retaining information.  Ineffective community design can literally make it more difficult for our kids to learn.

7.  The future economy will prioritize the minimization of resource usage.  Mark Mykleby, the founding co-director of the Strategic Innovation Lab at Case Western Reserve University, intimated that we will soon have three billion people entering the middle class in the world economy, and the demand on resources will equal approximately 4.5 planet Earths.  As people enter the middle class, they will demand all of the products and services that the middle class in our nation currently demand.  You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that we have one Earth (not 4.5) and that conflicts over resources typically end badly.  Compressing communities means people have to travel less (and use fewer resources), and it also ensures that land is available for resource production.  Without the two pronged approach of density and preservation, we won’t be able to sustain a future worldwide economy.  A former Marine, Mr. Mykleby calls for a new grand strategy that shifts our economy towards a more sustainable future

8.  Future logistics will have a greater emphasis on proximity, redundancy, advanced manufacturing and unique “clicks to mortar” businesses in multi-use environments.  Business

models of twenty years ago are starting to crack.  But, past business models always make way for the new.  This “new” economy will have some very different elements from that of a few years ago.  We are starting to see businesses locating production and logistics center closer to their buying populace to reduce travel expenses and expedite their logistics chain.  The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan revealed the price for a lack of redundancy in supply chains.  Because area plants were the “cheapest option” for many small automotive parts, the U.S. automotive industry was completely beholden to a plants that had to shut down after an earthquake led to a nuclear disaster that impacted local production facilities.  The ripple effect for some $3 silicon parts led to manufacturing delays and layoffs in the United States.  A modern economy must value redundancy and proximity in addition to price.  The influx of advanced manufacturing will focus on high tech materials and robotic components in smaller “batch manufacturers” that relegate the 1,000 person production plant to the history books, and unique retailers/service providers must have a destination bricks and mortar store that markets to the entire world with an integrated sales site for long term survival.

9.  The economy, our demography, technology and generational trends are moving faster than at any point in our history.  Communities that can reinvent themselves will thrive, and those that hold on to the past way of “doing things” will die.  In the world of the entrepreneur, smaller businesses can

usually move more rapidly to intersect with opportunities.  Think about New York City.  New York was once a shipping hub, that converted to a textile hub, that converted to a center of commerce (and so on).  We have to continually intersect with new trends while supporting a sustainable community design that emphasizes adaptation through entrepreneurship.  If we can continue to support innovation and density, we can conserve the resources necessary to invest in the inevitable transition our community must make as we continually face future challenges.

For Main Street supporters, “Design” is one of our four points in a time-tested community development strategy.  But, when I looked at design, it was mainly in the context of supporting commercial traffic and encouraging sales.  The efficient use of public dollars, and public health benefits were mentioned in some circles, but most of the information presented at the New Partners conference was relatively new to me.
It makes sense that the built environment has a pervasive impact on all aspects of our lives.  We interact with the community around us daily.  The design of a community determines our daily commute, our taxes to support infrastructure, our easy access to businesses and amenities, our proximity to walk-able/bike-able areas and more.  A good community design looks at all the factors listed above and develops with those factors in mind.  A bad community design simply looks at what is “easy” or continues to push sprawl.  We will soon have opportunities to plan for the future built environment of Emporia and Lyon County.  What will our future community look like?

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.