How one planner thinks

After months of getting pulled in closer, learning a lot, and meeting and talking with a lot of people, I’d like to now write more specifically about the planning, land development and community development challenges facing Pottstown. I’ll be writing with several different, intertwined perspectives in mind. The urban planning part of my brain is influenced by my point guard/leader/coaching brain, and it’s all (still) informed by the experiences of living in Pottstown, going up and down its streets in cars, on a bike, running or walking on my own two feet, during my formative years. I’ll try to show my thinking on the page, and in the process I hope to re-frame the way the community thinks about its challenges and what it wants to be, so that it’s better positioned to get there. If something doesn’t quite make sense or I’ve got a basic assumption all wrong, I apologize in advance. Let me know so I can re-assess things based on reality.

As to the title of this blog post… I’m going to lean heavily on a sports analogy here at the beginning. I see a connection between being a point guard in high school and college and then finding myself in the planning profession. A key concept & goal of the profession is to be comprehensive in outlook. And being a point guard means “seeing” and keeping track of everything that’s happening on the court.

Example: On a fast break, a point guard might not even know exactly who she’s passing to. She just sees the color of her teammates’ jerseys spread out in front of her. She sees opposing jerseys. She sees an open space that a teammate might move into, to get closer to the basket, and she tosses the ball to that space, believing her teammate will move to it, get the ball and score. You don’t want to make or encourage moves that have people crashing into one another. Teammates need to keep good spacing, but they do need to come together, say, when one sets a screen for another. They move closer together, then they move apart. It’s about seeing space and color and individuals working in concert. (Just re-read that… could almost describe a land use map too.) Ideally, it’s one big orchestrated dance that has spontaneity, too, based on trust and instinct.

On several different levels, I think about community development and comprehensive planning, at its best, as a series of orchestrated movements, where different people and groups are playing their roles to the best of their ability. The goals are reasonably attainable, based on the skills that everyone brings to the game. In hoops, you don’t want a schedule where you’re always losing and stuck in an unhealthy frame of mind. In community or economic development, you don’t want to set goals you can’t reach.

So let’s think of a really, really large court; let’s think of several bird’s eye views of Pottstown. A zoning map, historic district map, and homeowners’ initiative map all give a different view. Different uses, zones and priorities have been assigned to different spaces for specific reasons. Yes, these can be modified over time for many reasons. But no land use recommendations or decision should be made without regard to surrounding properties and the uses/priorities assigned to adjacent zones. Sounds simple, but in reality, it’s easy to get carried away from such a basic consideration.

I started writing what you’ve just read, after getting – ah, irked – at a July 31st Mercury article about an “energy plant” that comes with a landfill, proposed for the former Stanley G. Flagg site. The Mercury followed up with a glowing opinion piece on August 1st. But just because something comes in green wrapping paper doesn’t mean it’s good for a particular community.

From a bird’s eye view of Pottstown’s zoning map, I imagine truck after truck delivering municipal solid waste to a flex office zone that has parkland on one side and a narrow gateway zone and neighborhood residential on the other side. Parkland. Green Garbage. Gateway/Neighborhood Residential. This would be an example of incompatible uses crashing up against one another – in short, a badly run play.

I’m generally in favor of green initiatives! But every activity – even a green one – has to be considered in its context, in its specific location. And Pottstown has to start getting serious about how it markets itself. There are other green activities that it can explore and try to bring to town that don’t involve garbage at its western gateway. (We’ll get to these in this series, down the road a bit.)

Okay, so eventually, we need to print out a copy of the maps, come down out of the sky and see what’s exactly on the ground. It’s best to walk around with map in hand and get a sense of the scale of anything that’s already there or in the vicinity. There’s a whole other level of sensory awareness of what makes a “place” work. What do you see, smell and hear in a neighborhood or on a particular site? Does it feel safe?

When friends are looking for a new house in a new community, I advise them to stop in at the municipal building and visit the planning and engineering offices. Ask to see their maps and (here in NJ) the town’s Master Plan. Ask what’s going on. I also advise them to visit their potential new neighborhood at several different times during the day and night. Look for railroad tracks and airports; is there a lot of noise? Truck traffic? Commuter traffic? Bring the kids to the potential house, park the car, get out and walk to the park or school or ice cream shop together to see how it feels. Is it going to work for your family?

We’re all going to have our own opinions and different tolerance levels for all kinds of activities. But a town’s maps, and the ordinances that underlie and support those maps, represent existing public policy. Periodically, you re-evaluate them, you talk it out publicly and you might change them. You make exceptions only for very compelling reasons. To me, though, this is your starting point as a community. Your maps and your ordinances say who you are, how you want to grow, what you want your town to be.

Next up: Who’s doing the “work of the community?”

8 thoughts on “How one planner thinks

  1. Sue – masterful and powerful imagery. Sometimes things seem daunting but when you put it in a way that many people can relate to it (either as players on the court or spectators) it brings a calm to the many swirling subplots at play!! I hope your readers get drawn in by the simplistic approach you have provided to a complex problem. If only it were as simple as ‘finding the open player’ and funneling the ball there for a 3-pointer, huh?!?

    I said I was eagerly anticipating your take on the situation and now I am even hungrier for the next installment of the series…

    Please, M’am, may I have some more!! From your learned perspective to the home team players!!!

    1. Thanks, Steph. Ah, yes, the “swirling subplots”!! Your note about simple vs. complex is on target. As you’ll see in the next few posts, it’s not simple at all; it is quite complex to keep track of and solve and manage a whole bunch of different needs/problems. But by breaking it down, maybe the path and the interim steps become clearer. Nobody likes feeling helpless in the face of such challenges.

      1. Being ‘benched’ kinda sucks!!

        Interim steps are needed, to be certain! I hope they will provide the ‘right’ amount of growth and show some sign of progress and improvement. Thus, motivating people to continue stepping forward…

        I think the problem people, in general, people keep seeing is the lack of progress as they don’t understand the complexity of the issues to make what appears to be one simple step forward. Enlightenment and education could help people to broaden their focus and be less frustrated with an apparent lack of action and, perhaps, understand why a problem need by analyzed only so many times before it becomes counterproductive…

  2. Where did you find those maps?! I never even knew what a land planner did- I’m still clueless but I see why this kind of knowledge is so valuable. Thank you Sue. Keep helping Pottstown!

    1. Oh, man, maps are our lifeblood! I would love to have the technical skills and resources to work with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), but will leave it to those who have that expertise. Mapping is such an awesome tool for showing and simplifying data and trends in communities. Those maps are on the Borough’s website. That will be one of my main themes – just about everything that is needed to move the Borough forward already exists. No major miracles required! I’m looking forward to continuing the tour through the wonderful world of planning and community building…

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