OK, that’s an exaggeration. Some things about local government aren’t about land use—public education, for example, and some local services, such as sanitation and public health. But it’s astonishing how many things in local governments do touch on land use.
Some of these things are obvious, like zoning and building permits, downtown renewal efforts and neighborhood development. But others are not so obvious, such as transportation, parks, sports arenas, and festivals.
Transportation is a good example. During my years as a city hall reporter, I never heard city officials talk about the connection between transportation and land use, except in a broad, economic development context. Oh, sure, they talked at length about highways, sidewalks, roads, and transit on the one hand, and the need to turn around parts of the city on the other—but not once (in my presence, at least) did a mayor, city council member, or even a planning director connect the two. It wasn’t until the 1990s that I heard local officials talk about using transportation to shape the places they passed through.
Today you can hardly avoid the subject if you’re a reasonably perceptive reporter talking with reasonably cognizant local officials. The growing awareness of how transportation shapes land use is why there’s such interest these days in bike lanes, walking, and transit. These forms of transportation concentrate land uses, as opposed to cars, which spread them out. Denser land uses create livelier urban environments. And livelier urban environments change how people interact with place—my description of the central issue for local governments.
And transportation is just one of those things whose connection to land use is more appreciated today. Take parks. Until the 1990s, most local officials saw them as urban amenities. And if you go further back in urban history to the 1800s, they were seen as beneficial to public health. (That’s one reason Central Park has long been described as “the lungs of New York City.”) But shapers of land use? That’s a more recent understanding, dating to the building of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996 and Millennium Park in Chicago in 2004, both of which dramatically raised property values and the density of land uses around them. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, created new interactions between people and places.)
I could go on. Even schools and sanitation have a land-use aspect. Ask any residential real estate agent what effect a good neighborhood school has on nearby property values. And sewer line extensions are, along with transportation improvements, the greatest predictors of future land uses.
So how are land-use stories played out in local government, and how could you cover them in new and interesting ways? Well, you know the traditional stories: “NIMBYs” vs. “greedy developers.” You have the neighbors in bright T-shirts at zoning board or city council meetings, waving signs, and complaining loudly about being overrun with traffic. And on the other side, lawyers in blue suits with architectural renderings, property tax projections, and the promise of lawsuits if things don’t go their way.
Who is right here? The side that promises the best possible interactions for people and place—which could be the neighbors or the developer . . . but is likely neither. That’s because neighborhood associations too often stand for the status quo. They don’t want to improve their neighborhoods; they want to preserve them in amber. And while developers favor change, their changes are often the wrong ones, ones that will diminish the interactions of people and place by creating parking lots, inward-looking buildings, and streets with no sidewalks.
So if NIMBYs and build-and-run developers are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of change in your city—almost equally wrongheaded—who then is rightheaded?
Ah, there are your stories: Who in your city is talking about and working toward a more interesting and attractive urban environment? What are the elements of their vision? What have cities or suburbs similar to yours done to create these environments? What were the obstacles they faced? Who in local government shares the vision? Who opposes it and why? What is the government doing today to create livelier places? What is it doing that hinders such places from developing? (Hint: Check city parking requirements for new retail, office, and residential properties.)
Other story ideas: What is the state of transit in your city? Do transit officials work alongside city officials in planning denser environments? If so, how? If not, why not? Are there developers who want to create walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented developments? (Hint: There almost surely are.) What do they see as the barriers to livelier streets and neighborhoods? What do local architects say?
Are there business improvement districts in your city? (If you don’t know what they are, Google the term.) If so, which have been successful, which have not had much impact, and why? If there aren’t BIDs, why haven’t they come to your city? What about Main Street programs? (Again, Google the term.)
Is gentrification happening in your city? Why did the gentrifiers move to some inner-city neighborhoods but not others? (Take an evening and knock on doors.) Given what you’ve learned, what is the most likely next neighborhood for gentrification and why? (Interview some real estate agents under age 40.) What has been the reaction of longtime neighbors to the newcomers? Is there a backlash?
Who bikes to work? What have they experienced? Who walks to work? What have they seen and learned? Who could afford to drive but chooses instead to take the bus? (These are called “choice riders.” Again, Google the term.) Why do they take transit, and what have they seen? (Hey, ride along with some.) What is the transit system doing to attract these riders?
Find the most successful public park in your city, in terms of usage. (If the parks department doesn’t have statistics, go out after work with a handheld counter and notepad and count the people.) What makes this park so successful? If it’s a large park, find a small one that’s equally successful on a per-acre basis. Again, what are its secrets? Call the nearest university with a landscape architecture program and interview some professors about what makes some urban parks successful and others desolate.
In which neighborhoods do people walk for exercise, entertainment, or to shop? (You may have to use the counter and a notebook.) Why do they walk there but not in the next neighborhood? What is the local government doing to encourage walkability? (Check sidewalk requirements.) If sidewalks are broken, who is responsible for the repairs—and does anyone actually enforce these requirements? What besides the sidewalks are the obstacles to walkable neighborhoods? (As a sidebar, interview public health officials about the connection between obesity and the lack of regular exercise—of which walking is considered the best.)
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. What is your city doing to improve the way people interact with places? Where are they making these improvements, and why are they investing in these locations? What resources are they bringing to bear on creating more interesting and attractive places? What have been the results, and what have been the responses by supporters and opponents, developers and residents new and old?
Now, stop a moment and think. Wouldn’t writing these stories be a lot more fun than covering the “NIMBYs” vs. “greedy developers” showdowns at the zoning board? Wouldn’t these stories teach readers more about their community and how their government works? Covering NIMBYs-vs.-developers stories is like writing about a baseball game that was played last year. Focus on land use and the forces that are changing it, and you’ll be writing about the game . . . before the players ever take the field.
This is one of a series of postings about better ways of understanding local government and writing about local politics. To read the introduction, please click here.
Photo by Dylan Passmore licensed under Creative Commons.