Special thanks to Becky McCray for fitting my guest post into her Small Biz Survival blog the first of the month. My friends at APA STaR may also include in the Division newsletter. Oh, the stories we have to tell…
Small town and rural planning is not city planning writ small. Yet we are also part of the same global economy as our urban cousins, facing the same economic and demographic trends. Over 5,000 urban and regional planners traveled to Chicago last month from all over the US and overseas for the American Planning Association (APA) annual National Planning Conference. The Conference featured topics from the Aging of America to Zombie Subdivisions, a little something for everyone.
I felt a renewed optimism at this year’s conference. Outgoing APA President Mitchell Silver of Raleigh, North Carolina, has been a tireless advocate questioning the way we’ve been building (and maintaining) cities of all sizes. He’s brought in people like “reformed engineer” Chuck Marohn from the Strong Towns organization in rural Brainerd, Minnesota, to talk about why it’s bad business to apply metropolitan highway standards to small town main streets. This year, Silver sponsored an Emerging Issues Task Force, which looked at global trends impacting urbanization, infrastructure and demographics affecting all of us in large cities or small towns.
It is easy at a large meeting like this to look to the common denominator. Most people live in suburbs and many of the presentations spoke to the mean. Yet I am still surprised how often small town advocates and inner-city activists find issues of common cause in employment, housing, and aging demographics. Infrastructure in many urban areas was built at the same time as our prairie railroad towns, and is falling apart at the same alarming rate. A presentation about wireless service in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, brought up the same issues with broadband access and adoption as my presentation about the Blandin Foundation’s work in rural Minnesota.
Small town development issues did take center stage at several sessions sponsored by the Small Town and Rural (STaR) Division of APA. About 100 in attendance belong to STaR, in addition to their state or regional chapter, mostly planning commissioners, elected officials, and staff in one-person rural offices. STaR sponsored one session, for example, on “Rural Sustainability” projects in Minnesota, Missouri and Mississippi. Sustainability isn’t a conspiracy; it’s the simple small town value of not eating your seed corn. We shouldn’t sacrifice tomorrow for short-term solutions today.
“Smart Growth in Small towns” attracted well over 100 people to learn about a new comprehensive plan for the resort community of Ketchum, Idaho, population 2,689. Highlight: in a small town, you can get out and talk to people one-on-one about what they want their community to be, something that’s impractical in a big city. We may not have economies of scale, but it is usually easier to get things done.
Small town planning is a lot like small business planning. You need to understand your market—what kind of place do people want to live in? You need to understand your product (and production capacity)—do you have vacant “zombie subdivisions” platted years ago without infrastructure for modern development? You need to understand your organization—can you move your town from good to great? Plan your work. Work your plan.