Gary Toth and PPS are putting a new paradigm of street design and land use to work in New Jersey.

Placemaking–the principles and innovations that empower citizens to enliven their own communities–is more than simple, solid common sense. When you look at a street or neighborhood with a special eye for the small but important elements that connect people to that place, you see everything about that place differently. That’s the first step toward changing the world.

In small but substantive ways, the idea of Placemaking is beginning to reshape both the mental and literal landscape of North America, bringing new energy to how we think about where we live, work and hang-out. And these changes are being felt in some quite unexpected quarters–including the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT). As a huge bureaucracy which once saw its mission as laying as much asphalt as possible in America’s most suburban state, NJDOT would seem more likely to be the villains, rather than the good guys, on this issue. But that overlooks the transformative power of Placemaking.

“The decisions engineers make will affect people’s lives. The street can’t be looked at as just a vessel for cars. It’s a place with many uses.”

New Jersey’s DOT commissioner Jack Lettiere and one of his right-hand men Gary Toth (the Director of Project Planning and Development) are right now reinventing the role of state transportation departments. Toth, who runs the department’s Bureau of Project Scope Development (which, translated into everyday English, means the folks who figure out what needs to be done in any given locale), has become the quarterback of this visionary game plan for the future of transportation.

“What we want to do is try to help foster sustainable, livable communities,” he says. “I think we have to realize that roads are not simply a means–they’re a means to an end.”

That’s strong stuff coming from an engineer with 32 years experience inside the highway bureaucracy. And it’s not just a line he throws out to soothe angry citizens’ groups–Gary Toth and his colleagues at NJDOT actually walk their talk.

Traffic engineers evaluate a street using PPS’s “Place Audit,” part of the training program developed for NJDOT.

It became clear they were serious in 1999, when Toth hired PPS to develop a curriculum showing how Placemaking techniques can be integrated into the design of streets and roads. “Who better to train our engineers than a community advocacy outfit?” he says with a chuckle. “If we really want to change how we think, I said, then let’s talk with some troublemakers who’ve been challenging the system for 20 or 25 years.”

Steve Davies, PPS vice-president and the veteran of hundreds of heated community meetings pitting neighborhood groups against traffic planners, recalls hearing Toth’s pitch. “I couldn’t believe it. He was saying all this about changing the culture of the profession. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

More than 800 NJDOT employees have now completed the training program, which opened the door for PPS to develop similar courses for traffic engineers in New York, California and Wisconsin.

The idea is to create livable corridors rather than endless sprawl.

“DOT engineers used to sit in their offices and figure out ways to do what they were told to do: Make traffic move as smoothly as possible and break up traffic jams,” Toth explains. “But now they are beginning to look at streets from a number of perspectives. The street could be just like the street they live on, like the street where their kids go to school. The decisions engineers make will affect people’s lives. The street can’t be looked at as just a vessel for cars. It’s a place with many uses.”

This philosophy, combined with Toth’s ability to decide which projects will receive funding, has resulted in a complete about-face in the way NJDOT does business. To understand how, consider a typical road-widening project:

A town expands along the length of a road, locating large residential developments, big box retail, and other taxable properties (also known as ratables). These new single-use, car-dependent developments are connected to each other only via this roadway. Every trip of the day–commuting, buying milk, taking the kids to music lessons–requires driving on the same road, which inevitably becomes congested. This is the point at which the DOT is asked to widen the road. It is also the basic recipe for sprawl and un-sustainable development: When the road is widened the local government salivates at the chance to add more ratables, which boost the local tax base–and before you know it the widened road is even more congested.

When single-use developments only connect to one roadway, sprawl is the result.

In the old days, NJDOT would give most street widenings the green light, but Toth is dedicated to halting this vicious cycle. Instead of funneling all traffic from every residential and commercial property onto the strip, NJDOT is encouraging towns to create networks of streets with mixed-use developments, dispersing traffic over the whole system. The idea is to create livable corridors rather than endless sprawl. Sounds simple enough, but it’s actually a revolutionary change in suburban transportation and land use planning.

Many local governments, enamored of the tax revenue from housing subdivisions and big box stores, have been angered by NJDOT’s decisions to not widen their roads. That’s why Toth has sought out PPS again – to show communities the value of creating streets that function as places. PPS shows in plain language how human-scale streets that encourage walking and local entrepreneurship are more valuable over the long run than wide, congested roads cluttered with Best Buys and Home Depots. If teaching Placemaking techniques to traffic engineers was managing the “supply side” of transportation planning, then showing communities how to create livable corridors is managing the “demand side” — and it is a much bigger undertaking.

Networks of streets (left) can carry more traffic and result in higher-quality public space than isolated developments linked to one road (right).

But Gary Toth is optimistic that things will continue to evolve. “I read that book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, who explained how you have the early adapters way out on the edge and people think they’re crazy. And then one day suddenly everyone is there. I think we will be crossing that point.”

He notes how Kentucky, Utah, Florida, Vermont and other states are joining New Jersey in seriously studying Context Sensitive Solutions–the discipline’s name for looking at streets and roads as something more than simply a way to move traffic. “It’s becoming a national movement with 20 or 25 states already showing some signs of getting away from the same old myopia.”

Indeed, that myopia may be gone soon, and we have the piercing vision of people like Gary Toth to thank for that.