How Placemaking Brings Biking and Walking Infrastructure to Life
In 2011, the Project for Public Spaces agreed to become partners with the National Center for Biking and Walking (NCBW) in organizing and sponsoring the Pro Walk/ Pro Bike conference. This was not an easy or quick decision. The idea first came to life in a conversation over a few beers between me and my good friend, Sharon Roerty, then the Director of NCBW. When I asked Sharon why she thought PPS would be a good partner in managing PWPB, she reminded me that going back to the start of our partnership in our previous careers (me at the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and Sharon at the Voorhees Transportation Center) we had long agreed that transportation infrastructure should be about adding value to the community, not simply about moving vehicles, people and freight. If we want biking and walking to become part of the transportation mainstream, it cannot fall into the same trap that the “mainstream” highway building juggernaut fell into by advancing transportation in a silo, and putting blinders onto all other issues.
This resonated with me. While I was at the NJDOT, after 50 years of freeway building we finally caught on to the idea that, if we continued to divorce transportation planning from land use and community planning, both would fail. The evidence had been mounting right in front of our noses, we just weren’t making the link: the unintended consequences of congestion spiraling far beyond the reach of state DOTs to fix; obesity rates reaching epidemic levels; the inability of our senior citizens to find neighborhoods where they can age in place; the perils of dependence on imported oil; and global climate change.
To react to this new awareness, NJDOT created two new programs designed to refocus our transportation investments toward community building. The first was Context Sensitive Solutions and the second was NJFIT: Future in Transportation. Collectively, these two programs seek to refocus transportation on global societal goals, linking transportation and community planning to create stronger neighborhoods that encourage healthy, active lifestyles.
So, prodded by my good friend’s typically-astute insight, I began to think differently about the biking and walking movements. As bikeped advocates and organizations are finally (albeit gradually) becoming mainstream, they will need to integrate themselves into the broader scope of community planning if they are to maintain their gains and continue to build their constituencies. The marriage between Placemaking and Biking and Walking was on its way.
But why Long Beach, I asked Sharon? Sitting barely 20 miles to the south of Los Angeles, Long Beach has a reputation not unlike that of my home state of New Jersey: car oriented, replete with smoky industry and second fiddle to its neighbors. Also like New Jersey, Long Beach’s reputation in this sense is unwarranted; in fact, the comfy city of half a million residents is already on the path to reinventing itself, largely through biking and walking infrastructure that is allowing small businesses to flourish and keeping neighborhoods intact for people with and without cars. (Damien Newton of LA Streetsblog describes it best in a recent post here.)
And so the two ideas came together: if PPS was to invest its energy in Pro Walk/Pro Bike, Long Beach seemed to be the perfect place to start! At PPS President Fred Kent’s suggestion, we decided to emphasize this new direction by modifying the conference title. The marriage was consummated and Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place was (re)born. The name is, perhaps, a tad cumbersome—but the concept is powerful. A focus on place allows everyone to contribute to the conversation that goes on at this important event, in contrast with discipline-driven processes that can be too complex and galvanize narrow agendas. Focusing on place also moves the discussion away from friction between modes (e.g the Spandex bikers versus the automobile) and unites disciplines and citizens alike to partner together around common goals.
Collaborative planning around place produces solutions that collectively solve multiple problems with greater results at lower costs. Most of all, place-based planning and investment restores confidence and bolsters a community’s sense of pride. PPS, NCBW, and the City of Long Beach have worked hard to create a program that will help you strengthen your own efforts at linking biking and walking to broader community goals, whether they be improving health, attracting business to your community, aging in place, increasing affordable housing options, building a sense of identity and pride, or myriad other efforts. Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place will provide you with the tools to address a wide range of 21st Century issues.
To read more about the history of the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference, and how it came to be a part of the Placemaking movement, read Gary’s interview with long-time advocates Dan Burden, Andy Clarke, and Charlie Gandy over on the PPS blog.