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5 Lessons Learned through Livability Solutions' Technical Assistance Program

Ethan Kent
Aug 1, 2017
Dec 22, 2017

When posed the question “Would you rather live in a community where it’s easy to walk or one where it’s easy to drive,” three thousand Americans were evenly split on their answers. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) asked this question as part of its biennial Community & Transportation Preferences Survey and, compared to when the survey began 15 years ago, the split in responses represents a shift in preference towards sustainability.

‍Main Street in Galena, IL | Photo courtesy of Tomcio77 on Flickr

Here's the problem: there aren't enough walkable neighborhood to accommodate demand. The result, according to NAR's survey, is that a quarter of households are stranded in suburban neighborhoods when they would rather be living in communities where daily destinations are within an easy and convenient walk from home. This mismatch was greatest for households with annual incomes over $100k.

The need to bridge that gap between planning and implementation of sustainability plans was the motivating force behind the formation of Livability Solutions. Since its inception in 2011, Livability Solutions has provided direct technical assistance to 28 towns, cities and tribal regions on green infrastructure, placemaking, complete streets, transit-oriented development, food access, walkability and form-based code.

Livability Solutions is making the lessons learned, and the tools used to provide this assistance, available free-of-charge to communities who wish to further their own sustainability plans. Of the communities assisted by Livability Solutions, nearly every one has achieved measurable progress; each community taught us more about delivering rapid, high leverage technical assistance.

Here is some of what we've learned:

  1. Update your plans. A number of communities we worked with were threatened by poorly designed development. Their zoning codes and land use plans still enshrined car-oriented development and, as a result, they became attractive for developers of large parking lot and drive-thru businesses. Had their planning documents been more reflective of their aspirations for sustainability, these communities would have found it easier to resist sprawl. (Case Study: Duncan, SC)
  2. People make change. Change is often the sum of innumerable small actions performed consistently and continuously. Designating a person—and not a committee—to do that work was the critical factor in the success of several of our communities. AmeriCorps members were utilized by two of our communities to answer phone calls and emails, send thank you notes, arrange for the follow up meeting, research funding sources, record meeting notes and seek additional advice on local challenges. (Case Study: Cincinnati, OH)
  3. Recognize moments of leverage. Finding funding for your projects is usually a daunting challenge. But it is important to remember that money is always being spent on infrastructure and it may be possible to piggyback your project on another agency’s efforts. For example, many communities are moving towards using green infrastructure to manage stormwater, and such projects often necessitate reconfiguring streets and sidewalks. This is an opportunity to implement complete streets design guidelines and/or to use the Power of 10 tool to enhance a neighborhood’s place qualities. (Case Study: Gretna, LA and Oak Park, MI)
  4. Bring change within people’s grasp. While most communities have made progress since receiving technical assistance, there were some exceptions. Communities working on green infrastructure, form-based code and transit-oriented development often struggled to accomplish their objectives. What these topics have in common is a distant planning horizon, costly solutions, complex causes, diffuse responsibility for fixes, extensive interagency cooperation is required, and stakeholders lack a strong public mandate to “fix” the problem. The most progress was made by communities that focused on walkability and bikeability. Barriers to walking and the valuable of walkability are both innately understood and valued by the general public. Often the “fixes” to restoring walkability are simple, inexpensive and accessible; the last characteristic is important because people can see how they can be part of the solution. The accessibility of solutions allows for quick wins and the building of momentum for more permanent change to transportation infrastructure and land use patterns. (Case Study: Eldon, MO)
  5. Sometimes there’s no substitute for outside expertise. Even technically proficient communities can lack the passion, popular support and the focus needed to raise money and break ground. Sometimes what is needed is a fresh perspective and a charismatic facilitator to unstop a stuck effort. From our perspective, there is nothing so rewarding as watching neighbors discovering a shared hunger for livability and sustainability.

We encourage you to browse our case studies and tools; we welcome your questions about how to move your community’s sustainability efforts to the next level; and we are available for hire. Please direct inquires to info@livabilitysolutions.org.

Livability Solutions is: Project for Public Spaces, Local Government Commission, ChangeLab Solutions, The Congress for the New Urbanism, and the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute

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