Providing visions of change and growth for communities

Over the past two months, I have been fortunate to have learned a few things from a few very wise leaders. Recently, thanks to Lori Severin and Alabama A&M’s Sustainability Conference, I had the opportunity to hear from Mitchell Silver, Planning Director of Raleigh, NC and President-Elect of the National Planning Association. Two weeks later, Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute spoke at the Leadership Alabama Conference. Most recently, in early April, I spoke with economist Bruce Yandle, Dean Emeritus at Clemson University and a former White House staff member, who was in Huntsville as a speaker with UAH’s Koch Distinguished Speaker Series. I would like to share with you a little bit of what I learned from each of these visionary leaders.

Mitchell Silver, currently holding public workshops in his hometown of Raleigh to develop a growth plan for 2030, had some very specific and productive advice regarding how cities can meet long-term growth goals. He advised, “You pick a point in the future — 2030 in this case. You determine your desired outcome: What do you want your city to look like? Then you write down the policies that will make it so, draw a land-use map to go with them, and adopt zoning codes to steer it.” Raleigh’s leaders have heeded its citizens’ advice and the community is embracing “placemaking.”  He explains that, according to Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit, “Placemaking is not just the act of building or fixing up a space, but a whole process that fosters the creation of vital public destinations: the kind of places where people feel a strong stake in their communities.” Raleigh’s future seems very bright.

Ed McMahon’s visuals left no need for eloquent words. He showed us a long-range photograph of billboards of various sizes, one after another, down a stretch of highway, and a shot of a strip center housing national retailers, with a massive treeless parking lot — a sight that you might see in any US city.  He then had us picture a smart code approach:  Move the buildings near the street, add sidewalks and landscaping, and place the parking in the rear.  Allow room for bikes, pedestrians, and vehicles.  Think of Seaside!  The picture is smarter.

Bruce Yandle was impressed with our city.  Knowing education is one of our biggest challenges, I asked him what he thought was the reason for the decline in education in the United States. He smiled wistfully and noted that education in the US used to look like a large picture in a small frame. Now, he said, we have a very small picture in a massive, heavy, regulation-filled frame. We must deal with the decline of the family, the number of children without proper nutrition — the list of social issues is long. As many countries pass the US in many measurements of education, we must decide to make a difference in our community … and our country.

All three speakers left me thinking about how much potential our area has for smart growth and how we, as businesses and leaders in our community, have the power and responsibility to make positive change.