Planning Meets Popular Mechanics
An Introduction to The Community Planner
When I was a kid, my father had a collection of Popular Mechanics
that he had since he was kid. You could learn anything and everything
from the pages edited by H.H. Windsor, Jr., from “catching aliens by
radio” to “the secrets of safe driving” to how to create a “weedless
rubber bass “bug” for fly fishing. My favorite part of Popular Mechanics,
however, was a section called “The Craftsman” which provided the instructions
and patterns for creating Duncan Phyfe lyre-back chairs, porches on
wheels that could be rolled into the garden during the summer, and the
hollow Hawaiian surfboard. I could imagine my father, who grew up in
south-central Montana, in an area that had blessed little water and
even less rain, and where the ground was parched by mid-June, pouring
through the pages of the July 1937 issue and dreaming of surfing and
green summers. The dog-eared pages for the surf board and the rolling
porch evidenced his long ago interests. I have no idea whether he ever
built the surf board, but he grew up to be an avid do-it-yourselfer.
H.H. Windsor started Popular Mechanics in 1902, basing the publication
on the premise that Americans, full of self reliance and “can do,” were
capable, individually and collectively, of tackling any project thrown
at them if given enough information. The tone of the publications changed
during the 1930s, a decade bookended by extended periods marked by the
rise of the expert, where self-reliance and collective action gradually
disappeared, erased by the desire for convenience and by the compartmentalization
of knowledge. There was a distinct “we can do this, you can do this”
tone that permeated not only the pages of Popular Mechanics but
also much of popular media. Where “expert” commentary trumped “at home
projects” in the decades leading up to the Great Depression and in the
decades since, the focus of the magazine, during the 1930s turned inward
and placed a stronger emphasis on projects to replace the conveniences
lost as the economy took a downward turn.
A couple of years ago, I provided some pro bono help to a small, rural
farming community in southern West Virginia. The residents were trying
to fight a shoestring annexation of a new subdivision, located on an
old dairy farm and on top of a historically significant cave. The residents
did not need someone to wage their fight; they needed the tools to wage
the fight themselves. The residents were willing to do the work, put
in the time and energy to plan for their community, but the materials
they found online were written in language often beyond their experience.
They had committees to raise money, write letters, work with an attorney,
research issues; what they did not have were the directions on how to
organize a community and create a rural plan that met the requirements
embedded in the state code. What they wanted were step-by-step instructions.
Driving back from Organ Cave, West Virginia, I pondered why no one
had published a version of Popular Mechanics for planning, community
development, and community activism. As planners, we talk about smart
growth and multi-modal transportation planning, brownfields and the
transfer of development rights. We provide a wide range of resources
defining and describing our terms and our approaches, but we rarely,
if ever, say “put tab A in slot B.” When we do provide instruction,
it is more general than specific. We tell citizens “hold a community
meeting, do a survey, create some maps,” but we do not provide step-by-step
instructions similar to those found in so many hobby and do-it-yourself
magazines. We actively encourage public participation, and yet many
of the tools we use to garner public input remain a mystery to the very
citizens we want to involve.
“Gee, guys, let’s do a new plan.”
Andy Hardy, like Popular Mechanics, was a product of a time when our
belief we could do things ourselves had been shaken. Unlike Andy Hardy,
where putting on a play meant following a script and relying on the
props mistress to supply the necessities, creating a new plan, revisioning
a corridor, or rethinking economic development strategies requires a
combination of technical expertise and access to a broad range of information.
For most jurisdictions, the planning process often means going outside
of the jurisdiction and hiring a consulting firm to take on the task
of inventing the future.
Plans and planning are deeply personal documents because they reflect
and change the very places we call home. Poor planning and plans removed
from our sense of place are often shelved, leaving our places to haphazard
development . By the time the subdivision plats have been recorded and
well before the first shovels of topsoil have been removed, our places
have been irrevocably changed. and there is no time left to say “stop,
wait, we need to think about this.”
The Community Planner was started, not as a way of supplanting
consultants, but as a vehicle for helping citizens learn about the hands-on,
nuts and bolts of planning and the planning process. While we hope to
take on the breadth of planning issues and approaches over the coming
years, we are starting with comprehensive planning, with some extras
thrown in for good measure. Comprehensive plans and planning are not
only the basis of planning, they are also a community's best chance
to define their sense of place, while creating a framework for growth.
This first issue focuses on creating the process of planning. Future
issues will focus on creating asset inventories, understanding how to
work with outside agencies, and developing effective public outreach
materials. We have made the conscious choice to focus on a specific
task in each issue, in order to provide as many options and approaches
as possible. This approach may change in the future, but for now it
provides the most effective framework for talking about the nuts an
bolts of planning. We invite and welcome other voices to these pages
and look forward to providing citizens with the tools to create strong
and vibrant plans. (MHD)
Meet the Editor
H. Dorsett, AICP. Meghan was a latecomer to planning, having
started her professional planning career as an alternative to buying
a red sports car for her 40th birthday. Since switching fields, Meghan
has worked as a county planner (comprehensive planner) in Virginia and
as a planning consultant in Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia, specializing
in data crunching and analysis, long range planning, economic development
planning, ordinance development, and planning for karst terrains. Meghan
is a member of the American Institute of Planners and the American Planning
Association, as well as an associate member of the American Bar Association.
She has served on the Board of Directors of the National Association
of County Planners, and currently serves on her local planning commission,
which she says gives her a much different understanding of planning
and the role of planning in creating healthy and thriving communities.
A Montana native, Meghan she spends her time writing and consulting,
romping with dogs, playing in the garden, reading, and maintaining a
143 year old train station, which doubles as the corporate headquarters
of Dorsett Publications and her house.
Meet the Contributors (thus far)
Dr. Diane Zahm, AICP, is known for her work in safe neighborhood
design and crime prevention through planning. Among other things, she
teaches the Land Use studio classes for the Department of Urban Affairs
and Planning at Virginia Tech. Her no-nonsense approach to the practice
of planning and her emphasis on professional standards have helped her
students succeed beyond the academy. Her practicum classes center on
"real world projects," especially in rural areas and small
towns. When she is not working on planning projects and teaching, Diane
(a New York native) romps around the neighborhood and avoids skunks
with her dog, Layla, experiments in the kitchen, plays piano, and travels.
Karen Drake, AICP, is known for her innovative approaches
to comprehensive planning and the use of technology. The Comprehensive
Planner for the Town of Blacksburg, Virginia, started her professional
career not in planning but on cruise ships that frequented places like
Antarctica. She has a BA in Communications from the University of North
Carolina, Chapel Hill and an MA in Environment Planning/Geography from
the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Prior to wandering up
into the mountains of western Virginia, Karen was a senior planner with
James City County, Virginia (the county surrounding Colonial Williamsburg).
In addition to traipsing around exotic places like Tasmania (see left),
she also has a fondness for tasmanian devils (a result of her experiences
in Tasmania) and drive-in theaters (or at least the local variation).
She is less fond of some of her current activities, most notably helping
to dry out family homes following a couple of bouts with hurricanes.
Milton Herd, AICP, is a planning consultant based
in Leesburg, Virginia, specializing in the preparation of comprehensive
plans and zoning regulations. He founded Herd Planning & Design,
Ltd. in 1991, and since then has carried out more than 130 planning
projects in over 70 local communities in Virginia. During his consulting
career, he has responded to well over 100 RFPs for planning services.
Prior to founding his firm, he spent 13 years as a local government
planner and planning director, during which time he was involved in
several RFP processes to procure consulting assistance.
Niki King is a professional journalist and is one
of the founding editors and chief bottle-washer for The
Hillville: Exploring the Urban Appalachian Connection. In
addition to working in Louisville, Ms. King has worked as a reporter
at the Louisville Courier-Journal (Kentucky), the Roanoke Times (Virginia),
and the Kitsap Sun (Washington). Niki has a BA in Journalism from the
University of Memphis and a MA in Community and Leadership Development
at the University of Kentucky, which gives her a unique understanding
of the relationship between government and the press. We welcome Niki
to the pages of the Community Planner and look forward to her future
contributions on politics, planning, and press relations.
Carol Lindstrom is a community activist and blogger.
In 2009, Carol won the Virginia Coalition for Open Government's Lawrence
E. Richardson Award Freedom of Information Award. When she is not blogging
about open government and volunteering with the League of Women Voters,
Carol, a Louisiana native, works with local citizen groups and local
governments to establish open government programs and assesses local
government websites for openness. Carol can be reached through her DepotDazed
blog and website.
Melissa Shelton Scott has worked for 15 years in various
technical and administrative positions in regional and local governments
in Michigan, West Virginia, and Virginia. Five of those years were spent
working as a consultant to government agencies, and the last six years
of her career has been spent braving the planning and technology frontier
in the West Virginia local government arena. Melissa is currently the
Planning Director for Hardy County, West Virginia
Valerie Tweedie is a CPA Certified Public Accountant;
CFE Certified Fraud Examiner; and a CGFM Certifed Governmental Financial
Manager . She is the Director of Finance for the Town of Christiansburg,
VA. She has 30 years experience in the accounting profession working
in the area of tax, performing independent audits for various types
of governments, and workng as the CFO, Chief Financial Officer, for
two Tribal governments in Michigan.
The Community Planner Photographers
is the owner
of Whetstone Studios and one of the new crop of remarkable Appalachian
photographers. Jess has an eye for detail and irony. As Jess often says
of her work, "I do landscape photography because the world is beautiful.
I do street photography because people can be ugly. I get much more
attention for the landscape work." We are appreciative of her willingness
to allow us to use her photographs in The Community Planner.
Paul Nason is a computer specialist and an avid photographer
in Denham Springs, Louisiana. His photographs capture the flavor of
small town mainstreets, as well as the architectural variations of cities
as diverse as Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Houston, Texas. We welcome
Paul's work to the pages of The Community Plannner.