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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

Meghan 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

Jessica Ulm Anderson 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.

 

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