Design Digest: planning NEXT
Planning NEXT is the new name of the Columbus-based planning firm led by Jamie Greene. Formerly known as ACP Visioning + Planning, the firm has worked on many high-profile planning projects both nationally and in the Columbus region. Two recent projects – Plan Cincinnati and the East Franklinton Plan – were awarded Planning Excellence Awards from the American Planning Association.
Greene recently talked with Columbus Underground about the name change, the challenge of working with different types of communities, and his own vision for the future of Columbus.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the history of your firm?
A: Here’s the short story: 20 years ago I was a planner with a Columbus-based firm. With a strong belief in collaboration, I formed a consulting group that included the for-profit company and two nonprofits; one in Washington, D.C., the other in New York City. We did some incredible work in a very short, three-year period before outgrowing our loose affiliation. So I co-founded a practice with the idea that we would help neighborhoods, cities and communities of all types and sizes plan and create their future.
From the beginning, our focus has been on integrating insightful technical research with deep and meaningful engagement of the people who live and work in the community. A significant example of that took place right here in Columbus a few years ago when we facilitated nearly 2,000 people at a town hall meeting, the largest ever in the city or state and one of the largest interactive programs of its type in the country. Today, we’re working with some of the most enduring places, not only in and around Columbus, but across the county.
Q: Why the name change?
A: It’s an inevitable and evolutionary result of a couple of very intense years for us. In 2011 and 2012, in addition to our regular practice, we had the privilege of facilitating 200Columbus: The Bicentennial.
In 2013, we caught our breath, stepped back, reflected and recommitted ourselves to what we’re most passionate about and what we’re quite good at, which is bringing communities together and helping them move forward. This excitement naturally led us to rethink the name of our practice, choosing something that better reflects what we do, which is helping communities address their biggest question and quandary: “What’s next?”
Q: You’ve worked on many plans in and around Columbus, and also on more far-flung projects in places like North Carolina, Indiana and Alabama. Have you noticed differences in how communities in different places respond to the planning process?
A: Yes, and no. The commonality is that everyone agrees that they want a thriving and livable community. What, exactly, that looks like, and how we get there, however, varies widely. For one, there are definitely some regionally based cultural issues. Where we see parallels is within types of communities, such as first-ring suburbs, near-downtown neighborhoods, shrinking cities, university communities and affluent, greenfield suburbs. The similarity of the challenges and opportunities in similar types of communities tend to be more powerful than any regional influences.
We also see a wide variation in what different states require. Even though the State of Ohio is what we might call “weak,” relative to encouraging local planning, we have many communities within central Ohio, like Dublin and Upper Arlington, that have institutionalized planning and realized significant benefits. Some states, like South Carolina, actually require local planning and use that plan in consideration for state financial support.
Q: Having worked on a number of suburban plans as well as urban neighborhood plans in Columbus (like the PACT Plan for the Near East Side), what do you see as the strengths of the central city neighborhoods as they work to revitalize and sometimes compete with the suburbs for people and business?
A: Without question, there’s a growing appetite here and across the country for authentic places; places that are walkable; places with a variety of housing choices. Housing choices give people freedom to move up or down in housing type—without being forced to leave their neighborhood when life circumstances or preferences change. These central city neighborhoods afford just that kind of opportunity. Something else we see is young people less enamored with owning a car and, in many cases, averse to wasting time sitting in traffic.
Of course, central neighborhoods have their challenges, not the least of which is educational opportunities for neighborhood children. The good news is that the City of Columbus is making sound investments in planning in several near-downtown neighborhoods. I expect we’ll see significant dividends from these efforts, just like we’re seeing in East Franklinton.
Q: What’s your own vision for the future of Columbus?
A: I am incredibly proud of Columbus and this region. Working in other metro areas gives us a real appreciation for the great strengths of central Ohio, though that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement here.
As for my personal vision, that’s a tough question since my orientation is always to discern the vision from the people’s perspective rather than my own. But since you ask…I’d like to see more efficient and rational settlement patterns that, among other things, would facilitate more robust transit, including light rail. This would help create a region that’s much less car-dependent. These patterns would also have a more positive fiscal impact; vast public resources have been squandered in pursuit of low-density, disconnected development at the far reaches of the region.
Essential to my vision would be a more attractive and authentic quality of place; so much of what has been developed in the last 60 years is incapable earning anyone’s affection. Think about the emotional attachment people have for the Short North, Grandview Heights and German Village. Can you imagine anyone ever having those feelings for Sawmill Road, Mill Run or any number of residential subdivisions scattered around the region?
This last point—quality of place—is known to be essential to building community pride. And community pride correlates strongly to economic prosperity. Some compelling market and demographic forces may dictate some changes, but if we are going to realize our potential we need to be more proactive. Many communities are making bets on alternative ways to grow and invest, Dublin’s Bridge Street project being perhaps the most significant example. But with 203 units of local government in our seven core counties, we need a stronger regional approach. I am encouraged by a soon-to-be-launched MORPC initiative that will help all of us better understand the choices before us when it comes to growth and prosperity.
Q: Any exciting new projects that you’re currently working on, or looking forward to in the near future?
A: Of course! But like kids, it’s tough to choose a favorite. One thing we’re especially enthused about is a unique project in Columbia, South Carolina. The city and county, separately, hired us to help update their land use and development plan. This county of about 800 square-miles is home to the state capital, the City of Columbia, as well as the University of South Carolina. Together, we’re taking on something unprecedented for them: the potential to align the vision and policies of the County with the municipalities within the County, including Columbia.
Outside of the planning world, that may seem like an obvious thing to do, but, truly, it is not the way most communities go about planning. Inter-jurisdictional planning is the exception; however, we expect this to become more common. The fact is, fiscal realities will demand this kind of response, and we’re happy to be engaged in this opportunity.
As mentioned earlier, we also have challenging work in the Raleigh, Chicago and Cleveland metro areas and some unique initiatives in what I think of us “heartland” communities. Jefferson County, Indiana—home to Madison, Indiana along the Ohio River—has the largest contiguous historic district in the country and was one of the pilot communities for the National Trust of Historic Preservation’s Main Street Program. They also are home to major industries that, among other things, supply one the world’s largest auto manufacturers. We are early in the process of helping them answer, “What’s next?”
For more information, visit www.planning-next.com.