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Oh, The Places We'll Go (Together)

Top Four Challenges to Creating Walkable, Livable Places

What were the most pressing challenges and concerns for you awesome, relentless warrior placemakers in 2016? And how can we help you (if you would honor us with the privilege) crush them in 2017?

Objects in the Rear View Mirror...

Where were YOU on Jan 1st, 2016? Yes, I know we are no longer supposed to speak of 2016, but indulge me…I remember distinctly…

Despite the year that would ensue, I for one started off 2016 with a bang – State of Place had been awarded a Small Business and Innovation grant from the NSF! I had somehow woken up at around 830am (who does that on New Year’s Day?), a bit despondent because we had not yet heard from NSF (I’d been checking my phone non-stop all NYE, much to my fiancé’s chagrin!), only to check my spam folder (seriously Google?) and…there it was!

Wow! All the feelings! And then reality – we had just been entrusted with the honor and privilege to use your public funds…to build a software!  

While I am an unapologetic, full-fledged data geek and methods nerd, my idea of coding was tinkering with the HTML on my old Wordpress site (my proudest moment was when I was finally able to left-align a picture!). Obviously, we had budgeted for a developer, but creating a software is more than just about writing lines of codes. For us, our aim was to help the many folks fighting the good (placemaking) fight: 

  • The unrelenting city planner enduring countless public evening meetings, explaining why widening a 3-foot sidewalk to 8 feet would increase pedestrian safety and comfort – not create more traffic and gridlock
  • The progressive real estate developer taking the road (sidewalk ;)) less traveled, absorbing loads of risk (and NIMBY complaints) to configure a complex mixed-use development deal that would add a much-needed grocery store in a food-desert community
  • The cash-strapped business improvement or community development director as they struggled to address the increasing demand for walkability while also dealing with homelessness, trash, and crime safety.

It was about helping ALL of you create, champion, and deliver irresistible places.

If YOU (tell us how to) Build It, (You) Will Come 

So even though we had been offering State of Place as a consulting product for a few years, we knew we had to turn to YOU. We were building this for you. We needed to know your true problems. We needed to know if you weren't content with your current solutions. We needed to know what you would actually find useful in your quest to make places better! We needed to know what you would be willing to – could – pay for a solution (because we still need to eat!). We needed to know whether you thought our solution was user-friendly and solved your problem. So, we embarked on a six-month journey to truly understand YOUR most pressing challenges to creating better places and how to build a solution that would help you fight those challenges – and save time, energy, and money – and, yes, win!

Over the course of those six months, we spoke with over 60 urban planners, real estate developers, business improvement districts, economic development managers, investors, and other place-makers to learn about the biggest pains they faced, day-to-day, with respect to creating better places. And we’ve now integrated this exploratory date-your-would-be-customers-before-you-ask-them-to-marry-you (buy your product) approach – and have tallied over 100 (and counting) of these fascinating discussions – yeah, you guys are pretty awesome, relentless warrior, place-makers!! A huge shout out to our interviewees: we learned so much from YOU!

Ok, so now without further ado, it's time to share our learnings with everyone who wants to build thriving, walkable places.

Tell Me More About That...

As we mentioned, we engaged city planners, place managers, real estate developers and investors, and other folks in a safe 30-minute conversation. Well, you public sector guys usually chatted with us for closer to an hour! You had a lot of gripes to share! It was kind of like therapy for place-makers (you should try it, ahem)!  

Practically everyone we spoke with understood the increased demand for and inherent value of walkability and were working toward enhancing the quality of life by nurturing a better-built environment. But, despite this seeming “conceptual” consensus, nearly all of you championing projects and plans that would heed these aims - instead of being met with support and appreciation - faced all sorts of opposition. Not only did you have to convince external stakeholders - from NIMBYs opposing anything, to disgruntled property owners, to developers resisting your design guidelines and public asks, to cities not yet on the wagon – but you also had to spar with “your own”- from the (notorious) traffic engineer shooting down your plans to narrow the roadways to make room for wider sidewalks and bike lanes, to the city manager asking for budget justifications, to the elected officials worried about expending political capital, to the board member or lender wondering why you couldn’t just build yet another run-of-the-mill, safe-bet, apartment building. I could go on, but you all can fill in the rest of the blanks (or just call us and complain to us more)!

And if having to come to work ready for a “fight” on a near-daily basis wasn’t enough, imagine (actually, I don't have to tell you) facing this constant resistance while having to juggle other important work responsibilities – like, um, making the city work and keeping the lights on! – without tools to successfully fight the opposition? It’s a no brainer why so many cities and real estate organizations find it difficult to advocate for plans and developments that would enhance walkability and livability (which ironically would actually boost economic development). And, it's safe to say that the difficult job of justifying spending taxpayers' (or shareholders’) money on those projects will become that much more pertinent after January 20th, 2017 (too soon to tell what DJT means by infrastructure spending).

What's Keeping You Up At Night?

It takes courage to resist, to fight on, to champion creating and investing in better places in the face of all of these hurdles. But you don’t have to fight that battle alone! As you may already know, one of our favorite quotes from one of the customers about the data and analytics that State of Place “arms” him with is – “it’s like bringing a gun to a gunfight!” But before we tell you about what we built, here’s a deeper dive into what we learned. Below are quotes from our interviews with an uber cool crowd of urban thought leaders and place-makers - who are fighting for BETTER PLACES! (Find out how to join the "in" crowd).

What are your day-to-day concerns and challenges?

Most Common Challenges

1. Addressing budget, ROi, and TAXPAYERS' CONCERNS 

How do you do the right thing when the right thing is costly? Buyers have expressed a preference for sustainable projects but aren’t as willing to pay for it unless there’s a payback. The community doesn’t speak with one voice with different constituencies.
— Chief Officer of a development company in Pennsylvania
I tried to go to the city to make a case to continue sidewalk development but was met with the excuse that they don’t have that much money. It would be valuable to use data to help me tell a more compelling story.
— Real Estate Developer in Property Management Company

2. Overcoming External & INTERNAL resistance

Not everybody is going to be willing to consider why “good placemaking” is a need and not a want - many stakeholders are not receptive.
— City Planner in North Carolina
- Feedback from a BID Director in a Southern city

- Feedback from a BID Director in a Southern city

Getting land, getting money, bringing the greenway to fruition - so much paperwork and a lot of permitting to go through. It’s all political and it takes a major sales job to convince people. We go to a lot of meetings and have to keep putting the idea in people’s head that greenways are beneficial.
— Planner at County Parks & Recreation Department

3. Lack of tools/Data to communicate the value of "place"

Existing tools like Walk Score were high for everywhere in all the neighborhoods we were considering and I could not point to a differentiating factor. I was hesitant to use it with clients as I really needed something I could stand behind.
— Assistant Director at a tenant representation real estate firm, DC Metro
I don’t have a resource that gives me the methodology for evaluating the quality and or appeal of the environments that our metro customers have to travel through in order to use or services. I don’t have a way to measure whether the the pedestrian climate matters to show that hey, when you add that lighting over there or places over here that have better pedestrian conditions have better usage. So you’ve already built this giant piece of infrastructure...guess what, just finish it...get the trees built, the sidewalks going, because you can get more people on the system and out of their cars. I don’t have that tool. No one has that tool.
— Director of Research of major U.S. public transport authority

4. Addressing the increasing demand for walkability

We have many challenges: vast areas of car-oriented suburbia and exurbia - that doesn’t generate much demand.
— Real Estate Consultant, Virginia
Almost half a million people will move to our city in the next 25 years. We have to figure out a way to accommodate that many people in a short amount of time. More growth is shifting toward the city centers and corridors rather than looking outward so we are trying to move development back in.
— City Planner in a northeastern city
Background image from Rockport

Background image from Rockport

Data from Walk Score, Smart Growth America, and National Association of Realtors

Data from Walk Score, Smart Growth America, and National Association of Realtors

Indeed, while U.S. is 53 percent suburban and over the past decade, the demand for walkability has increased nearly 50%, the majority of people we spoke with still have a hard time communicating the value of and the need to create more walkable, livable communities - not just for the sake of the public good, but for the sake of the public purse.

Ready For YOUR Closeup?

Fast forward back to 2017 (yes, we have to). We now feel your pain - and feel fortunate we're on the solution side of the table and not the ones facing these problems head on daily! Indeed, this is merely a small sampling of your many hurdles that we learned about during our "discovery" process. But we're not done - and we know you want to be part of the "it" crowd of forward-thinking place fighters battling to make better places. We bet you're also hankering to sit in our (gotomeeting, virtual) therapy chair and tell us about your pain too. Oh, and yeah, not to mention, we now actually have a solution (a brand spanking newly updated version incorporating much of your early feedback) to soothe your pain, so you're not left feeling worse after your gripping session! 

No, but in all seriousness, we would be privileged and honored to welcome you into our "safe space" and speak with you about the struggles and challenges you're facing in creating the walkable, livable places that you know you need to deliver in order to remain economically competitive, resilient, and sustainable, especially in light of the uncertainty that awaits us all in 2017! We would love to discuss whether and how State of Place can help you identify the kinds of changes that would maximize both quality of life and economic development as well as arm you with the data you need to justify the need to invest in these projects and convince all the naysayers. In other words, we want to help save you time, money, agony - and give you back a little bit of your peace of mind - in 2017...

Join the conversation here or dive right in and request a preview of our new software!

Check out how we helped the City of Tigard get ready for 2017 and beyond!