Committed local leaders are a key advantage in free workshop competition

Councilmember Michael Trapp, right, at parking audit workshop in Columbia, MO in 2015.

“Involvement of key community leaders” is one of five criteria Smart Growth America uses to select which communities receive our free technical assistance workshops each year. In fact, a letter of commitment signed by “the mayor, county commission chair, or comparable elected leader” is one of the requirements for applying.

Members of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council are a natural fit for this requirement, with a demonstrated interest in smarter development strategies. Over the past five years, 23 of the more than 50 winning communities have been home to current and future Local Leaders Council members. Here’s a look at how Local Leaders Council members have used these competitive awards.

In 2013, the Village of Park Forest, IL won a sustainable land use code audit workshop, which served as a kickoff event for the Village’s work revising its zoning and subdivision ordinances. The workshop was an opportunity to fill in gaps in technical expertise, gauge public interest in sustainable land use codes, and bring a fresh set of eyes to the process.

“We were a totally planned community that popped up out of the vacant fields of Chicago southland in the late 1940s,” says Mayor John Ostenburg, a member of the Local Leaders Council. “I found the workshop to be very helpful in opening our eyes to things that a lot of us had never thought about before.” Over the course of the workshop, Park Forest leaders realized some Village ordinances were standing in the way of their broader sustainability goals. “We began to realize that you get so locked into your own prejudicial way of viewing something—the way you’ve always looked at it—that you don’t necessarily see how you’re tying your own hands.”

The workshop was also an opportunity for staff of Village departments — particularly the public works and building departments — to learn about the proposed changes and ask questions. “We didn’t have that opportunity in the planning process to brainstorm in a small setting with experts about how these sorts of things can work,” explains Hildy Kingma, Director of Economic Development & Planning, and a member of the Local Leaders Council. “To me it was a good opportunity very early on in the process for the folks in those two departments to sit down in a small group setting and ask questions and voice their skepticism, and be challenged on some of that skepticism.”

After the workshop, the Village worked in partnership with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to take what they learned from the workshop and create a unified development ordinance (UDO), which is currently under review. Among many other things, the draft UDO would create an urban multifamily district that would increase density and allow for a variety of housing types, including live/work units, accessory dwelling units, and small lot single family homes. The UDO would also create a mixed-use zoning district in the downtown area, which includes design standards for commercial development that enhances walkability. In addition, the UDO would allow for green features such as small wind systems, community gardens, apiaries, and small chicken coops. The draft UDO will be under internal review for several more months, and then extensive public input will occur before the adoption process begins.

“What we hope in Park Forest is that we can set the standard that more communities will look to and see that sustainability does contribute to the overall well being of your citizens, and it does contribute to the overall well being of the community, and as time goes forward I think it contributes much more so to the economic base,” says Mayor Ostenburg.

Columbia, MO received a parking audit workshop from Smart Growth America earlier this month. The City’s downtown population has grown rapidly in recent years as enrollment at the University of Missouri’s urban campus expands. Hundreds of students have moved into new, privately-owned mid-rise apartment buildings downtown and while these students are one of the reasons the City enjoys a 98 percent occupancy rate in its downtown retail space, their cars have made parking downtown a hot button issue. Local business owners voiced concerns for their customers, and residents of nearby neighborhoods are worried about drivers who are more worried about grabbing a parking spot than people out walking or other drivers.

“We started out focused on Downtown Columbia, where we’ve really seen tremendous change over the last several years,” says Ian Thomas, City Councilor and a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “To get downtown development right, we have to think carefully about how we approach parking. Cars will be the most prevalent mode of transportation, most likely, for a long time to come. And cars need to be stored when they’re not being driven.”

Councilor Michael Trapp, another Local Leaders Council member, explains that the parking audit was especially valuable in finding a way to address neighborhood concerns. “We decided early on to include the first ring neighborhoods around downtown in our audit. We heard a lot of people say, ‘There’s no parking,’ and other people say, ‘There’s lots of parking.’ We got a lot of mixed feedback. So looking at the data is going to be important.”

Last week, Columbia residents got a look at the results. City staff presented the results of their extensive data collection efforts, while transportation planner Jim Charlier helped to analyze the data while providing information about how to use parking as a tool to achieve other goals such as a thriving, walkable downtown and safe neighborhood streets.

Councilor Trapp had high hopes for outcomes from the workshop. “If we can forge a community consensus with these people in the room today, we can really advance this in a way that’s going to make Columbia even more special than it already is.”

There is no preference given to communities with members of the Local Leaders Council. However, public leaders who are members have demonstrated that they are committed to creating smart growth in their community, which is a critical factor in choosing the technical assistance awardees.

You don’t need to be a member of the Local Leaders Council to apply for next year’s free workshops, though city leaders who support a smart growth approach is one of the things we look for. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, join our free webinar about the application process on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 at 1:00 PM EDT. We hope your community is one that we work with as part of this program in 2016.

Elizabeth Schilling contributed to this article.

Local Leaders Council Technical assistance