Department of Planning Executive Director Rick Bernhardt on community engagement for a better Nashville, TN

rbernhardtRick Bernhardt, right, discusses different development strategies with Nashville residents. Photo by NashvilleNext via Twitter.

Nashville, TN, is a creative city with a rich history in the arts that has recently seen new growth in both its population and economy. Rick Bernhardt, the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County Planning Department and member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, is working to make sure the city’s development supports that growth.

Bernhardt, a native of Nashville, always dreamed of being a city planner. He left Tennessee and worked as the Planning Director for Orlando, FL for 18 years and participated in the beginning of the Congress for New Urbanism. Eventually he returned to his hometown and as Nashville’s planning director he has focused the department’s work on building great neighborhoods.

As part of that work, the city created NashvilleNext, a new comprehensive plan informed in large part by Nashville residents. “We recognize the changing diversity of our community over the next 20 years,” says Bernhardt, “We have done a lot to engage all elements of the community.” A Community Engagement Committee meets monthly to discuss and evaluate participation and note the areas that lack in representation according to groups like age, ethnicity, and location. So far, over 17,000 people have provided feedback on the plan—and many have expressed their desire for walkable and mixed-use development.

Part of Bernhardt’s work has been to translate this feedback into the technical details included in NashvilleNext. One way the plan will do this is through improved zoning codes. Until now the city’s zoning code terminology has not matched its zoning plan. NashvilleNext will update the terminology in the plan to encourage development based on a building’s form and relationship to the surrounding street, instead of regulating the use alone.

“We’re not as concerned about the density of development as we are the location and its addition to the street,” Bernhardt says. “We want to know that the development will add value for the city and the residents.”

Around fifteen of these “form based” codes are already in place across the city, and they are helping the city flourish. From 2005 to 2013, the value of development countywide went up 33%—but in the form based code areas, the value of development went up 115%. In 2010, the city implemented a form based code in the downtown core and in just two years private sector building permits quadrupled to $544 million.

Bernhardt is retiring at the end of May, but his legacy in Nashville and in the planning profession more broadly will live on. “Our role as planners is to educate people on the implications and costs of good and bad planning,” says Bernhardt. “We can provide people with good development models, and create attractive places where our residents want to live.”

Local Leaders Council