Smart Growth America welcomes Rick Chellman as new director of design

chellman-headshotSmart Growth America is pleased to announce today the hiring of Rick Chellman, P.E., L.L.S., as director of design.

Chellman has over 30 years experience in civil engineering, engineering consulting, traffic engineering and land surveying, land use regulations, and development planning. As an independent consultant he has also worked extensively on the engineering and traffic engineering aspects of neighborhood development and street design. Chellman has written several land use regulations and zoning ordinances, authored and co-authored numerous works related to transportation and neighborhood design, and helped lead neighborhood design charettes across the country.

“Engineering at its best is about solving problems and making people’s lives easier,” said Geoff Anderson, President and CEO of Smart Growth America. “Rick absolutely understands that. He has helped communities across the country and the world get a clear picture of their goals, and then figure out how to achieve them in cost-effective ways. We are thrilled to have him bring that expertise to the communities we work with.”

In his new role, Chellman will work on Smart Growth America’s technical assistance workshops, particularly for departments of transportation. Learn more about his new work in our short Q+A below.

Creating a great neighborhood involves a lot of different kinds of people—elected leaders, real estate developers, residents, and more. What role do engineers play in that process?
Engineers are the people who have to turn big ideas into concrete and pavement. That’s an incredibly important role but a challenging one. Engineers have a hard job and their work can last for decades, and both those things make many engineers skeptical of new ideas. That can be really frustrating for community residents who want to do things in a new way.

My role is to bring an engineering perspective to the community design process as early as possible. And the goal of that is to help everyone—engineers as well as everyone else involved in the process—get on the same page about the problems that need to be solved. Starting with a problem like “This street is dangerous,” or “There’s always a traffic jam at that intersection,” opens up the conversation to a variety of possible solutions. That’s where engineers thrive. Starting with the solution—”We want six speed bumps on Oak Street”—makes it a yes/no conversation and that makes everyone frustrated.

A lot of your work has been facilitating community design charrettes. What’s the value of those kind of events?
The great thing about charrettes is that everyone gets a voice. Whether that voice is a young mom who had to drop out of school to take care of her kids, or—like a project I worked on once in Los Alamos—literally a room full of rocket scientists, everyone gets to chime in.

This kind of collaborative input is where a lot of the most inventive ideas come from. You have an idea for Oak Street? Let’s explore it, let’s draw it, let’s test it out. Then we can ask everyone in real time, “What do you think of this?” Everybody’s ideas get to be considered. Sometimes people propose an idea that they think will work great, but in the context of everyone in the room it becomes really clear why it won’t work. And other times people suggest ideas and everyone goes, “Oh wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” That’s the really fun part. And at the end, it’s rare that everyone gets exactly what they wanted, but everyone has been part of the process and understands why a decision was made the way it was. People wind up much more invested in the results than if the city or the state decides something unilaterally.

I’m sure plenty of people reading this will think, “Collecting all that feedback sounds like a big pain. Why create that kind of headache?” What would you say to them?
Better understanding absolutely leads to better outcomes. One city I worked with recently was dead set on building an elevated highway straight through the city. And when those plans were originally drafted in the 1970s, an elevated highway might have been the best solution. But 40 years and a whole lot of population growth later, the city wanted to at least consider some other approaches. Our charrette helped the city realize how life would change for the people in nearby neighborhoods if they built the highway in a different way. Ultimately the city decided to make the project more pedestrian-friendly—while still meeting the original goal of moving freight through the city efficiently—and now residents are excited about it. It brought the whole community together.

That’s just one community’s story, but it’s an example of how community processes can lead to better outcomes for everyone. Not to mention that taking time to be circumspect can also help find simpler solutions to cities’ challenges—and save potentially millions of dollars in project costs.

You’ve done this type of work all over the country and internationally, too. Are there some things about this work that are universally true?
People are influenced by the built environment in very similar ways, no matter where they are. There are differences between places and cultures, but no one, no matter where they’re from, is excited to walk across an eight-lane highway. No one wants to sit at an outdoor cafe along a road where traffic is going 45 miles an hour. No one lets their kids walk to an ice cream shop without sidewalks. These things are true no matter where you are in the world, but engineers and planners don’t always think of things this way.

Do you find yourself encouraging communities to use certain strategies over others in your work?
I admit, I believe in strong neighborhoods and giving people transportation choices like biking and walking. That said,there’s no one checklist to make that happen. A great neighborhood in Guatemala is going to look different than one in Traverse City, MI. My work is about helping communities see all the options available to them, and to think about what they want to be in the coming years. I know that’s what Smart Growth America does as well and it’s why I’m so excited to start this new work together. I’ve worked with communities across the country and across the world and I’m looking forward to working with even more as part of my work here.

Rick Chellman will be joining the team of people who provide Smart Growth America’s technical assistance workshops. Learn more about the workshops we offer ››

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