By Jennifer Hurley
I became interested in planning because I wanted to fight poverty, and I saw that poverty and the physical environment were tied together. I was also concerned with protecting the natural environment and preserving quality architecture. I wanted to understand how to make human-scaled, walkable environments and how to prevent the development of mind-numbing expanses of parking lots and throwaway buildings.
I didn’t find answers to any of those questions in planning school until I stumbled upon new urbanism. Unlike other material I encountered in planning school, new urbanism promoted an ideal of what makes a “good” city–walkability, transit-accessibility, mixed uses and diversity. The principles of new urbanism articulated the things I liked about cities and towns as well as the things I disliked about conventional suburban development.
Over the last year, I have participated in the Knight Program in Community Building at the University of Miami School of Architecture. The program is a mid-career fellowship that brings together twelve professionals from a wide variety of development fields to explore principles and strategies for building diverse, sustainable, human-scaled communities. The Knight Fellows sponsor an annual community charrette in one of the twenty-six Knight Foundation cities in the US. This year’s charrette in Macon, Georgia–the focus of this article–illustrates some of the strengths of new urbanist practice, as well as areas that need improvement. The charrette highlights the benefits of new urbanist design principles in neighborhood redevelopment, but also the need for new urbanist practitioners to incorporate into their planning efforts the insight and skills of the public, along with those of professionals in the fields of community development, affordable housing and public policy.
Beall’s Hill Revitalization
Beall’s Hill is an historic gateway neighborhood to downtown Macon, strategically located between Mercer University and the Medical Center of Central Georgia. Historically, it developed as a residential neighborhood serving a local textile mill. Since the mill closed in the 1950s, the neighborhood has declined. Unemployment rates, crime and other signs of social distress are high.
The level of distress in the community has led to general agreement that redevelopment is necessary. None of the community residents we spoke with were opposed to neighborhood revitalization. There were, however, significant design challenges and concerns about policy issues, including gentrification and displacement.
The housing stock of the neighborhood is varied and of high architectural quality, but a great deal has been lost to demolition and fires over the years. Large interior blocks served by lanes where shotgun houses once stood are now vacant. Outdated 1940s public housing is sited on a superblock at the heart of the neighborhood. The architecture and street pattern of the public housing is dramatically different from the surrounding area, isolating the residents and creating a barrier in the neighborhood. The neighborhood itself is also isolated–by a railroad and poorly designed bridges–from Tattnall Square Park and Alexander II Math-Science Magnet School. Local retail and commercial services have disappeared, and attractive green space and recreational facilities are lacking.
The charrette was just one piece of the ongoing Beall’s Hill revitalization project. With the assistance of $2.5 million in grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, Mercer University has been working with Beall’s Hill neighborhood residents to bring new resources to the neighborhood. The City of Macon commissioned neighborhood plans, market studies and design guidelines from several consultants. The Macon Housing Authority worked with the residents of Oglethorpe Homes to win a $19.5 million HOPE VI grant from HUD to demolish and replace the project. The ultimate goal of this neighborhood revitalization project is to rebuild the neighborhood as a vital and diverse community.
The charrette team was unusually large and diverse. The design team was led by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of the University of Miami and principal in the firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ). The team included Knight Fellow Dhiru Thadani, Knight Professor Jaime Correa, and recent University of Miami graduate Shailandra Singh, along with fourteen University of Miami post-graduate students in suburb and town planning and three University of Georgia landscape architecture students. The twelve Knight fellows and Program Director Charles Bohl added expertise in transportation; retail development; community development; and local, state and federal policy and programs. DPZ project coordinator Debra Hempel and Mercer Center for Community Development staff rounded out the team.
Community Outreach And Participation
One of the distinguishing features of this charrette was the extensive amount of community outreach the charrette team did in the months leading up to the event. In the initial site visit, a small team of designers went to Macon, toured the neighborhood and met the local sponsors. A few weeks later, another team of designers returned to review the base materials and meet with a larger group of stakeholders, including city officials, non-profit organizations and neighborhood representatives. In October, three Knight fellows visited Macon to tour the neighborhood, meet some residents, talk with pastors and attend a Central South Development Consortium meeting. We brainstormed about all of the potential stakeholders in the Beall’s Hill project and developed an outreach plan that included invitations, flyers and newspaper inserts.
During that third visit it became clear that we needed to do more one-on-one outreach. Many people were suspicious of the process. Bad past experiences with government programs, university expansion, and outside consultants made people fearful and reluctant to work together. A variety of organizations, including numerous churches, were involved in a large array of projects in the community, but most of them did not know what others were doing.
Cecilia Holloman and I returned a week later to speak individually with pastors and community organizations. Ms. Holloman has extensive experience facilitating faith-based collaboratives and working in distressed communities, and I have experience in conflict resolution and mediation. After interviewing several people, we hosted a roundtable workshop on faith-based collaboration to set the stage for the charrette.
This preparatory work provided the charrette team with an understanding of the essential issues before the charrette even began and resulted in extensive, broad participation in the charrette itself. One person who attended the charrette and was a strong participant later told us that prior to the outreach meetings she had been planning to sabotage the charrette.
In preparation for the charrette, the design team created a list of design issues and key sites, while facilitators developed detailed agendas for each of the stakeholder meetings. During the charrette, we met with about 600 people in a series of eleven stakeholder meetings to talk about the assets and problems in Beall’s Hill, and how to address specific social and design challenges. Throughout the charrette there were opportunities for the public to review the work-in-progress.
Because this charrette was one step in a large-scale revitalization project, there were a variety of issues to address. Having detailed agendas and professional facilitation enabled us to get community input on everything from roadway design to housing typologies, park design to affordable housing, all in a limited amount of time. The large size of the charrette team allowed us to capture comments during meetings on flip charts and laptops. Compilation of these notes resulted in a detailed list of neighborhood assets, a list of suggested actions and projects to improve the neighborhood and detailed documentation of what the community wanted.
Community members were also able to participate before, during and after the charrette through the project’s website. Scanned images from the charrette and notes from the stakeholder meetings were added to the site regularly, and the site’s interactive tools offered people a chance to participate on their own time. Although few people in this neighborhood have internet access at home, the website provides one more level of transparency for the process and a way to quickly and cheaply disseminate some of the results.
Infill projects come with a large number of parties who have diverse and sometimes competing interests. These people usually have long histories with each other, in some cases histories that include bitter feuds and mistrust. The diverse interests and weight of history make it especially important to ensure that all voices are heard, which may require specific outreach to people who have stopped talking or given up.
The charrette process can help build trust, re-knit damaged relationships and create new relationships. As one Beall’s Hill participant said at the end of a full day of stakeholder meetings, “I don’t think you understand how profound today was. We had people talking with each other in meetings who never sit in the same room. I think there will be effects from this day years from now that none of us can guess.”
Although any high-quality public participation process can achieve these goals, in this case holding a charrette had many benefits. The level of community distress had led to a very negative view of what could happen in the neighborhood. Having a group of outsiders come into the community and talk with residents about the local assets and potential for the neighborhood changed how people thought of Beall’s Hill. Seeing drawings of various options and plans helped people better imagine the possibilities. Witnessing the extent of the public participation and watching how the designs changed in response to stakeholder input helped residents overcome some of the distrust and suspicion they may have had.
The preparatory work and stakeholder meetings identified several key design issues, including:
- a large amount of vacant land;
- a lack of connection between Mercer University and the neighborhood;
- poor pedestrian access, especially over the railroad; and
- the need for neighborhood-scaled retail development.
During the charrette, the design work began with a series of analytical drawings of existing conditions, including topography; churches and institutions; park space and tree cover; and historic buildings. Work progressed with a number of studies, out of which evolved the master plan, an analysis of retail potential and schemes of building typology for the infill housing.
Major design proposals included the creation of infill housing, especially on the mostly abandoned interior blocks; renovation of Tatnall Square Park; slight revision of the HOPE VI plan to improve architectural consistency with the neighborhood; and screening of the County Jail with landscaping.
Since redevelopment projects come with a host of policy challenges that may not be present in greenfield development, the presence of experts on the team–in federal, state and local policy, especially related to affordable housing–allowed for the inclusion of many policy recommendations in the final “Strategic Actions.” And since in Beall’s Hill gentrification and displacement were major concerns among stakeholders, the team included a tool kit for developing and maintaining affordable housing.
Specifically, policy recommendations included creating a community land trust for affordable housing; protecting existing low-income and elderly homeowners from property tax increases through a ten-year phased tax assessment policy; and invoking the Executive Order on Environmental Justice to ensure context-sensitive road and bridge design. The attention to concerns about affordable housing during the stakeholder meetings led the designers to create building typologies suitable for that need, and the designers’ outrage at the poor road and bridge design led the policy specialists to suggest invoking the Executive Order. Although none of these policy recommendations were unique, they would not have come out of the process without a charrette team that included both designers and policy experts.
Of course the charrette described here is only one step in a larger process of revitalization. Will participation continue? Is there local capacity to implement some of the ideas, such as the community land trust? These are difficult questions associated with any participatory process, and ones with which new urbanism needs to engage more actively.
After studying new urbanism in more depth, meeting many new urbanist practitioners and discussing community building over the last year with the other fellows, I am even more convinced that new urbanism provides some of the answers to problems in our towns and cities. New urbanist design principles help create infill development that is sensitive to the local context and adds to the walkability and diversity of the physical form of the neighborhood. Where new urbanism is weak is in execution rather than ideal. New urbanist practice needs to include more attention to ensuring broad and diverse public involvement, and to addressing policy issues that arise from redevelopment. I believe that the solution is for a broader group of practitioners and advocates to become involved in shaping new urbanism and new urbanist developments.