Youth independence and reflecting on your planning strategies: solutions from Raleigh

As I mentioned in my last post, I was a part of two events sponsored by North Carolina State University’s College of Design and Natural Learning Initiative. Day 1 was the Growing in Place Symposium, focused on designing cities for all ages, especially for young children. Day 2 was Urban Reset, the College of Design’s 9th Annual Urban Design Forum.

The key theme I found in Friday’s presentations, fittingly at the Marbles Kids Museum, was youth independence. Increasing the ability of children to navigate urban neighborhoods and open space on their own is a priority of basically every presenter I heard at Growing in Place. This could take the form of allowing youth recreation in traffic circles or triangles, because these tend to be centrally located but underused spaces, and relatively safe because auto traffic is already going slowly around them. This was proposed by Dee Merriam of the CDC. Another possibility is ensuring that walking paths  (many that connect residential subdivisions to schools) are located so their users are visible. Kids are often not allowed by parents to use the trails in typical residential neighborhoods that were formed from the “leftover” (and often heavily wooded) space behind homes, because there is no ability for adults to monitor activity on this type of path without actually being on it. This recommendation was the result of research by Adina Cox of the Natural Learning Initiative. I could list several more, but these were the most illustrative of the youth independence theme.

Downtown Raleigh. On the right is the Convention Center’s “shimmer wall,” reflecting the City of Oaks theme.

Saturday was a tad different, and with a venue change. At the Raleigh Convention Center this time, Mitch Silver (APA president and Raleigh’s planning director) set the tone with his lunch presentation. He asked public sector leaders to stop and reflect on the direction they are leading their communities: pause, rewind, or reset?

Jerome Chou of the Design Trust for Public Space presented perhaps the best case study of how exploring this deeply can impact your city. Among the topics in his presentation, he spoke (and showed the video Made in Midtown, a collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America) about how New York’s Garment District functions as a highly productive industry cluster. Despite pressure from the City to zone out manufacturing uses and repurpose the centrally located buildings here, the industry advocated keeping light manufacturing and other businesses here in place. Why? Among the many fashion designers, executives and artisans interviewed for Made in Midtown, all said that the close proximity of suppliers and experts in apparel has helped numerous designers get their start and create innovative collections, and done it more quickly and for less money than could have even been done overseas. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Thus, the conventional wisdom that there is a higher and better use for land in the middle of Manhattan does not work here. In fact, attempting to transform the Garment District into another neighborhood of residences and run-of-the-mill retail would harm the fashion industry dearly, would in fact be a rewind rather than a step forward. This is part of a major push by the industry to convince the City to rethink the value of the garment industry before taking steps that would harm its productivity and economic impact. As a case study of reflecting on planning strategies, this one is quite instructive and indeed I’m still learning more as I mull over Chou’s remarks two weeks later.

Overall, this was an enriching and exciting two days, and I’m glad I had the  chance to attend. If this interested you, plan to attend next year’s events. NCSU and the City of Raleigh were gracious hosts and I look forward to going again in 2013.

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