Community planning in the USA

by Brighid Sammon, Senior Urban Planner

In September this year I was provided with a unique opportunity to participate in the United States International Visitor Leadership program (IVLP). The program was designed for four young leaders across Australia to explore Green Building Technology and Community Planning across USA. The program itinerary included Washington DC, Pensacola, Florida, Denver and Boulder, Colorado & San Francisco, California.

This IVLP program provides a unique opportunity to meet with experienced professionals within the private and public sector and explore shared issues with them. Upon arriving in the US we quickly learnt that we would have to perfect our ‘elevator pitch’ and forgo our Australian inclination to modesty, as one person told us – in America if you know 1% more than you’re an expert. And, while this may have some drawbacks, I definitely learnt the value of more outward self-confidence and the strength in be able to clearly articulate your vision (albeit with a tad of Australian modest thrown in for good measure).

Of all the interesting things learnt during this experience it was the cultural influences to American cities and policies that I found most intriguing. Due to the innate avoidance of ‘big government’ there is a special focus on the role of City (local) Government and how the role of the advocate.

A strong professional interest for me is the notion of equitable cities, particularly in relation to housing affordability. I was comforted to learn of the many initiatives both from the public and not-for-profit (NFP) sector regarding these issues, however I was struck by the breadth of the problem; within San Francisco particularly. In Boulder, I was struck by the influence that highly engaged citizens can have on their ability to set the direction of their city. The City of Boulder was the first local municipality to introduce a Climate Action Tax and has an affective Urban Growth Boundary since the 1970s; all treasured by the local community. In Pensacola, I was at awe of the investment Escambia County has made into renewable and efficient waste services and their experimental sea rise mitigation programs (not to mention their incredible green roof). In Washington, a city which I have visited before and love, I was amazed at the energy within federal departments in ensuring that their strongly held vision for sustainable, smart cities is maintained (despite the current political environment).  All of these elements link back to a cultural strength of the collective and are contrary to perceived understanding of America or the America that is portrayed in popular culture. The professionals that we met with were willing to engage in intellectual debate regarding the future of our cities, and the opportunity to travel around The States with three other built environment professionals from across Australia, immersing ourselves in American planning will be something that I am always grateful for.

To summarise, the lessons learnt that I have been reflecting upon in my work with my colleagues at Hansen is the need to acknowledge inequity within our cities and to work towards a truly diverse housing stock, the importance of cross-collaboration between the private, not-for-profit and public sector and the importance of public engagement to empower collective change towards improved environmental outcomes.

Brighid Sammon is a Senior Urban Planner at Hansen Partnership.