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Mon, Feb. 17

We shape our communities, and thereafter they shape us

Spring is here, and with it are signs of new development in the quad-city area - construction fencing, job site signs (complete with architectural renderings!), and semi-trailers hauling building materials through town. It's encouraging to see these indications of renewed growth, especially after such a long winter of economic stagnation. And while there are some who view any signs of new growth as only positive- but is it?

Growth in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It's the quality of that growth, and the thought and care that goes into it, that determines whether or not the new addition will contribute to what makes Prescott so special, or whether this growth ends up detracting from, or even degrading the unique quality and character of our community.

Towns are like living, breathing organisms - but thoughtless, unplanned, and random growth can literally be like a cancer, strangling the life blood out of the organism itself. Balance is vital, and a community divided up into private land use only, and/or dominated by the truck or automobile is usually not a very nice place to live. While most people recognize this when they see it, still, nearly all new development in our area has either been devoted solely to private property interests, and laid out in deference to the almighty automobile, with places and space for pedestrians being an afterthought, if there at all.

There has been quite a clamor in recent years that any investment in the public domain, or in our "common wealth," is a waste of money. "We can't afford it" is the most typical concern expressed by those who feel that any expenditure on behalf of the public is unjustified. Yet one of the most valued, recognized, and beloved pieces of our own community is the courthouse plaza (part of the Yavapai County government infrastructure downtown) - which, as the nationally recognized heart of our community is complete with broad sidewalks, usable open space, benches, picnic tables, a fountain, and numerous pieces of public art. People fall in love with our town once they've strolled through this oasis of authentic civic open space.

But when was the last time any new construction in our area made room for this kind of investment in our commons? It's more than just 'feel good' planning. This initial investment and the ongoing maintenance of it, is what continues to draw people to our area and sustains the economic core and vitality of our community.

So how can we plan for new growth in such a way as to maintain this critical balance?

Community planning efforts that look ahead and intentionally make room for a genuine balance between public and private space, between vehicular routes and pedestrian pathways, between parking for cars and places for people, is essential to extending that which we love most about our town.

In the spring of 2008, just before the crash, I was honored to chair the "Mayor's 2050 Smart Growth Committee" which was a part of the Mayor's 2050 Visioning Plan for Prescott. The goal this effort was to help determine what we, as members of our community, truly wanted for Prescott's future.

Our committee met for many months discussing what we felt was most important to guiding future growth in the area. The result of this work was a report (link below) that identified what we understood gave Prescott its unique character, and some specific tools we felt could be utilized in order to preserve and extend this character through future development.

Its essence was the adoption of a "Form Based Code," successfully used by many municipalities throughout the US, which provides specific planning guidelines to help maintain this critical balance. While there were no Form Based codes when the City of Prescott was originally laid out, our historic downtown district is an excellent example of these planning principles - with human scaled buildings, a courteous balance between vehicular and pedestrian, and generous places for people.

Our current development codes make this type of planning difficult at best, but as we enter into a period of renewed growth, perhaps now is the time to step back, and consider just 'how' it is we want to grow.

Winston Churchill once said: "We shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us." As an architect, I'm quite conscious of building design, but it's the spaces between our buildings that truly make a community. A more accurate version of this might be ... we shape our communities, and thereafter they shape us.

So, now it's time for your input. How would you like to see our community grow?

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