Visualize Strategy with Urban Design

The concepts of strategic planning in economic development can be sometimes challenging to communicate. Supporting businesses, encouraging specific industry growth, and drawing activity to a certain area of your community takes not only a clearly articulated vision but a group of diverse community members to move forward. Using urban design elements in your strategic planning process can help drive the process, communicate ideas, and create cohesion around a community vision. Camoin 310 Analyst Amie Collins chatted with Senior Project Manager Dan Stevens to ask about his experiences using urban design elements in economic development strategic plans, and how else municipalities can take advantage of urban design in their other economic development efforts.  

Amie: Can you give us a description of what urban design is?

Dan: Sure! At its simplest, urban design examines the relationship between the built and natural environments – so the shaping of physical features of communities such as streets, buildings, and public spaces. Urban design helps translate ideas in the land use planning, landscape architecture, economic development, and architecture professions into physical form with graphical representations. So instead of (or in addition to) explaining streetscape improvements or the redevelopment of a city block verbally or in writing, we might create a concept plan graphic that overlays the current main street to show street trees, benches, bike lanes, building footprints, parking areas, or other improvements that would change the “look and feel” of the street or block.

A: How can a municipality or organization incorporate elements of urban design in their strategic planning process?

D: Strategic planning is a great place to apply urban design. There are tremendous benefits to translating the economic vision, ideas, and priorities of a community into a graphic representation that illustrates what these ideas mean in the real world – on the streets, properties, and areas that people are familiar with in their community– be it additional recreation amenities, a revitalized main street, or a new business park. We can also create graphic representations of the many supporting activities that make an economy work be it housing, public spaces, or transportation methods.

So, given urban design’s ability to reflect the vision and direction of the economy, we can use it at many steps in the strategic planning process. We can poll residents in an online poll, survey, or public forum asking, “Which photo best represents your vision?” From here we can derive the kinds of businesses and markets which would work best. If in our data analysis we see there is an opportunity for X, Y, or Z industry, we can overlay a graphic representation of that use on existing sites in the community to understand community sentiment. Finally, we can provide refined graphics in the final report that will help drive implementation and communicate to architects and engineers the vision to be replicated IRL.

Image: Concept plan Camoin created for the Rutland Redevelopment Authority. 

A: Besides strategic planning, how else might one use urban design?

There are lots of ways! I’ll just speak to what we do here at Camoin, but know that using visual elements is a great way to engage citizenry and communicate ideas across all community development realms.

First, using urban design to elevate specific real estate sites is a great way to communicate how it could be redeveloped. Showcasing the design vision for a property in a sell sheet or informational web page is something that has proven very effective. This shows developers and other interested parties there has been some forethought and consideration with redevelopment options, and that partners are waiting in the wings to help facilitate redevelopment.

Second, urban design helps create a conversation across multiple municipal services. If X use is going to occur at a particular site, what do we need from the various public works, utility, and transportation agencies to make it happen? This coordination is a critical step and can be facilitated by urban design.

Third, urban design is very helpful for business recruitment and other engagement strategies. By illustrating a certain redevelopment vision with urban design, a potential business can more readily envision itself in that space.

And finally, talking about aspects of the built environment in terms of everyday aesthetics and use is a very real and practical way to engage your community. Why isn’t this sidewalk getting used? What would make this park feel safer? Hearing observations from residents can trigger the planner’s toolbox to translate these observations into tangible ways to support the built environment be it through universal design principles, getting more people to live in your small downtown, or creating streetscape characteristics that allow the walkable environment to be more friendly.

A: Thanks so much for your intel, Dan! Any final thoughts?

D: Urban design is one of the most underutilized but effective tools in economic development. Its utility and effectiveness come from its ability to help people to understand proposed ideas, recommendations, and outcomes in a very straightforward and digestible manner. The adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” rings very true here. With everyone’s time being stretched so thin these days and the desire to move things quickly, we are going to see more and more crossover between design and economic development.  

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