density and multi-modal, by any other name

Does the messaging which encourages sustainable forms of development need to alter its vocabulary to be successful?

Yesterday, Wednesday, January 5, I presented on removing barriers to transit-oriented development, sustainable communities and brownfields to a group of real estate lawyers from around the country assembled for a continuing legal education conference in Vail, Colorado.

The presentation is embedded below, and addresses in summary form the range of design, regulatory, fiscal and political issues in metropolitan areas today (with a Washington State focus). Yesterday, it was presented as the basis for a post-recession vocabulary for lawyers as well as clients and peer professionals.

Formal and casual discussion after the presentation was informative. We talked about the ongoing challenge of implementing compact and infill development adjacent to transportation infrastructure. Topics included infrastructure funding, urban streetcar initiatives, and how to address elements of walkable, transit-oriented development to constituencies not initially familiar with urbanist concepts or supportive of increased density.

Some in the audience suggested alternative language to mask hot-button words. Tax-increment financing to fund new infrastructure for transit-oriented development became a “parking fund”. Density was acknowledged as forever outside of some people’s comfort zone. And new neighborhoods aimed at live-work proximity were discussed as sometimes problematic in light of potential restrictions imposed by competing forms of environmental governance such as stormwater and air quality regulation.

I was reminded of twenty years ago, when drafting rural cluster development ordinances designed to protect natural resources. To some “cluster” meant “clutter’. We needed to call such regulations something else–such as “conservation density subdivisions”–to make them acceptable in many venues.

All in all, yesterday’s post-presentation discussions were illuminating in their own right, in response to provocative themes–and a reminder of the importance of holistic dialogue in the evolution from well-meaning dogma to achievable professional and political consensus.

Colorado January 2011

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