New Partners for Smart Growth Q&A: Paul Zykofsky

Feb 7, 2013, 11:30 AM

Paul Zykofsky Paul Zykofsky, Local Government Commission, leading a walkability audit in Baldwin Park, Calif.

NewPublicHealth is in Kansas City this week for the 2013 New Partners for Smart Growth conference, which brings together partners for smart and sustainable living from across diverse sectors. Over 1,000 attendees are expected including elected officials, government agency leaders, developers, builders, bankers, realtors, and advocates and professionals in planning, transportation, public health, landscape architecture, architecture, housing, parks and recreation, public works, crime prevention, education and the environment.

Just what is smart growth? “Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment,” according to Smart Growth America.

Ahead of the conference, NewPublicHealth spoke with Paul Zykofsky, associate executive director at the Local Government Commission, which assists local governments in establishing and developing the key elements of livable communities, and organizes the conference. He will be leading a session at the meeting called Smart Growth 101.

NewPublicHealth: What is Smart Growth 101?

Parklet San Francisco "Parklet," a small parking spot-sized area turned into a space where people can gather

Paul Zykofsky: I’ve been doing this session at the conference for many years now. Our premise was that we would do this session until nobody showed up for it anymore, and yet every year we get 100 to 150 people. So I think smart growth is a concept that’s obviously grown significantly around the country, that more and more people are aware of it, but there are always going to be folks that are fairly new to it because they’re either just getting engaged in local government issues or getting engaged in community development issues.

NPH: What changes have you see at the conference over the last decade or so?

Paul Zykofsky: We’ve seen the connections grow between smart growth, sustainable development and economic development, especially economic development in lower-income communities, which is getting a lot more attention.

NPH:  What impact are you seeing the conference have once attendees get back home?

Paul Zykofsky: One of the reasons we do the conference is to provide the ideas and strategies and concepts to local jurisdictions. I’ve seen that grow significantly over the years.

It’s no longer about coming for a few days of great ideas and then going home. It’s about how do we take these ideas and implement them when we get back home?

NPH: What’s new this year?

Paul Zykofsky: We’re doing an indoor demonstration of parklets—that’s basically taking a parking space or two or three and turning it into a place for people. This has been happening in a number of cities over the last few years, and it’s really a great way to enliven streets and create outdoor seating, and in some cases, actually green up an area with plants and lawn. We’ll have examples of what you can do in parklets. San Francisco has been adding parklets pretty aggressively in the last few years. Portland, Oregon, had a program for a number of years, and we’re starting to see more cities pick up on this. 

We’re also going to have a technology fair to demonstrate different tools that are available for mapping and 3-dimensional visualization to let people see how an existing street could be transformed through smart growth strategies.

The other new thing, of course, is that we’re doing the conference in the Midwest, which isn’t necessarily perceived as a hotbed of smart growth in sustainable communities. But in our work to develop this conference, we have uncovered lots of great examples and stories of communities there that are implementing smart growth, and the program is full of it.

NPH: Tell us about your own work.

Paul Zykofsky: A lot of my work is on technical assistance to local jurisdictions. We still see a lot of communities getting the broad concept but then needing help with the implementation. So, one of the things that we’ve been doing over the last decade or so, is actually working with local jurisdictions on developing a plan or a vision for a downtown, a main corridor, a neighborhood, and these are projects that typically are done through a multi-day design and planning process. We call them design charettes.

You send a team in and it’s a very dynamic process because instead of showing up from outside and having a couple of meetings and then going back to your office and coming back weeks or months later, here what we do is we bring in the design team to stay in the community, to experience it day in and day out, and then we have what we call an iterative process. We’ll ask for input from the community. We’ll then have a workshop where people actually sit down at tables and sketch out or write down their ideas or sometimes their concerns or their issues, and then the next few days are spent by the design team, which typically includes urban designers, planners, traffic engineers, economic development specialists basically mapping out and sketching out some recommendations. We have people come in to our design studio over the next few days and give us feedback. Are we on the right track? Are we missing stuff? Is there anything we haven’t heard?

So, what happens is in a short period of time, through this very intense process, is that by the end of that six, seven day period you’ve got a pretty well worked out set of recommendations and drawings and plans that the community can start working on. We’ve been doing six to eight of those a year. They are very labor intensive and they take a lot of effort, but they’re great projects to work on.

NPH: Do you have an example of an implementation that’s already resulted from one of the sessions?

Paul Zykofsky: Probably the most amazing one was one we did last August in a little town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California—Bridgeport. It’s a town of about 800 people and their main street is this enormous highway. It’s five lanes wide, and the businesses were suffering, and the community was concerned about safety. Cars come through at high speed.

As it happens the Department of Transportation, which actually was funding this planning process, was in the process of resurfacing this main street.

Within three months the street was rebuilt. Instead of five lanes, it now has three and it has bike lanes, and improved crossings. Obviously the crossing is safer when you don’t have to cross as many lanes of traffic, and the back-in angled parking gives the businesses more parking in front of their stores. In August we did the design workshops and then by early December they were rebuilding the street based on the recommendations that came out of the process.

We also are starting work on a project funded by RWJF. We’re a grantee of Leadership for Healthy Communities. We’re going to be focusing on six Central Valley counties in California, and that’s a part of the state that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, but it’s also an area with extreme poverty and high unemployment. We’re going to work with them to help them adopt policies that support healthier communities. Among the things we’ll be working with them is adopting and implementing policies on complete streets. Parklets are one of the small areas where we’ll also be providing some technical assistance.

NPH: Anything else new?

Paul Zykofsky: What’s happened over the last 50, 60 years is our zoning codes primarily focus on the use and the intensity of development but don’t really often consider very clearly the urban design—how the buildings relate to one another, how they relate to the street, what kind of places they create, where the parking goes.

We’ll also be working on form-based codes, which take a new approach to zoning codes that addresses the relationship between buildings and the public realm, instead of focusing on separating different kinds of land uses from each other. Form-based codes try to achieve a community vision based on time-tested forms of urbanism. With form-based codes a community can envision in three dimensions what a street is going to look like or what a neighborhood is going to look like.

>>Bonus Link: Join the discussion about sustainable communities, share stories and ask questions at the "Envision Sustainable Communities” online forum.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.