Durable Growth

Vision versus execution

The Petaluma River from downtown Petaluma

The Petaluma River from downtown Petaluma

Among many other things, Thomas Edison is famous for having said that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

His formulation is fine.  My only comment is that if he had replaced “genius” with “success in most walks of life”, he would have been equally accurate and even more insightful.

And I include land use, walkable urban and otherwise, within those walks of life.

I mention this because vision, the land-use equivalent of inspiration, was mentioned frequently in the comments regarding the recent video on pending development projects in Petaluma.

(For those who missed the flurry of activity around the video, I won’t recap the story here.  However, I’ve written about it four times previously.  I’ve touched on my concerns that similar information dumps have triggered flawed policies, that effective public input is always difficult, that one can fill a week with effective public involvement, and that forums for education and cooperation are essential.)

In the comments on the video, many called for stronger visioning for Petaluma land-use as the path to better future.  It was an ironic suggestion.  Visioning has rarely been a problem in Petaluma.  Instead, Petaluma has a history of being well ahead of the curve in its visions.

In the early 1970s, Petaluma, along with the State of Oregon, pioneered urban growth boundaries.  Think of that.  Of all the cities in the country, Petaluma was the first to argue for confined growth, a city planning tool that is now taken for granted.

In the early 2000s, Petaluma was the first city in the country to adopt the SmartCode, a cutting edge approach at a form-based development code.  Form-based codes direct development by the shapes of new buildings rather that transient uses of the buildings.  Today, cities across the country are adopting form-based codes, but it was Petaluma that got there first.

And we can look deeper into the history of Petaluma to find visions such as the Petaluma River Access and Enhancement Plan and the Petaluma Station Area Master Plan.

Petaluma has been remarkably visionary, including twice when it led the nation.  It’s a strong visioning history.

On the other hand, execution, the land-use equivalent of Edison’s perspiration, hasn’t been nearly as good.

After getting the first urban growth boundary approved, Petaluma didn’t move onto the next obvious step of denser development, instead filling up the new boundary with conventional single-family homes with little walkability.  It was if our forebears stepped boldly into the future and, surprised to find themselves there, stumbled about aimlessly for the next three decades.

The story with the SmartCode was different, but similarly unfortunate.  In its final adoption, a critical section was somehow omitted, to the dismay of many who had committed long hours fighting for its adoption.  Without the section, development under the code was severely constrained, with few projects moving forward.  But it took ten years before the politics lined up to fix the omission.

It’d be imprecise to assign numbers, but I’ll try anyway.  In visioning, Petaluma may well be at the 95th percentile among U.S. cities, with much credit given to the two bold actions they took ahead of the rest of the country.

In execution, Petaluma doesn’t seem to be climb above the 40th percentile, with a consistent failure to follow up on its visions.

So, dissatisfied with the state of the Petaluma land-use planning, what do some commenters call for?  More visioning.  If Thomas Edison was still with us, he’d be shaking his head in disbelief.

I understand the love for visions, I really do.  Visioning is fun.  Offering bold, provocative ideas can be an adrenaline rush.  (I know because this blog often offers visions.)   But execution, the honing off of the rough edges, the conversion of a vision into a realistic plan, and the years of defending the plan from those who would undermine it, is the hard work, the essential work, the 99 percent work.

I think back to the Petaluma Urban Chat work on the potential re-use of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds.  The initial meetings, the big picture meetings, attracted large, enthusiastic crowds excitedly sorting through possibilities such as parks and performing arts centers.

But the crowds dwindled when the talk turned to topics such as how to accommodate the existing community pool and library, how to align a street grid to allow a strong transit connection to the train station, whether to accommodate the existing speedway, and how to assemble a project that made financial sense for all parties.

It was disappointing to watch as people who had vigorously espoused big picture concepts were reduced to puzzled indecision when a pencil was placed in their hands.  And that was long before the myriad of public meetings and workshops that would someday be required to bring the fairgrounds re-use to fruition.

I’m not making jest of the folks who struggled with the transition from vision to execution.  I know it’s hard to move from grand hand-waving to the minutiae of compatible adjacencies and market absorption rates.  I struggle with the transition myself.  Visions are just so much fun.  But it’s a transition that must be made.  And it’s the transition that moved Edison from being someone of great imagination to someone who changed the world.

I’ve written before about Petaluma Urban Chat and have now created a page especially for Urban Chat.  I know, Thomas Edition notwithstanding, that Urban Chat will never have a ratio of 99 parts execution to 1 part vision.  The vision thing is just too much fun to be reduced to that level.  But my hope is to get more attention to execution in Urban Chat, whether through advocacy or public participation.  If you’re in Petaluma, I hope you join in.  If you’re not in Petaluma, perhaps you can create or support your own version of an Urban Chat.

When I next write, it will be about tactical urbanism, which might be an urbanist home for those unwilling to sit through interminable committee meetings toward the execution of big ideas.  Execution is still essential to tactical urbanism, but the rewards are quicker.  I have a favorite anecdote to share.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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