Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Visions of Realistic Visioning

Dateline: 5:43 pm February 3, 2009 Filed under:

As part of an upcoming article, I ventured out to Phoenix/Tempe to see a demonstration of the Decision Theater at Arizona State University. The Decision Theater is a high-tech space where images can be projected on screens encompassing three of four walls in the room. It is a planner’s dream – being surrounded on three sides by plans projected on three full walls – mmmmm, plans.

With technology like the Decision Theater, it is possible for a group of people to compare different development plans, see them from above, obliquely, or actually navigate down streets or sidewalks, in between buildings, in 3D. It is fantastic.

I’ve been in enough (many of you have been in countless more) meetings with city councils, planning or economic development commissions, and neighborhood groups to know that some high tech visioning tools could be really helpful in overcoming fears of density, etc., and come to agreement, thus moving a plan forward. The Decision Theater is but one of many valuable visioning tools.

Kaid Benfield at the Natural Resources Defense Council has made me aware of another tool – the NRDC’s Picturing Smart Growth website. Visit the Picturing Smart Growth website here. Picturing Smart Growth allows online viewers to imagine redeveloping aging commercial strips in to sensible redevelopment with complete streets and attractive, mixed-use development.

The thing that struck me when watching the Decision Theater demonstration was the importance of informed decisions based on solid market research. With our 3D glasses on, we “flew” in to an area proposed for industrial development. We set down on the street to see the proposed building heights. 80 feet. In an industrial area. I pointed out that most industrial buildings don’t exceed the modern standard of 32 feet. So why are they showing a proposed 80 foot height for industrial buildings? I don’t know.

This example is but a small example of an issue that I think deserves a lot of attention. Why do visioning excercises that have no basis in market reality? I am an urban dreamer. Visioning technology like the Decision Theater and Picturing Smart Growth are absolutely vital. It is one thing to change a city’s euclidian zoning code to allow for walkable, transit-served mixed-use, mixed-income sustainable communities (that isn’t easy, of course, but it is increasingly common and will be the norm in time). It is another to show 100,000 square feet of retail in pretty pictures when the market won’t realistically support more than 30,000. Or showing 80 foot industrial buildings when they haven’t been built in nearly 100 years.

This may sound like a soapbox speech from a market analyst seeking new work. Well, keep in mind the current economic mess started with a series of very poor real estate decisions. I want to be there when these great urban visions are hatched so we can shape them and let them grow in to realistic and marketable plans.

So please, keep visioning. This technology is just starting to be tapped. The future will be very exciting. But let’s keep it real.

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