Citizen Green: Turning inward to pull our region together

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by Jordan Green

Jordan Green
Jordan Green

What exactly does regionalism mean?

The term has taken on a different cast since the Heart of the Triad concept championed by former Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins floundered with the onset of the Great Recession in 2009.

We haven’t seen a town center, office parks or new roads spring up between Kernersville and Piedmont Triad International Airport as a new regional super-city to tie together High Point, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

Around the time of the demise of Heart of the Triad, a consortium led by the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation and Piedmont Triad Regional Council received a $1.6 million grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a Regional Sustainable Communities Plan.

Note that as the commercial real-estate industry went bust in the Triad, the mantra of growth has been replaced by sustainability.

At the conclusion of the daylong celebration to unveil the plan in Greensboro last week, keynote speaker Jeff Speck succinctly captured the spirit of the new regionalism.

“I believe this region’s future and its strength and its competiveness is going to grow from a refocusing and a re-migration inward to its principal urban centers, which are… Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem,” said Speck, a protégé of new urbanist planner Andres Duany and the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At a Time.

After the federal planning money dropped on the Triad, the local elected officials who govern the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, or PART, decided against a significant investment in bus rapid transit as a precursor to commuter rail service to link Greensboro and Winston-Salem. In lieu of a major transformative project, the more holistic approach taken by the regional planning initiative, known as Piedmont Together, is probably the best way to nudge the Triad towards a more livable future.

The particulars of the plan are difficult to succinctly capture, with dozens of objectives and strategies covering a dizzying array of topics such as housing, food security, public health, employment, transportation, broadband internet and urban planning, with consistent attention to social equity and environmental sustainability throughout. The plan considers the gradual browning of the region’s population as well as the implications of climate change.

“Working together to foster the efficient and sustainable use of land, resources and energy, we can grow and diversify our economy while maintaining our health and high quality of life,” the plan states under a category called “Places & Spaces.” “By focusing most new development in existing urban service areas, we enhance downtown vitality, conserve our rural and natural areas, promote greater connectivity, and provide more employment, housing and transportation choices.”

The linkage between preserving rural farmland and enhancing urban quality of life received a vigorous workout during a presentation by Phil Fleischmann, the community recreation-services division manager for the city of Greensboro. Fleischmann talked about mobile farmers markets as a means to provide access to fresh produce in urban areas that are underserved by grocery stores. He highlighted a goal of promoting a regional, decentralized network of cold-storage facilities to help link small-scale farmers to underserved consumers in inner-city communities.

Along those lines, Forsyth Futures is playing matchmaker between a handful of farmers and five convenient stores while devising a marketing plan to provide fresh produce across the east side of Winston-Salem.

It’s a hopeful sign that all three major Triad mayors — Allen Joines of Winston-Salem, Nancy Vaughan of Greensboro and Bernita Sims of High Point — attended the opening session of the Piedmont Together gathering. We need to get serious about curbing sprawl, if for no other reason than transportation costs are sucking up our income. Housing and transportation together account for about 52 percent of the average Forsyth County resident’s budget, with Guilford County residents being similarly burdened.

Speck said residents of Portland, Ore., a city that has pursued a deliberate policy to invest in bikeways while limiting sprawl, drive on average 20 percent less than their counterparts in comparable cities.

It’s something of a joke, Speck said, that Portland has the most independent bookstores and strip clubs per capita, but the point is they have more disposable income because they’re not pumping it into their gas tanks and out of the local economy.

“They’re actually third behind San Francisco for the most restaurants per capita,” Speck said. “They’re spending more on recreation of all kinds than most other people in the country. Portlandians are spending more on alcohol than people in other parts of the country, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, but makes you glad they’re driving less.”