Goooooal! Sometimes you strategize, Sometimes you ‘dump & chase’

Geoff Dyer, New Urban Network

Given the means, most of us who work with communities to design and implement form-based codes would opt for a full-blown process, one that involves lots of community outreach, education and hands-on idea-testing in a charrette. But every situation is unique and sometimes you need something a bit more immediate.

Sometimes the process you use is the one the situation imposes. Kind of like sports, where, if you want to win, you’d better adapt to the way the game unfolds before you, as opposed to insisting on imposing a plan you carefully worked out the night before. And since I’m headquartered in Canada, where hockey is the game, let’s talk hockey strategy.

Like all other teams in organized sports, hockey teams work on plays, planned strategies designed to optimize chances for getting the puck in position close to the opposing net where the best scorers have the most opportunities in high-percentage situations. That’s the process every team prefers: Control the game with well practiced plays that cut the risks and stack the odds of scoring in your favor.

But, if you’ve ever watched a hockey game, you know that the ability to totally control the puck is rare. There’s always the little matter of the other guys on the ice, to say nothing of the ways in which a team’s own screw-ups affect their best plans. Complications ensue. Chaos even. So hockey offensive strategies take chaos into consideration, sometimes inducing it with the hope of adapting to opportunities faster than the other guys. Take the “dump & chase” play, for instance.

“Dump & chase” is for opportunists. Instead of carefully maneuvering the puck through precision passes down the ice, you slap it long, hoping to dump it in front of the other guys’ net, while your guys, with the other team in pursuit, chase it down and score. No plan, no control, lots of risk. But in the right situation, it’s a winning strategy. In fact, more often than not, it’s the game-changer you see on the ESPN highlight reel.

So what does this have to do with community planning and coding? Well, sometimes, you have to simply seize the moment and push for a win, even when you don’t have everything lined up precisely the way you want.

I’m thinking about a coding effort our team was involved in not so long ago. Big city. Complex politics. Lots of things to go wrong. But thanks to a lot of prep work by a savvy planning staff and some open-minded developers, the timing just seemed right for a “dump & chase” maneuver. So just two of us came to town and worked with the planning staff to do all the things we’d normally assign to a charrette process. We went out and physically measured the city’s great walkable places to guide our new code. We recruited good legal advice to make sure what we were doing met state and city requirements. And we showed how the proposed code would work on several development sites.

It was just the two of us with some offsite help for three days. No public engagement process. No charrette, no website, no endless meetings. All on the cheap. With some minor edits after our on-site work, this was the code that was adopted. Even more importantly, this is the code that is being implemented and embraced by private-sector developers.

What made it work? Right place, right time, right preparation. The city had done much of the hard work to chart the way, reaching general consensus about goals – walkability, mixed use, transit connectivity. All we had to do was supply the vehicle to get them where they wanted to go.

What’s important to understand here is that the city and its staff were the opportunists, the team strategists. When a developer with land came knocking with a potential project that matched up with their Smart Growth goals but required variances from current regulations, they hustled up a modest budget, called for help from consultants and slapped the puck down the ice. They dumped, we chased.

The new code could have been a lost chance — another plan on the shelf. But the result was a puck in the net. Although the original developer went away, scoring that crucial goal opened an opportunity for the City resulting in over a dozen new plans — many now adopted — that fit the new code aimed at making better places in a changing market, and in uncertain times.

Did the “dump & chase” produce a perfect code? Nope. But the hard work is done and the code has already been improved and expanded. These adjustments are just bumps in the road headed in a direction everybody has agreed upon.

What does this mean for your town? As we move into increasingly austere times, there are going to be more and more questions about shaping cost-effective strategies to get to consensus-backed goals. And while we’re talking here mostly about means, let’s keep the ends in mind: They are often walkability, bikeability and other mobility options beyond private automobiles; community affordability; and expanded choices for families and businesses.

In flush times, the safest strategies were all about controlling the puck with step-by-step community outreach efforts leading into a charrette. If you’re just getting into the game (or you’re not sure who’s on what team), those are still the most effective ways to win in the end.

In the new era, however, you may have to do a lot of the work you outsourced to consultants before. You’ll have to assemble and train a competition-ready team of opportunists. Then, the options open up.

We still believe your best bet is the calculated, professional multi-day charrette to confirm your vision, design a plan in harmony with that vision and commit to implementation. It’s the best “play.” But if you already have support for a broad vision for sustainable urbanism and you have market interest — even latent interest for small-scale development — you owe it to them and to your tax base to write the rules to match the opportunity. Maybe the situation calls for immediate action and you need to consider the “dump and chase”.

Geoff Dyer is a principal  and urban designer with Placemakers, a planning, coding, marketing, and implementation firm. This article was also published on PlaceShakers and NewsMakers.

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