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Famous Planner Ready to Rock Traverse

Fregonese bringing grassroots style, hi-tech graphics to five-county region

July 11, 2007 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Fregonese Associates
  John Fregonese’s company, which specializes in community visioning and regional planning, has mastered the art of building public involvement that transform plans into action.

TRAVERSE CITY—A few years ago, John Fregonese figured out that if the Salt Lake City area trimmed average lot sizes in its future neighborhoods by just .06 percent, it would save almost 300 square miles of agricultural and undeveloped land over the next 20 years. Not surprisingly, the local people he was working with saw that as a pretty good deal.

Finding the small changes that can transform a landscape is one of the things that makes Mr. Fregonese a master of scenario planning, a sort of virtual-reality video game that shows people how the size of their yards, the widths of their freeways, and the reach of their rail lines will affect the air they breathe, the scenery they see, and the traffic they get stuck in 20 years later.

Now Mr. Fregonese, who is widely viewed as something of a rock star in his line of work, is coming to Traverse City to help this region figure out its future. Yesterday TC-TALUS, a local, intergovernmental land use and transportation planning agency, and the Michigan Department of Transportation signed a $1.3 million contract with a group of consulting firms, including Fregonese Associates. That group will lead a two-year, citizen-powered land use and transportation study that will hit high gear this fall.

If all goes well, the independent study will not only generate a clear, new plan for future land use and transportation involving at least five counties around Grand Traverse Bay. It will also motivate a large group of government officials, civic leaders, and everyday citizens to make sure that their townships, villages, counties, and cities promptly translate those plans into genuine action.

Those who are familiar with the kind of Fregonese-led project that TC-TALUS just signed on for say that it is unlike anything Michigan has seen. While it will be similar in some ways to the "visioning sessions" so many communities conduct, they say that Fregonese’s approach is far more robust—particularly in terms of how many people get involved, how specific the final plans and proposed zoning ordinances will be, how effectively those ordinances are implemented, and how much fun the process is.

The fun part will largely come from Mr. Fregonese’s and his firm. A born raconteur, Mr. Fregonese illustrates his stories about how today’s choices build tomorrow’s reality with rich, powerful computer graphics and mapping technologies that many have compared favorably to video games. When residents see those graphics, which are generated from the huge amount of data about the region that the just-hired consultants will collect, they often choose a different ending for their community’s story than the one that "business as usual" brings—one with more open space and less traffic congestion.

That, at least, has been the case in communities as diverse as Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Ore.; and Austin, Tex.; where Mr. Fregonese has already made his mark. But whether it will also be the case in Traverse City, where rapid population growth and development pressure has lent a new urgency to land use and transportation planning, remains to be seen.

Mr. Fregonese has built his kind of storytelling into a powerful catalyst for community change, according to Keith Bartholomew, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Utah and an environmental lawyer.

"To the extent that scenario planning is associated with a single individual, there would be two or three people, and John would be one of them," said Mr. Bartholomew. "He’s the leading practitioner in that style of scenario planning."

Spreading the Word
As director of growth management services at Portland Metro, the regional government of the Portland, Ore., area, Mr. Fregonese built a big, widely supported idea—saving open space by concentrating rather than spreading out growth—into a politically sustainable reality. After five years on the job, he took his idea on the road when he and Peter Calthorpe co-founded their land use and planning firm, Fregonese and Calthorpe Associates, in 1997.

Since then, Mr. Fregonese has been spreading the gospel of scenario planning from Texas to California to Chicago. His firm’s first project, Envision Utah, attracted national attention for emphasizing local values and citizen control, and for concentrating the Salt Lake City region’s growth in existing communities and away from the mountains that residents treasure. Later regional projects included Envision Central Texas,Chicago 2020, and the Southern California Association of Governments’ regional visioning process.

Wherever he goes, Mr. Fregonese operates on a very simple principle: When you show people real options, they will make good choices. Residents know what they like—and what they don’t like—when they see it, and they will alter their zoning ordinances and transportation systems if they can see that it will lead to a better future.

"I think it’s his ability to organize public opinion that sets him apart," said John Norquist, President and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based group that advocates for traditional, walkable neighborhoods that mix work, home, school, and shopping. "He gets people to think that density is not bad, which is a remarkable accomplishment."

Whether or not Mr. Fregonese and the rest of the consultant team can accomplish this in the Grand Traverse region remains to be seen. After all, many local residents see themselves as rugged individualists, deeply distrust government of all sorts, and jealously protect what they see as their private property rights. But that is also true in places like Utah and Texas, where Mr. Fregonese has had great success.

In this Great Lakes Bulletin News Service interview, Mr. Fregonese talks about why he likes small-town planning, why he isn’t a card-carrying New Urbanist, and how regional planning has evolved over the course of his career.

Great Lakes Bulletin News Service: Why did you decide to go into planning?

Mr. Fregonese: As an undergrad, I majored in geography. I was looking around for a grad school, and I was really interested in planning and I was really attracted to Oregon State University, which had an emphasis in land use planning from a resource perspective.

I understand that you got your start working in small Oregon cities, like Woodburn and Ashland. What did you learn from working in these small communities?

Fregonese: I like working at the smaller scale, which is where I started. Being a small- city planner, you really see the direct impact of what you do, and you have to deal with the positives and consequences of land use policies at the personal level.

When you began working in Portland, Ore., were any other communities doing the same kind of regional planning?

Fregonese: Seattle had done some stuff, called Vision 2020, about a year earlier, and Denver was doing something, so we had a couple of other cities. Ours was the first that adopted it in a way that was implementable in the transportation element. Seattle has become that, but for a long time it wasn’t implementatable in the way Portland 2040 (a land use and transportation plan) was. It was the first to connect land use and transportation so that land use planning benefited transportation, traffic congestion, etc.

Portland Metro used the plan to get credit for air quality benefits from reductions in the number of vehicle miles traveled and from increases in transit usage. Since 1995, Portland has exceeded the benchmarks both in vehicle miles traveled and transit ridership. I always thought there were other reasons to do the planning this way, in terms of quality of life, but it was also nice to see a reduction in congestion and pollution from land use policies.

Can you describe your partnership with Peter Calthorpe?

Fregonese: I hired Peter in 1993 to help with the Portland 2040 project. He did urban design; together we conceptualized what would happen if we did more infill—development in already built-up areas. We became friends and I’d read his book. At a conference, I told Peter I was looking for another job, and he told me I should start a company and he’d help. The first job we had was Envision Utah. Since then, we’ve done a lot of work independently, though we continue to work together. We’re working right now in southern Louisiana doing a regional plan to help them recover from Hurricane Katrina.

How is that project going so far?

Fregonese: New Orleans has a number of complications. The city is a fairly small part of the region—we’re looking at everything from Texas to the Mississippi border. It’s not a state that has done a lot of planning before, but they’re moving towards having a more comprehensive approach toward their future, with natural restoration, building safety, and some kind of basic Smart Growth concepts of doing more infill, protecting special natural areas, better housing choices, and so on.

Can you describe your involvement in the New Urbanist and Smart Growth movements?

Fregonese: I’m not a member of that church, but a lot of my friends go there, and I sometimes enjoy the services. I’m not as dogmatic; I feel a need to adapt solutions to local values and cultures. New Urbanism in some cases tries to impose culture. Urban form fundamentally has to be driven by local culture and values. The plans are based around local solutions. I really believe that people have the solutions in their heads and I’m there to put them into action, not come up with a new solution. It’s an important movement in that it’s really shown there’s an alternative to the auto-oriented model, which was the only one around for a long time, and forming a contrast is really important. I have a lot of friends that I really admire who work in New Urbanism.

Many people in the Grand Traverse region are wondering how you make a regional visioning process work. How does your firm generate public support?

Fregonese: I think you have to understand what people are concerned about. You have to start by finding out what’s on their mind, and communicate with them about what they’re concerned about. Most people don’t think of building new roads in daily life, they think of congestion and loss of quality of life in their community, and they often have solutions they’ve heard of that they think might work. I think people have a really good instinct for urban planning and design and they don’t need a lot of formal training at the conceptual level. (Of course, at the detailed level you do need training.)

The other thing is to use techniques and media that matches people’s level of interest. Maybe 1 percent will read a long report, but lots of people will read colorful newsletter, watch news, or even attend a lecture. You have to relate these often technical processes to their lives, and to make them feel like they can guide the process. People will give their time if they feel their input is being taken and listened to.

How do you go about getting local governments to cooperate with one another?

Fregonese: Local governments are going to be driven by self interest. When I was working in the Chicago region, a couple of local officials said, "Listen, we agree with everything you’re proposing, but tomorrow I have to go back and be mayor of my town." So you have to find a convergence of interest.

Often, for example, cities want a vibrant regional city center or corridor, which often has transportation benefits. Another way is cities will do things if they know they’re not the only ones doing it. There’s the tragedy of the commons—say you have 10 fishermen and only nine fish. Unless there’s cooperation among the fishermen, there’s no reason to limit their catch. As long as all the fish are going to be caught, you might as well catch the last one. Cities who know that their development practices are harming a region won’t stop if they’re the only ones who are going to stop. Often, there’s a desire to cooperate to prevent harm to the region. Often we’ve had cities that have come together and bound themselves to agreements that are still in effect over time.

For example, the Portland Metro project is still alive and kicking; they’re updating it. It’s based largely on cooperation; transit-oriented development and protection of open space has been a big part of that. The region has passed a couple of millages to buy open space. Seattle has a remarkable history of many years of cooperation. In Denver, 23 cities signed the Mile High Compact in 1992. Envision Utah has a remarkable set of smaller cooperative agreements between cities.

I think cooperation between governments requires a well-defined problem and well- defined solutions that cities feel are not too intrusive and that will benefit their citizens.

Is the Traverse City region unusual in that it’s a rural place with a small population—that’s also embarking on a very big visioning process?

Fregonese: It’s not unique, but it’s unusual. Other places have typically been like that, or are places around larger cities. It reminds me a lot of Ashland, which is a city of about 20,000 in a county of 120,000 people, with big ambitions about a city that was rural but also very global. I get the feeling that Traverse City is rural, but because it’s a destination where people go to enjoy the scenery, I think it has more of a global connection than other cities of similar size.

Why, in your opinion, should our region be thinking about growth, land use, and transportation now?

Fregonese: Oh, it seems to have come to a head. It seems like an excellent time to start making those long-range provisions. In many places, people have a sense that they’re losing something that is very precious to them. They may not know what the answer is, but they seem to be willing to seek the solutions.

What else do you think we should know about your work in particular, or regional visioning in general?

Fregonese: I think we’ve done a lot of work in very large areas, but we are also familiar with a city like Traverse City. Our approach is really one that starts with a fundamental sense of local values. We depend upon a very democratic, open practice. Those are the ones that have been adopted in a public way. We try to develop holistic solutions that are sustainable, that won’t just solve a particular road problem, but will give communities what they need to move to the 21st century in a sustainable way while they retain what they really value about the region.

What has changed about regional planning and visioning over the course of your career?

I think the vision that people are striving for has changed a lot. When I started in the 1970s, planning was all about accommodating autos and making sure you had the right parking spaces and were building nice malls. Now I think the early ‘70s were the beginning of bringing the environment into it. There was an interest in the effects of urbanization on the environment and energy consumption, and out of it evolved a new American vision of a community that’s more than a mall or subdivision. Many people think they need a whole community, one that’s linked to nature and society.

Another real change has been the advance of technology that really helps people understand and see what their future options are. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was a lot of arm waving to describe it. The advent of computers allowed you to measure and visualize future options, and I think people can make much better decisions when they can understand and visualize the consequences.

Carolyn Kelly was the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor from 2005 until this June. She begins law school at New York University this fall. For a synopsis of the events that led to the upcoming study and how it will work, click here.

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