Finding the right tools for Appalachian planning
n the mountains of western North Carolina, planning isn’t all that popular. Three of the Tar Heel State’s seven westernmost counties have no subdivision regulations, and when planning is proposed, some longtime residents deride it as “socialism.”
But development, especially of second homes, has run strong in the region in the last several years, causing a growing number of people to argue that construction should be guided by some kind of community vision.
Thus was born the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, an attempt to get an independent-minded, largely rural region to take action before too many ridgelines are built upon and too many streams polluted.
With financial backing from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, a group of individuals — including Vicki Greene, assistant director of the Southwest Commission (the region’s council of governments), Gabriel Cumming, an expert in citizen engagement, and Ben Brown — set about planning a week-long planning charrette for the seven counties, plus a Cherokee Indian reservation.
Brown, a longtime journalist, handled publicity for CNU’s Mississippi Renewal Forum after Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and he saw the 11-municipality Mississippi charrette as a model that could be brought to the mountains.
The mountain charrette — it included sessions in studios in three different counties — took place May 13-20. Before the event, Cumming and Carla Norwood, both of whom hold doctorates from the ecology program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, had to draw out country people who were unfamiliar with planning concepts and who would be reluctant to speak in large public gatherings.
One of the chief techniques they used was the making of “a video documentary on the key concerns, the values, and the visions that people had,” says Cumming. From November 2007 to April of this year, Cumming and Norwood found and interviewed dozens of people.
“To figure out which people to interview, you work through local social networks,” Cumming says. One person leads to another. In the recorded interviews, people talked about their aversion to regulation, their concerns about out-of-place buildings, their hopes for an area possessing great natural beauty, and other matters. Cumming and Norwood condensed the results into a 19-minute video.
“We used the video documentary as a conversation starter in each of the seven counties,” Cumming says. “Instead of having a planning expert from outside the region come in and say why there should be planning, [the Initiative] is grounded in the stories of place that people in that area share.”
A video documentary isn’t necessary in communities made up of affluent people who feel confident expounding their views in public meetings, Cumming says. But in rural communities whose inhabitants distrust outside expertise and who are reluctant to say much in public forums, a local documentary can be an effective tool, he believes. It can also be used in poor or minority urban areas, where many residents need to be persuaded to participate in community planning exercises.
“A lot of what this is about is building confidence and trust that their views will actually be taken into account,” he says. A virtue of the video, and of dividing large gatherings into smaller groups — four to six individuals sitting around each table — is that the charrette ends up hearing from a wide range of people, not just a few self-confident individuals. The process becomes more democratic.
Assembling a ‘toolbox’
The charrette “was the first time a lot of folks were exposed to that detailed a dynamic planning process,” says Craig Lewis of the Lawrence Group, a town planning and architecture firm that worked on the charrette. “It showed them how to use a process to get to a result.”
“Although this wasn’t about creating a regional plan, it was a major step towards thinking regionally,” adds Brown, who recently joined PlaceMakers, the new urban planning, coding, and marketing firm, as a principal and director of client public relations.
A major goal of the Initiative was to identify and develop a set of tools that governments, builders, and developers can use for responsible development. The ultimate success or failure of the charrette will lie in whether the “toolbox” ends up being widely used.
A key idea that came from the charrette was the creation of a “suitability map,” showing land already in conservation (such as federal and state forests) and layering in land that should be conserved because it is too steep, in a floodway, or prone to landslides,” the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.
Conscious of rural sensitivities, planners avoided words and ideas that might conjure up too much density. Greene observes that Lewis spoke about “strollways” rather than “sidewalks,” and suggested “trails of natural materials from neighborhood to neighborhood.”
One of the more built-up areas the charrette focused on was Cashiers, a small Jackson County community that Greene says “looks and acts like a town” even though it’s unincorporated. In the past, people in Cashiers, a wealthy enclave, “built a village green and a hospital,” Lewis notes. The sessions in Cashiers showed how to develop the main intersection and use infill development effectively. On a 270-acre site near Waynesville, consultant Tony Sease of Civitech helped generate varied development options, including an “Appalachian hill town.”
To keep the planning advancing, the Community Foundation has organized a Next Steps Fund, which will provide matching money for community projects.
New Urbanism is slowly becoming more familiar in the region. Tim Ryan is starting to build a 24-acre infill traditional neighborhood development (TND) called Sanctuary Village, five blocks from the historic Main Street of Franklin, North Carolina, population 3,300. Planned by Allison Ramsey Architects and intended to have more than 160 dwellings, the project would apparently be the first new in-town TND in the North Carolina mountains.