Kyle Ezell, City and Regional Planning professor at Ohio State University, has recently written Designing Local: Revealing Our Truest Communities, which encourages urban planners and communities to move beyond simply implementing planning best practices that have been popularized through use in other communities. Instead, each community must recognize what makes it unique and implement strategies that capitalize on these assets.

Kyle was a professor of mine at Ohio State in the Masters of City and Regional Planning program. During his time there, he practiced these tenants by keeping his course requirements open ended and encouraging creativity and risk taking. He supervised the year-long independent study I completed with twelve other students on issues facing Rust Belt cities in which we created the book 13 Strategies for Rust Belt Cities – my favorite project as a graduate student. We recently had the opportunity to catch up and I interviewed him about his new book.

You encourage planners to tap into what makes their community unique. What would be your suggestion to a planner interested in tapping into “the Local” but they do not know where to start?”

First, I’d ask them to look at their zoning codes and tell the truth: where did these codes come from? My guess: the codes were provided by a “how to build a town” book. Or maybe it was provided by an organization or consultant who offered some kind of “smart code” that was encouraged to be shared by one and all. While these can and do bring improvements in the quality of life of communities, “The Local” does not live in those kinds of codes. It’s why every place is basically the same.

Did you have an “a ha” moment that led you to this realization? And/or was there something that happened that was the final straw that made you feel compelled to write the book?

Yes. I was at a conference (I don’t remember which one) and it occurred to me— Wait a minute. Communities always talk about the importance of “uniqueness” but we’re all here listening and worshipping ideas and people who have them—then we rush back home and try not to be last in implementing them! Together. Aaron Renn from the perfectly explained this when he said, “While every company tries to convince you of how much different and better it is than every other company, every city tries its hardest to convince you it’s exactly like every other city that’s conventionally considered cool.” He is so right! It hit me that in my 20 year career, we glom on to some big idea and then we harm our community competitiveness in the process! I figure that we need to keep listening to new, good ideas—even those that are “hot” in the planning and design world, but we don’t have to all do the same things together.

It’s a powerful charge to tell a city to possibly run the risk of losing tax revenues and jobs, especially with the recent economic decline, in favor of preserving its character. It could very well be political suicide. Are there any recommendations for bringing the public on board with this concept of The Local? To break the widget-addiction? 

As planners we have to remind politicians and other decision makers that community design expectations actually enhance the local economy, not hurt it. Minimal research will show that in virtually any metro, the communities with the strongest design expectations also have very high or highest incomes, overflowing services for their citizens, and generally stronger economies. Places with no or low expectations for design are throwaway messes. They are visually unappealing, Their property values are in the tank, household income levels are less, and they are considered communities of last resort. In many of the last resort cities and towns there are a series of “left behind” developments that become universally obsolete. So it makes good sense when the more aware places see the value of maintaining and amplifying their community character instead of letting their character be defined for them by generic or junk development that nobody cares about. Contrarily to conventional belief, places that know who they are and are good at showcasing who they are on the ground attracts development instead of repelling it. Most corporations will fight for their boilerplate designs, but if the demographics fit their mission, companies just want to told what to do and how to get their project through the system. A few might balk and pull out, but better options always follow.

How do you convince citizens and elected officials to think outside of the box try new things to take risks with tax dollars on ‘unproven’ methods?

Local design is not an unproven method. It’s been around as long as humans have been building and implementing cities. Those smart few places that have stayed true to their culture and heritage through both design and preservation are those rare spots on Earth where people love and want to be associated with. It’s where they go on vacations, post pictures online, and brag about to their friends, “Hey, look at this place! I am lucky to be here!” Locally-designed places are “owned” and cherished by locals and visitors. People would rather live and do business in these kinds of communities. On the other hand, “inside the box” design and implementation has the opposite effect; nobody cares much about taking a picture of an ordinary fast food joint and bragging about how cool it is and how lucky they are to be there. Especially for places where there is nothing to back up the “whatever” attitudes associated with this inside the box design mentality of copying ideas, plans, and blueprints (such as a gorgeous beach or stunning mountain views), local material culture is just about the most important asset in a community’s toolbox. What is proven, however, is that building boring places have short shelf lives. The trendy, “hot” ideas that cities and towns put on the ground may last 10 or 20 years and then it’s on to the next trendy idea that everyone copies. This cycle of building and then throwing away places is insane. It’s time for this old system to die! It seems to me that citizens and elected officials already know this; they just don’t know how to start creating remarkable outcomes from otherwise ordinary “safe” development that only lowers visual quality and levels local economic development playing fields.

You mention in your book that students often are seeking a formula and prefer having explicit guidelines. You said that sometimes students complain about your classes being unorganized because you encourage them to be creative. I actually remember hearing some of those comments about your classes back in graduate school. Do you believe we are we failing to train students to be good planners?

Yes, some students feel disorganized and uncomfortable with creativity. My teaching philosophy makes most students feel very uncomfortable at first because I give my students full permission to think and explore, and then I insist they do—deeply, fully, and outside of the possibility of censure if they are giving it their all. I have no interest in them repeating what I told them to think on a test. What good is that? Why even go to college if you don’t learn to think and feel comfortable and confident with your own ideas? I don’t think it’s a matter of not teaching students to be good city and regional planners, though—it’s human nature. Humans crave no-muss-no-fuss formulas in general. As we all know, implementing urbanism and any other kind of planning is extraordinarily complex—formulas will only go so far. I believe, though, that students and professional planners want to be challenged and eventually thrive on complexity.

When I was reading your book, I was thinking Columbus could possibly be the biggest offender of implementing generic best practices, which create nice spaces but are not always very unique. What are your thoughts on that? What story should Columbus be telling through their planning efforts?

The planning and design culture in the U.S. has devolved into the ultimate zero sum game of “I’ve got mine like you got yours and now we’re all invisible together” zero sum game. Now we have our [fill in any development or infrastructure idea] like Portland got 20 years ago and Cleveland built last year. We have it now. What’s the next thing we need to get from some other place? Let’s take a trip and bring all of the decision makers to take a look. And then we’ll build that, too, someday and check another box. I disagree, though, that Columbus is the biggest offender. Virtually every community is guilty of implementing generic best practices. Columbus, like every city, must extract the design soul that’s buried under all the things that we’re taken, and generally watered down, from all those other places. It should specifically define the local “Design DNA” and publish what becomes the essence of Columbus. Citizens should therefore expect fresh “Columbus centric” infrastructure as defined by the locals (and not by Portland or wherever else) and rejoice in the built outcomes that wouldn’t make sense if copied and built somewhere else. I also believe that all cities, once the local design DNA is published, shouldn’t stifle creativity by relying too much on overly prescriptive codes such as “the window should be ‘this tall’ and ‘this wide’ kind of rules. Most of those codes are ripped off from other places, anyway. Our ideas today will someday be just as historic as the ideas our founders if we let ourselves—and our urban designers—be as expressive and creative as possible.

On the other hand, I think there are some great examples of interesting planning efforts in Columbus’ neighborhoods. What do you think are examples of Columbus neighborhoods that are good at employing a locally focused planning strategy?

Obviously the Short North Arches. They have a historic context (although more in downtown than in the Short North). They line High Street and light up at night. Everybody loves them. The City of Columbus’ new city limit sign features them. They’re on logos and shirts. Everything else Columbus builds from the sidewalks to high rises should be as locally thoughtful.

Any thoughts on how The Local concept applies in planning for a stereotypical suburb, that lacks a long history and is filled with mostly generic development? What about the small blue collar community with few of “The Locals” you describe – no place to get a craft beer, no tourism industry, and relatively few young professionals living there? 

No matter what community category or situation, every place has a history, people, and aspirations. No city or town holds a monopoly on such things. The Locals of every place, regardless of their age, income, or coolness factor as you alluded to in your question, has the power to uncover their community’s personality and translate that personality through fresh local design. This is especially true if they understand that they are expected to think and create without censure. And if a place is currently lacking interesting development, the opportunity for a cultural reveal could mean an amazing turnaround story. You have to start somewhere and the best place to start is by establishing local design expectations.

If a planner has only one take away from your book, what would you want it to be?

We have what should be one of the most creative, fun, and important professions on Earth.  Unfortunately, I believe that planning and design in the U.S. has generally been undermined by a robotic “me-too” culture of lethargy. The one thing I would want planners to take away is power. You have the power to, at the very minimum raise local expectations and local possibilities for creating a remarkable community in the truest sense of the word.

“Designing Local” is available on both Kindle and Paperback here.