In June 2012 the American Planning Association (APA) released a comprehensive national survey to “objectively determine what the general public wants from community planning and what perceptions exist.”1 This research was precipitated by Tea Party and anti-Agenda 21 activists who have systematically attempted to constrict or eliminate local and state planning laws throughout the country, and more specifically in Virginia. In Arlington (VA) we have long held that we, Arlington, are planning our way to prosperity. One need look no further than our urban villages to see that a very small portion of our geography provides a huge portion of our tax revenues and that it is a direct outgrowth of a deliberate plan.
Of the APA survey respondents, “most do not feel that enough planning for economic growth is happening in their local communities and do not believe that ‘market forces’ alone will lift the economic situation out of crisis.” Some 67% believe that “community planning is important to economic recovery.” The highest priority for community planners should be job creation according to respondents. Very interestingly, the survey indicated that one of the key features of an “ideal” community is the proximity of locally owned businesses. Of course it is partly a function of the recession, but planning is seen by most to be an essential element of economic success.
I have long believed that planning and economic development are irretrievably linked. Arlington may even be a national poster child for linking the two. There can be no question that our plans have reflected market realities, after all, the private sector builds the buildings and private tenants (largely) fill them. However, Arlington planners’ understanding of real estate economics has enabled us to ensure that plans will be implemented by using market forces as a guide to what is achievable. We have been moving up-market, planning for higher grade development that is more expensive and higher yielding from a tax standpoint. Good planning has changed our market position itself, enabling the development of a better quality environment.
Arlingtonians want the same things as other Americans – a high quality of life with great amenities. Only great planning can provide these. When we look at a specific issue such as local retailers, we can be proud that 77% of the retail tenants in Clarendon and other parts of the County are local or regional and not chains or franchises. We need both, who would want to live without the Apple Store after all, but we are not Everywhere USA, we have our own local character that differentiates us from other places. That too is a function of our emphasis on urban retail with less reliance on shopping centers and malls that depend largely on national retailers, which is something we planned. A few years ago Clarendon was awarded the APA designation as one of America’s Great Places for both its community quality and its economic success, the result of good planning.
I really don’t need to point out the obvious to Arlingtonians – that planning yields a great community. But not every locality has the same planning culture that we do. As I talk to planners and economic developers from around the country and the world, Arlington’s commitment to planning and its linkage to economic development are rare and enviable. As planners we are doing the right things well as evidenced by our success at building both community character and economic prosperity. It is incumbent on all of us to be ambassadors for planning and to make sure that we continue to provide a legislative environment that allows us to successfully plan for prosperity.
Terry Holzheimer, FAICP
Director, Arlington Economic Development