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Article about the presentation by Nathan Norris

by Libbie Rodgers



“A place is loved because it is great, but it first became great because it was loved.” Nathan Norris applied this statement to Montevallo when he spoke to Citizens for Montevallo on November 29, 2005. A consultant to municipalities and developers, Nathan is a Principal with PlaceMakers  (http://www.placemakers.com). He is also the Director of Marketing and Sales for The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development in Pike Road near Montgomery that is being talked about as a “national model for planning, implementation, and marketing” (http://www.thewatersal.com). He founded the Architects Guild that has now become the New Urban Guild (www.newurbanguild.com).


Nathan believes that good development doesn’t just happen; it results from careful planning and deliberate “placemaking.” Emphasizing that “the future of Montevallo isn’t wrapped up in a zoning map, ” he encouraged city leaders and citizens to begin meaningful visioning by asking questions like these: “What do you want Montevallo to be like in the future? What will the economic base be? What will the cultural nature of the community be? What will it look like?”


He used the term “transect planning” to describe the process of dividing the community into bands or sections ranging from the most rural to the most urban. Once the transects have been labeled, then the community can identify the distinctive features, including natural and cultural elements, that are loved and that need to be protected from development. City leaders, including the Planning and Zoning Board, can then use transect planning to provide guidelines to developers as to what can be built where. If a developer wants to put an unsuitable development in an area that the city leaders have identified as rural and especially scenic, for example, then the city could say to him, “Not there, but over here instead.”


He urged city leaders to raise Montevallo’s standards for development and for building. He called attention to various websites that tell about “Smart Growth” and that give ideas about how to strengthen municipal codes to protect those features of the community that need protecting and to promote appropriate development in appropriate places.


One website that he encouraged people to visit includes the current version of the SmartCode that will be the basis of a workshop in Biloxi, Mississippi on March 2-4, 2006: http://www.placemakers.com/info/scdownloads.html. Many other useful sites can be accessed by googling “Smart Growth.” He also recommended the recent book The World is Flat  by Thomas Friedman as a window into where the world is headed and how to create great places to live in that world.


He compared turn-of-the-century zoning codes that focused on use, density, and parking to the newer, Smart Growth planning models that emphasize such things as form, or how you want things to look, as top priorities. He showed pictures of small communities in which downtown parking decks looked like stylish traditional two-story or three-story brick business buildings.


They looked like homes, but they often combined retail establishments below and a parking deck above, or a parking area below and retail or residential above. They did not look like concrete layer cakes. The “form” or style of the buildings was important to the community, no matter what “function” the buildings would serve. The buildings had to fit into the architectural codes of the community, no matter what they would be used for.


Nathan acknowledged that his planning strategies did not take into consideration water issues, which are very important in this community, but he urged the group to hear the presentation by Beth Stewart, Executive Director of the Cahaba River Society, in December (www.cahabariversociety.org). He also urged Montevallo to work with Shelby County planners on crucial water issues affecting our area.


He described some of the amenities that people look for when choosing a community, and Montevallo had all of them: 1) a nearby university, 2) a traditional looking Main Street, and 3) a location that is near both rural and urban environments. Of these three, the one amenity that people value most highly is the third, the ability to get to town quickly and to the country quickly. One person in the audience lamented, “But we are about to lose all our country.” Nathan responded, “You WILL lose ALL your country—unless you take charge in a hurry and make sure it doesn’t happen.”


Montevallo doesn’t have the leisure to postpone making changes in the way we deal with development, he stressed. The time is NOW for city leaders and citizens to identify what is special about Montevallo and how we envision our future. When that meaningful visioning is done, we will be ready to go forward, using Smart Growth planning tools, to develop ordinances and building standards that will make this a great community in which to live.


Then, if we are wise, we will teach our children about our vision by embedding it into the curriculum of the public schools so that future generations of taxpayers can appreciate our vision for the Montevallo community.