I'm a proud generalist, but in my years as a student of urban planning, I've focused on a few topics that really excite me. One is Regional Innovation Systems (RIS) Theory, a branch of regional economic development that tries to build associations amongst different bodies of knowledge within a region to stimulate- you guessed it- private sector innovation! The logic behind this is that regions that actively nurture innovation through investments in education, research, collaboration, and/or facilities like business "incubators" will also attract employers, jobs, and all the goodies that come with it. Another topic- sustainability, or more directly addressing how human behavior results in global environmental collapse- has fascinated me long before I even considered urban planning as a discipline. In the past few years, but in the past year especially, I've taught, studied, lived, eaten, and breathed sustainability, especially as it relates to community development.
I am very convinced that urban planning can play an important role in solving our existing global environmental-social-economic crises. I've devoted most of this blog to this very topic. So many of our problems are the result of poor or zero planning* and I think that if the American public invested as much in innovating the way we plan and build communities as we do in innovating for the market place, we could build communities that are comfortable, meaningful, healthy, just, and ecologically regenerative.
Over the summer, I lived in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri. Dancing Rabbit (DR) is an intentional ecologically-oriented community. Members of the community have actively chosen to reject many of the conventions that we expect to find in most American communities. Sewerage, grid energy, supermarkets, gas-powered vehicles, and "new" construction materials are amongst the many conventions DR has opted to live without. Susan Love Brown (2000) describes intentional communities as places that are “purposely and voluntarily founded to achieve a specific goal for a specific group of people bent on solving a specific set of cultural and social problems (5).” While I love the concept of intentional community and think that DR and similar communities make important contributions to society, I think there is much untapped potential in recognizing places like DR as sites of important innovation. This fact is very apparent to me: ecovillage residents are discovering new, comfortable, rewarding, and ecologically friendly ways to live. They can do so because they are sheltered from the conventions that are seeking to transcend. In a way, DR and other ecovillages are "incubators" for community innovation. The RIS literature focuses heavily on the ability for innovation to occur in sheltered "incubators". I don't see why community innovation can't be incubated as well.
What if we, as a nation, state, or region, decided that community innovation was important. Important enough to invest time and talent into discovering and enacting new, sustainable, and valuable ways to live? Now, I'm not going so far as to suggest that the government pay for the establishment of ecovillages (although it'd be nice), but I DO think our regions and cities can help spur community innovation by supplying the legal mechanisms to build innovative communities. Overcoming land-use and subdivision regulations are amongst the biggest obstacles to ecovillage formation- usually because such communities require unconventional buildings and settlement patterns and must therefore endure expensive and time-consuming appeals processes (this is one reason why DR is Scotland County, Missouri).
What if Champaign County, Illinois decided that community innovation was as important as economic innovation? Instead of having to jump through hoops to build a carbon-neutral settlement, eco-communities would be invited and encouraged to experiment in sheltered sites within the county. Of course, not all sites would "succeed" but the successful experiments could be applied throughout the region.
These are my thoughts...it's getting late. Goodnight!
*There are very important differences between planning as I hope to use it and "regulation" or the command-and-control of the human environment. Briefly, planning has been described as "providing information about related decisions (Hopkins, 2001)" and applying "knowledge to action (Friedman, 1989)". While regulation can result from planning, it is only one of many outcomes.