It’s always proper to end the year with reflection and a bit of the good vibes. So for this past year, and many other years prior, I’ve thought about those who have shaped my work the most. Any of us who attempt to create something new or solve something old inevitably stumble upon others trying to do the same. You, dear reader, are one such person with your own list of those who inspired you. I’d like to provide a brief list of my own.
First, there is Rick Bernhardt and the Nashville Planning Department. Rick is one of those few sages who are remains accessible and happy to help. Over the past seven years, I’ve visited his office (and terrific staff) many times to get advice on whatever might be my project du jour. I’m not the only one, either. Many people from many other cities have visited the offices at 800 2nd Avenue to discuss Rick’s methods for developing an Urban Design Overlay or crafting a form-based code. It’s no mistake. Rick and his staff embody something quite rare: a local government organization with the skill and expertise to rival a consulting firm. And I think this is the way in which he and his staff have inspired me the most: by consistently delivering great solutions for their city with the sort of passion and skill that no other local government can beat. They always push the bar, raise the standard, and make their better city. Nashville would hardly be a shadow of itself without them. I only hope to have the same impact in my career.
Second, there is Dan Parolek. I had the chance to meet Dan this past February at a conference and was thrilled to lead a session with him. Dan is the author of the book Form-Based Codes and is, in my mind, the leading practitioner in the nation. But the bonafides are not what impresses me most about Dan. He is a welcoming soul and an open-minded thinker who seeks the best answers to our problems. He is also an educator doing his part to advance the state of the art. His book (co-authored by Karen Parolek and Paul Crawford) was my most vital resource when writing my own form-based code. Without it and his many other codes to study, I shudder to think how poorly my work would have turned out. But let’s return to the best quality about Dan: he welcomes new ideas. I suspect he craves them. I can tell because in my very brief time with him, we shared more thoughts on policy and planning than I shared with anyone else the rest of the year. Our conversation was only ten minutes but I still remember it. Dan probably doesn’t remember me but that’s okay; I just hope that he always pursues great ideas with the creativity and skill he’s exhibited for so long.
Finally, there is Charles Marohn. Chuck is one of those people who confound me because he can express something I’ve been thinking about before I even realize I’ve thought about it. He and I only met once, many years ago, but we’ve kept in touch for some time. Over the past few years, Chuck has introduced me to books, blogs, and other resources that have impacted me more than anything I ever learned in graduate school. I do not exaggerate. I love my alma mater (Clemson) but Chuck has helped me see things I never saw before. His blog (strongtowns.org) represents the bedrock of our practice that so often gets lost: economics. Economics is the means by which we can explain how society works. Economics, as a discipline, is probably the closest we'll ever get to an applicable theory for planning. Yet, it is typically ignored in our daily literature. I don’t know why. I suppose some find it boring. Or maybe we aren’t sure how to write about it. Thankfully, Chuck provides a model for us all. Whether he is analyzing the latest DOT boondoggle or discussing the finer points of city design, Mr. Marohn eschews aesthetic notions and goes to what matters most, as only a self-avowed engineer can. He does it with a dash of rationality, a garnish of pragmatism, and a heavy side of ethics to give us what we desperately need most: common sense. He’s been so influential to me that I often have to stop reading him for fear of copying what he says. But imitation is the better form of flattery, right? Indeed.
In closing, those of you who love our profession enough to read this and other resources probably know these people already. But if you don’t, follow their work. Learn from what they do. These are people who will leave you excited and full of new energy.
But more importantly, be sure to acknowledge those who inspire you, too. Ours is a cold, lonely job and we are often attacked on all sides. It helps to know who else is out there with us. It’s nice to cheer for those who lead the charge. They help us to do the same. So here’s a hearty “Bravo!” to the people who inspire us. May we do the same for others.