For Nat Bottigheimer, president of NB Consult and former transportation planner in Washington, D.C., planning is not a technocratic exercise that people will get right if they use the right tool.
Yet his experience at the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority showed him that engineers, operations people, and even planners tend to think about design before they think about the people who should be helping them formulate it.
The challenge is the diversity of views that the different stakeholders bring to the table in any municipal planning exercise. “When you have 20 different people, you have 20 different views of what they want to achieve in a place,” says Bottigheimer.
Bottigheimer will speak on “Best Practice: What Tools and Techniques Can Lead to Effective Decision-Making and Implementation?” the third session of “A United Princeton Looks to the Future: What Do We Want Our Town and Region to Be in 20 Years?” on Saturday, April 20, from 9 a.m. to noon, at Princeton Public Library.
Also speaking are Robert Bzik, Somerset County planning director, Philip C. Ehlinger, Jr., deputy manager of Doylestown Township, and Andy Johnson, former chair, Haddonfield Planning Board. Rob Freudenberg of the Regional Plan Association moderates. For more information, go to princetonfuture.org.
Although many charismatic planners and architects have been able to inspire others to follow their visions, this only works when the community is already in synch with what they are offering. Says Bottigheimer: “But for places that don’t have a consensus yet, imposing a vision from the outside causes a reaction against it rather than starting a process that results in a consensus vision.”
Bottigheimer’s background is in government and public policy, which gives him a different perspective on the planning process than that of an architect, a planner, or an engineer. “I’m thinking more about people and their interests as opposed to designs,” he says. “I think of planning as a set of tools to help reconcile interests.”
Careful use of language during the planning process is critical. Says Bottigheimer, “When you have conversations about growth and change, you need to use the most descriptive language possible and avoid words that carry a lot of freight and raise concerns about perspective and judgment.”
Take the word “suburban.” “Suburban versus urban is not necessarily a descriptor of how a person lives their life or how they get around, but how concentrated development is,” says Bottigheimer. Although Princeton has a very walkable, transit-friendly environment, its setting is suburban.
“In general in this country a suburban scale of development is associated with using a car to get to everything, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” he says, adding that Princeton has many qualities that would be found in an urban place. “You can walk, bike, take the bus or train, and the car is an option.”
On the other hand, the very walkable, compact town that Princetonians treasure is being threatened by auto-oriented development around the town. This involves growth along Route 1, including subdivisions and office parks (referred to technically as “dispersed employment,” which is accessible only by automobile). “Those kinds of things make it harder to get to Princeton and bring more auto traffic to Princeton,” says Bottigheimer. “The challenge is when you want to preserve the quality of the town in light of growth going on around you.”
In trying to plan for a community’s future, Bottigheimer suggests the following steps:
Develop a statement of values, and listen to people’s problems and goals. “The first thing to get on the table is a statement of what people like about a community and what they value and to ask what do they want more of or less of. The answers will run the gamut, from more employment opportunities to reducing the cost of living, but all of them need to be on the table, and people need to acknowledge and respect what others in their community want.
“The most effective thing is for all stakeholders to understand their own needs and motivations,” says Bottigheimer. “A good facilitator of a visioning process gets participants to talk about what their interests are. Every stakeholder needs to participate — whether that is a large institution like the university, businesses, residents, children, and retirees.”
Having all stakeholders share their interests creates trust and reduces suspicion and preconceptions about what someone else “might” be thinking. Furthermore, having to say what your interest is sometimes makes you think about it in a more explicit way, which can create opportunities to find common ground.
Get the right professionals involved. Another ingredient in the problem-solving equation has to do with who is looking at the problem. When Bottigheimer was with the Maryland Department of Transportation, it had a contract with traditional transportation industry consultants, engineers, and planners to design a transportation project, but sometimes you need different professionals involved. “I realized that if you go into a community that wants to create a more walkable, transit-oriented, accessible place,” he says, “you have to have a lot of different skill sets — economic analysts, park designers, affordable housing analysts.”
Look at real-world options. Solutions are not necessarily what you might suppose. For a suburban community where traffic congestion is a big problem, for example, the solution is not necessarily to widen the roads. Studies show that if traffic at peak periods can be reduced by only three to four percent, travel speeds and reliability increase by a greater multiplier. Hence, reducing the number of trips that parents make taking their kids to school could have a huge impact, and this might be done by creating safer routes for children to walk or bicycle to school.
Bottigheimer has also been involved in a situation in which privately owned land was in a floodplain and could not be developed; at the same time the community was in need of parks and open space. With the right professionals involved, it turned out that the floodplain could be reconfigured to house parks and make more land available for development.
“Instead of throwing up your hands and saying ‘This is a floodplain and you can’t build here,’ by creatively changing the floodplain, we were able to give the landowner an economic interest in it and create an amenity for the community,” he says.
But this required persuading local and state environmental officials that the floodplain would perform as well or better after being transfigured, which required involving a person with expertise in floodplains and their function in the planning process.
Bottigheimer grew up in Stony Brook, New York, where his father is a professor of English and Irish history and his mother a professor of comparative literature, specializing in children’s fairy tales and Bible stories; both at Stony Brook University.
Bottigheimer graduated from Harvard University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in government. After serving as a health-care consultant he moved to Berkeley in 1992, and says, “I went to the School of Public Policy to figure out what I wanted to do.” And he did. “I’m doing what I am doing now because of a random class assignment in my first semester,” he says. “It was to analyze the policies related to the air-pollution impacts of transportation in California.”
A friend told him to check out the work of Peter Calthorpe, a San Francisco-based architect, urban designer, and urban planner who was one of the early writers about transit-oriented development (development that is designed so that people can use transit). As he explains, “When you walk out the front door, it is a competitive thought to walk to the bus stop or walk to transit compared to getting in a car. It is more pleasant, faster, or more cost effective — it is designed so you want to do it and it makes sense to do it.”
That was when the lightbulb went off. “The moment I realized there was such a thing as planning and there were people who were thinking about creating places where transit was an attractive option, that’s what I wanted to work on,” he says. “I spent three years in London when I was a kid. and I have always associated interesting, active places with buses, subways, and trains.”
For part of the last 20 years Bottigheimer had to adjust his work life somewhat to the academic career of his wife, astrophysicist Eve Ostriker, who grew up in Princeton. Her parents are Alicia Ostriker, a poet and retired English professor from Rutgers University, and Jeremiah Ostriker, retired astrophysicist from Princeton University. For eight years he worked as a planning consultant for different firms as they moved around from Berkeley to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C. His focus was on real estate and local government economics as they relate to transportation services and infrastructure.
From 2000 to 2005 he ran a group at the Maryland Department of Transportation that coordinated local land use plans with transportation investment by the state. Then from 2005 to 2012 he worked for the D.C. Metro, where he ran a department of 50 people focused on long-range planning, real estate, and parking. In this role he started Metro’s sustainability initiative and the first bicycle and pedestrian capital investment program.
Now Bottigheimer is working as an independent consultant, and through the summer he is working on President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, where he is focusing on rebuilding transportation infrastructure, looking to recommend policies that will promote more resilient communities.
Princetonians love their town, but to preserve something valued requires action. “Non-action results in evolution away from what you have — you have to engage issues to preserve qualities you value,” says Bottigheimer. But he emphasizes that it is important to start by asking questions, not by trying to put in place solutions.