Q&A: ETCDC Director Wayne Blasius on the HappyHealthySmart Symposium

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As downtown Knoxville’s resurgence continues seemingly unabated—going beyond restoring old buildings and now erecting all-new ones—let’s pause in our self-congratulation to consider that there are still things we could be doing better. Connecting people and places in ways other than cars and parking lots may require some imagination these days (or perhaps a good memory), but the East Tennessee Community Design Center is here to start the conversation with its HappyHealthySmart Symposium on Wednesday, March 29, starting at 5:30 p.m. at the East Tennessee History Center.

Co-presented by the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, the symposium will gather local and national experts to discuss “what makes a happier, healthier and smarter region.” If learning about community planning seems like an esoteric way to spend your Wednesday evening, please reconsider.

“The way our communities are designed impacts much more than just aesthetics,” says ETCDC director Wayne Blasius. “Economic success, commuting time, transportation costs, and even public health, are impacted by the way our places are organized and laid out.”

These public forums will present short, informative videos, interspersed with expert commentary. Topics will include parking innovations, driverless cars, kids’ views of what makes a great place, and some best practices from around the globe. Plus: City Council member Marshall Stair will show his smash-hit 2016 PechaKucha presentation on zoning and walkability.

Here’s our interview with Blasius:

Community design—isn’t this the sort of thing that only city planners should worry about?
Design matters! And not just because it looks nice. The way we design our communities impacts our commute times (and cost); vehicular, pedestrian, and bike safety; economic development; property values–and even public health. It may be that only city planners “worry” about it, but everyone is impacted– gets upset when it’s done poorly.

What are some “better ways” to connect people and places?
Planning and zoning practices, especially since World War II, have tended to separate homes from shopping from employment from recreation. This happened as a response to polluted, gritty urban centers that were undesirable places to live. The interstate system made the separation possible. Because of these practices, we now have to get in our cars to do anything. This ads time, energy use, air pollution, and potential traffic danger, to everything in our lives. Clustering of uses, with appropriate buffers and design, give us opportunities to live our daily lives with less time spent driving here and there. Ironically, the urban cores people fled are now clean, attractive and fun–so we get in our cars and go back there to live and play! Here’s an example, from one of the symposium’s videos, of what’s been done in Vancouver.

How can these connections make for a region that’s “happier, healthier, and smarter”?
If we live closer to places that we work, shop or play; walk or bike on more trips; spend less time and money commuting, and therefore spend more time having fun, working or playing–I think most people would agree we’d be healthier, happier and maybe wealthier. I suspect we’d all feel pretty ‘smart’ about those outcomes!

How would you rate Knoxville’s current connections?
Like most communities that have experience great growth since World War II, we have created a great deal of sprawl. That leads to the problems we’ve discussed. The flip side is that our community has made dramatic strides toward creating some wonderful places to play and exercise, and great connections between them. As our regional greenway and blueway systems continue to be developed, we are reversing some of the impacts of the last 50-60 years of planning decisions.

How is “smart growth” different from not-so-smart growth?
Designing our communities to allow healthier outcomes, more time for play and work, and less financial and environmental costs of poor planning equals smarter growth vs. headlong growth.

What do you hope comes out of these discussions? How can they be turned into real-life solutions?
Often, we only discuss planning and design issues when people react to a proposed development, road project or rezoning–and the discussion is often divisive. This symposium was envisioned—as a part of ETCDCs intention to be a broker of a community conversation on good design–to get people talking about outcomes we want versus waiting to be “against” something that’s proposed.

Editor Coury Turczyn guided Knoxville's alt weekly, Metro Pulse, through two eras, first as managing editor (and later executive editor) from 1992 to 2000, then as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2014. He's also worked as a Web editor at CNET, the erstwhile G4 cable network, and HGTV.

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