Friday, December 2, 2011

The Rail~Volution Evolution - Placemaking in America

Contributed by Rachel Beyerle and Krystian Boreyko

“Isn’t it mostly about rail?” a co-worker recently asked upon returning from presenting at and attending Rail~Volution this October in Washington, D.C. As the conference name implies rail is an integral part of the discussion at the annual Rail~Volution, and when Rail~Volution started in Oregon in 1989, its primary focus was development of the MAX light rail line in Portland. Rail~Volution has been a national conference since 1995 and has evolved with time. It’s no longer specific to Oregon. The 2011 Rail~Volution conference included a program and workshops spanning all subjects related to building livable communities: rail, pedestrian access, bus transit, design, bicycling, advocacy, and citizen involvement in the planning process. Attendees spanned four generations—all of them professionals working to find multi-modal, land use, housing, economic, and environmental answers to address transportation needs.  While it may not be just about the Pacific Northwest anymore, the Oregonians did share a term they use often: “intertwine.” 

What does it mean?  Intertwining is systems working together to create accessibility.  Intertwining lessons were learned throughout the conference.  From Santa Rosa, California, where advocates spent time at soccer fields to discuss a rail project with the Latino community; to the officials of the adjoining towns of Charlestown and Ranson, West Virginia who successfully applied for three federal grants to revitalize a major corridor that’s attracting new companies and to rehabilitate older manufacturing facilities to meet the needs of modern employers; to national policymakers finding the right ways—and words—to encourage great placemaking and explain the non-partisan benefits of public spaces; to community corporations explaining how practicing cultural sensitivity and listening to what’s important to neighborhood residents can mitigate tensions related to gentrification. Rail~Volution challenges attendees to think beyond the obvious roles transportation plays to deeper issues of how it shapes and is integrated into the community fabric. The notion of Development Oriented Transit was prevalent; instead of considering how transit moves individuals in and out of areas, planners and developers were encouraged to consider how transportation projects will impact the future identity of a community.

“Places are what we’re making,” Charles Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute in Columbia, Missouri, stated in a session on small towns and rural regions.  Placemaking has evolved, just as Rail~Volution has evolved, and Easter Seals Project ACTION continues to have an intertwined role in supporting accessible routes to transportation, and in turn, raising awareness of the social, health, and economic benefits of livable communities.              

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