In August 2019, I presented my blueprint for a strategic vision to the Mayor and Council. It tries to mix the best parts of who we are with what science tells us makes for the happiest communities. And because what we value as a community and how our city was designed align so much with what science tells us are the happiest cities on earth, we have a wonderful opportunity right before our eyes.
Before we get to the vision, two acknowledgements are in order. First, we owe a thank you to all the residents and past elected officials who put the hard work in over the years to get us to this point as a city. It was their vision that enables us to think even bigger. Second, I have to credit Mr. Money Mustache with much of the inspiration for helping me piece together what I love about Mount Rainier with good urban design. All said, here's the vision . . .
If someone prefers the vast sprawl of suburbia, our narrow streets and closely placed homes may not appeal to them. For those folks, suburbs designed around the car in the second half of the 20th century appear superior to a place like Mount Rainier, which was designed around a street car line. Those beliefs, however, overlook some real opportunities in how Mount Rainier is designed.
Let's pause right there and take a detour to talk about a Dutch guy named Rod Durks who designed the city of Houten, Netherlands. His design is simple. You build dense, single-family homes around a small but dense downtown core of shops and apartments next to public transportation. And, while you have some streets and parking for cars, you promote biking and walking as the way to get around.
The neat thing is Houten is suburb-like – smaller than a city, with single-family homes and yards that make it a tad less noisy and more pleasant – but with the walkability of a big city’s downtown. The best part? Science shows that cities designed this way tend to produce the happiest people on earth, and can serve as a roadmap for how to design our city to give us the best chance of improving well-being and happiness. And if that isn’t our core goal then, well, what are we doing?
So, why does designing a city for people to live closer to one another that promotes biking and walking over driving lead to well-being and happiness?
First and foremost, it promotes a physically healthier way of living. Traveling on foot or bike, as opposed to sitting in a car, improves your health and lessens the risk of diabetes (one of the top drivers of healthcare costs in America, especially for people of color). But, more importantly, when you are physically healthier, you increase the chance (read: this is not guaranteed) that you are mentally healthier (i.e., you’re happier and less anxious).
The other neat thing is that living in a dense town where more people walk about increases the likelihood of chance encounters with neighbors. And science has shown that these little bumps in social interaction also have a high likelihood (read: still not guaranteed) of increasing your happiness and mental health. That is, we as a species are hardwired to get a bit happier with more social interactions.
On top of the health benefits, a lifestyle built around walking and biking benefits you financially in two big ways – (i) getting around on foot or bike is immensely cheaper than a car, and (ii) being healthier lessens the chance of having costly health conditions later in life.
Last but not least, such living is waaay better for the environment. There is the obvious improvement to air quality with less cars, but also the less obvious benefit of using less impermeable pavement like concrete to accommodate cars and more green infrastructure to better manage stormwater (which will only get worse with climate change).
So, how does this all get back to Mount Rainier and Mr.Durks’ design?
If you haven’t connected the dots yet, street car towns built at the turn of the 20th century (like yours truly) have densely-packed single-family homes with yards that make it a bit more pleasant than city living. And in Mount Rainier, we have a downtown core with incredible access to public transportation. You can pretty much get anywhere in the city (and globe if you count getting to DCA, BWI, or Dulles) by way of the 83, 86, T14, T18, and B2 buses. That is, we already have some of the building blocks that account for a happier city (which many of us have already figured out judging by our shared love and happiness for living here).
On top of that, we also have some great buildings blocks unique to Mount Rainier - our celebration of diversity, our love of the arts, and our love of the environment.
Think of these building blocks like our structural advantages as a city. And just like your favorite sports team, we should play to our advantages. Towards that end, my blueprint (finally getting to the point) doubles down on our structural advantages and looks to three broad themes for the city to strategically align its resources over the next five years:
- Create an economically vibrant downtown core;
- Invest in our diverse people and businesses; and
- Invest in a sustainable way of living that promotes community well-being and happiness.
I have identified targeted projects that can move the city forward in each of these areas. In some instances, the good news is that some of these projects already have plans or are already-in-the-works. The better news is that a lot of these projects impact more than one theme – e.g., investments in the Economic Incentive Fund help invest in a diverse group of businesses and business owners and create a vibrant downtown core; while investments in streetscapes make our downtown both more vibrant and more sustainable by pushing to create a more walkable city. This is important because it limits the scope of this vision to ten achievable projects, allowing for us to remain focused on a set of projects a city our size can manage, increasing our chance of success.
Let me now talk more about each theme and those ten underlying projects...
Creating a Vibrant downtown core:
Density – Creating Demand for Business
- We need more people who will wake up in our downtown core wanting a cup of coffee, some groceries, or a pint of beer to create the demand that can sustain current and new businesses.
- That's why I pushed to develop a mixed-use site at the 3200 block of Rhode Island Avenue (Eastern and RIA) that includes apartment living, and continue pushing for dense development along Rhode Island Avenue.
Streetscapes – Create Spaces People Want to Walk About In
- Creating a vibrant downtown core is more than a slogan. It's about creating spaces that people want to be in by designing them in ways that make the space an attractive and intuitive place for congregating. You can read more on why this is so important here.
- The plan includes implementing both the redesign of the 3300 block of Rhode Island Avenue (including Memorial Park) and the 2010 Mixed Use Town Center (MUTC) design for 34th Street.
Arts Commission - Demonstrate Our Commitment to Artists
- I drafted legislation to create an Arts Commission and the results are already striking, producing one beautiful mural on Pennyroyal Station, with a second in the works for 34th Street.
- But we can't stop there. We must continually invest in public art year-over-year so that, over time, we can transform the look and feel of our business districts. Think about where you stop when you are on a road trip. It’s usually those cute little spots that you think to yourself, “Oh, this looks nice.” We need more of that in our downtown core where thousands of cars pass by daily without thinking much of our little strip of Route 1. Public art can be that cue for people that something is going on here worth visiting.
Economic Incentive Fund – Investing in Our Diversity
- In 2019, I proposed a goal of using 50% of our $1 million Economic Incentive Fund for current businesses, many of which are owned by people of color.
- In many instances, our current business owners only need a few thousand dollars for key updates – e.g., better and more appealing signage, façade improvements, or updated electricity. These small investments go a long way because they are small dollar amounts (read: low risk) invested in businesses that have proven they can sustain themselves as a part of our community. In fact, according to Strong Towns, investing in a city’s current businesses is oftentimes the best bang for your back.
- Investing in our diverse business owners not only helps prevent displacement of these businesses by gentrification, but it helps keep a diversified business core. And, as I reference in my push for density, it is a diverse customer base – people of all ages and cultures who eat and drink different things at different times – that can help sustain an equally diverse economy.
Community Policing - Investing in the Right Kind of Policing
- In 2019, we restructured MRPD from a patrol-based to community-based policing model, but we can do more.
- It is time we explore partnering with neighboring jurisdictions to create the economy of scale needed to both expand police coverage & invest in alternative policing models that address mental health crises with mental health professionals, not enforcement officers.
Community Land Trusts - A Home for Everyone
- The need to keep single-family homes within reach of lower and middle-class families is important – both to our character and the region at large.
- How we do this is the harder question, which is why I’d like to continue the conversation with residents and outside entities to see if there is a potential for a third party – e.g., Gateway CDC, the County – to take a leadership role on this project.
Aging in Place - A Place to Raise and Family and a Place to Grow Old
- Whether located in the same single-family house they've lived in for 40 years or living in an apartment in Rainier Manor, the senior citizen community is an integral part of Mount Rainier. Our budget should reflect that. That's why we should support funding for senior programming, like the field trips to Joe's Movement Emporium to catch a play I organized in 2019 for residents of Rainier Manor.
- Property tax breaks for long-term residents.
Building a Sustainable City:
Native Plant Network - An Urban City Connected to Nature
- The biodiversity of our planet - the bugs, bees, birds, mammals, and everything in between (including us!) - is in peril, declining at a rate comparable to mass extinctions.
- This legislation I created looks to educate home owners on the importance of planting native species in their yard to create "networks" of native plants throughout town. The goal? Turn more of our yards into native habitats to create corridors of native meadow and forest where the animals that need these plants can thrive.
A Bikeable City - Use the Size of Our Roads to Our Advantage
- Mount Rainier has a Bike Master Plan, it is just time for us to implement it!
- And, just like Houten, we have an opportunity to take advantage of how densely we were designed by turning some of our streets one-way to both slow down traffic, and create room for bike lanes.
Stormwater Management - Beautify our Tree Boxes and Clean Our Waterways
- Execute on the long-term plan for stormwater management I laid out in 2018
- Build more rain gardens in our tree boxes.
- Explore options for "daylighting" our buried creeks.
I know that walking through all these themes and projects is a lot to digest. But, when you step back and realize there are ten core projects at play, many of which have already gone through the planning phase, then none of this seems out of reach. It's about being focused, building coalitions, and executing.
Towards that end, that is also why all of this work should be backed by strong financial and accountability practices. That is why I proposed budgeting to a surplus year-in and year-out, and why I drafted an ordinance to mandate that Department Heads complete quarterly reports on the projects they manage. If we build these projects into a formal strategic vision for the city - complete with deliverables for our departments to meet - we can ensure these programs make it from start to finish.
Finally, I want to bring this full circle and back to a conversation about what science tells us makes for a happy city.
I’ve asked a lot of people what they like about Mount Rainier. Many say the diversity. Others say the arts. Some say how accessible it is to everywhere. Still others say they just love to be able to walk to Glut on a Saturday morning. But one common theme permeates it all – by and large, we seem to like who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe in. And that’s what I want to invest in – how we are designed and who we are. That’s believing in our community.