Photo: Robert Brosnan

Planner Profile: Robert Brosnan

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Article by James May, reposted from the Winter 2016 Newsletter, American Planning Association, Virginia Chapter.

No one informed Robert Brosnan that retirement means he can slow down. After thirty-eight years with Arlington County, serving as Planning Director for 27 years and then as the Director of the Department of Community, Planning, Housing, and Development until July of 2015, Mr. Brosnan formed Brosnan Planning Services and joined City Version 3, an interdisciplinary consulting firm. Mr. Brosnan hopes to use his wealth of knowledge and experience to help other jurisdictions, developers, and individuals improve their communities.

Mr. Brosnan’s time with Arlington County coincided with the rapid expansion of the Washington area. Since the late 1970s over 20 million square feet of office and 20,000 residential units have been developed in Arlington County, primarily along the Rosslyn- Ballston and Jefferson Davis Corridors. The community had agreed that the development of these two corridors would fund preservation and investment in the neighborhoods. “Use the economic growth to invest in schools, neighborhoods, and things like that. One of the hallmarks of Arlington is the balance between urban development and single-family development that is close by,” explains Mr. Brosnan. This model allowed Arlington County to lead the nation in the development of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and neighborhood preservation.

Use the economic growth to invest in schools, neighborhoods, and things like that.

Due to the strong economic growth of the County and the region as a whole, transportation remains the primary concern. The region continues to see a steady increase in automobile traffic; conversely, Arlington County has begun to see a reduction in traffic on local roads. “For me, that’s the challenge going forward: how does the region continue to grow in a way that people can get around and there is better access from where they live to where the jobs are?”

Through the Council of Governments, Mr. Brosnan has worked with regional officials to develop more areas like Arlington County’s TODs “where there is a good relationship between jobs and housing and walkability, and then connecting these activity centers by a variety of transportation forms, not just automobiles.” Mr. Brosnan envisions a region that has rejected the automobile-centric development patterns of the last half of the 20th Century. “If I had my way, we would have a series of very active activity centers all connected by transportation. There would be single-family developments around these act- ivity centers where people could get decent access into the activity centers, too.”

In his new role with City Version 3, Mr. Brosnan seeks to realize this vision beyond Arlington County. As the website explains, City Version 1 developed before the car, Version 2 brought sprawl, and Version 3 seeks to take the best of both to create a better urban environment. While other team members focus on the transportation systems of the community, Mr. Brosnan’s specialty in land use and zoning helps to define the pieces that make the community. These veteran public servants from Arlington County bring their experience to the private sector, focusing on implementing Transit Oriented Development. “Most jurisdictions know how to do the high level planning and sometimes they hire a consultant to do that. But when the consultant leaves, then somebody needs to figure out ‘How do we really do this?’ That’s where we figure we might find a niche. One of our goals is we’ve figured out how to do it and we stand ready to try to help jurisdictions figure that piece out.

After nearly four decades in the field, Mr. Brosnan has identified two major challenges for Virginia planners. First, planners must become better managers of civic engagement. “The political dialogue has changed. Civic engagement has changed. It’s become much more combative I think.” Planners need to learn to be flexible and adapt to help local jurisdictions manage community dialogues and make informed decisions. Planners have to be able to communicate with various factions and political interests. “One interesting thing about Virginia is that there are a lot of political interests.”

If I had my way, we would have a series of very active activity centers all connected by transportation.

Second, planners have continually been asked to do more with less throughout Virginia. While he has had the benefit of politicians and managers that support planning initiatives, many places throughout the Commonwealth have not been so lucky. This lack of resources is further complicated by the centralization of authority. “This is a big state with so much diversity, and I think each region knows what it needs and what it wants to be better than Richmond.” The lack of resources and lack of authority can cause considerable consternation for the planner. “That’s a challenge that they don’t teach you about in planning school.”

Mr. Brosnan has been a leader in the field of planning for the majority of his career and is committed to remaining actively involved with the planning community. “While I still have the energy and the interest, there are ways that I can help others with the knowledge and experiences that I had in Arlington to create better places.”

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