2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: Houston-Galveston Area Council: The Regional Conservation Framework

Houston-Galveston Area Council: The Regional Conservation Framework

I’d like to let you in on a little secret. The Houston-Galveston region is an ecological wonderland! I know that might not be the image that first comes to mind, but our region sits at the junction of southern pine forests, prairies, and coastal wetlands. We have 16,000 miles of bayous, rivers and coastline. These vibrant ecosystems provide habitat for diverse fish and wildlife species and boast some of the best birding sites in the world. 

Yet we face serious challenges in preserving these crucial resources in the face of anticipated population growth. We’re forecasting the region will add more than four million people and 120 square miles of new development over the next 25 years. There are many outstanding conservation programs underway in the region, largely led by non-profit organizations and supported by state and federal agencies, but there are opportunities for our local governments to play an even larger role. That’s why the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) developed the Regional Conservation Framework with high-level strategies to help the region’s local governments coordinate and magnify their conservation efforts.  

This first-of-its-kind project was based on extensive listening sessions with local elected officials conducted throughout H-GAC’s 13-county region. The resulting framework lays out a high-level vision for meaningful conservation in the region, impactful strategies and attainable action steps. As part of the project, H-GAC established extensive on-line resources including a useful grants library, searchable by funding sources, eligible uses, and land types, proven best practices and case studies, and a helpful conservation mapping tool. 

The framework was funded by a grant from a local foundation who recently awarded H-GAC a generous follow-up grant to begin the Regional Conservation Initiative-an effort to kick-start implementation of the framework. Key elements to a successful project will be to work directly with local governments, in partnership with non-governmental and private organizations, to develop multi-jurisdictional partnerships and secure funding for local and regional conservation projects. Another key element of the initiative will be the development of public awareness tools and information resources for local governments to help build public support for conservation efforts in their communities. H-GAC will also provide data on the quantifiable value of conserved forests, wetlands, and other open spaces for residents of the region. 

The Regional Conservation Framework and related resources are available at h-gac.com/regional-conservation. For questions about this project, please email conservation@h-gac.com.  

Blog written and submitted by: 

Jeff Taebel, FAICP  
Director, Community and Environmental Planning 
Houston-Galveston Area Council 

2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: NARC Recognizes the Leadership of Douglas R. Hooker

Douglas R. Hooker, known better by his colleagues as Doug, has been an exemplary leader in the Atlanta region for over two decades. Serving today as the executive director at the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), Doug has spearheaded countless projects benefiting people within the Atlanta community, and he’s worked to share his successes with regional leaders throughout the country in the process. These successes along with the extraordinary leadership abilities that Doug possesses, NARC is pleased to recognize Doug as a recipient of the 2021 NARC President’s Award.  

During his time at ARC, Doug has been both a strong leader in his own community and an active voice for regional councils throughout the country. Perhaps the best example of these qualities is the “Regional Councils for the 21st Century” effort, which worked to help regional councils evolve to meet the challenges of the future. In practice, this initiative facilitated discussions with regional council colleagues and elected officials while also bringing in expert assistance and thought-provoking exercises and readings to help regional leaders understand their roles in the community. This effort helped to ensure that Doug’s exemplary qualities will live on in future generations of regional leaders.  

Doug has also been a strong advocate for racial equity in regional planning. While at ARC, he pioneered a joint project with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) aiming to promote racial equity through a six-part conversation series for regional council directors. Each conversation focused on a different aspect of racial equity and allowed participants to learn, share best practices, and support one another both regionally and nationally. Further, it led to the creation of a resource guide for regional agencies aimed at fostering racial reconciliation and conversations between board members, community leaders, and staff. Though this project, Doug demonstrated the power of regional cooperation in confronting even the most prescient issues in our society today.  

Within the Atlanta region, Doug has worked in countless roles that made the community better off. To name a few, he’s served on the boards of Leadership Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Civic League, the Regional Business Coalition Board, Georgians for Passenger Rail, and many, many more. He also serves on the NARC Executive Directors’ Council and helped virtually host the 2021 annual conference on behalf of ARC.  

Doug is recognized in regional organizations throughout the country as a brilliant leader and champion for regionalism. He embodies much of NARC’s mission and is thus a perfect fit for this award.   


2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: San Joaquin Council of Governments: EZHub, Fare-Payments-as-a-Service for the Vamos Mobility App

San Joaquin Council of Governments: EZHub, Fare Payments-as-a-Service for the Vamos Mobility App

In late 2018, the San Joaquin Council of Governments (SJCOG) and the region’s 7 transit operators sought to integrate fares under the guise of easing the transit experience for riders by developing a program that would provide both trip planning and fare payments to citizens all in one online location. SJCOG hit the drawing board for new ideas and ways to improve the transit riders daily experience. Based on extensive research, planning meetings, and comments from presented concepts SJCOG decided to further invest in a system they already had in place. The Vamos Mobility application helps citizens plan their trips, all SJCOG had to do was find a way to build in a payment structure.  The Vamos Mobility app had launched in Spring 2019 through a partnership with transit operators from both San Joaquin and Stanislaus County, Stanislaus Council of Governments (StanCOG), UC Davis, and the California Air Resources Board.

In the Winter of 2019, SJCOG sought a mobile ticketing developer that would merge a fare payment system with the Vamos Mobility App. SJCOG partnered with Masabi LLC and their fare-payments-as-a-service product and in November 2020, EZHub was officially launched onto the Vamos Mobility Platform. This “one stop shop” provides users with seamless trip planning and ticket purchasing all on the same page. In addition to this, the program provides a contactless payment option and allows opportunities such as fare capping, ticket promotions, and carsharing reservations.

The platform ensures greater communication and coordination between transit agencies allowing them to work together as one region. This ultimately enhances the community’s experience by giving transit users the opportunity to purchase tickets from the seven participating transit systems. The partnership between SJCOG and Masabi is scalable in order met the needs of varied transit agencies providing more equitable access to the platform. The investment into Vamos made collaboration possible and will now make way for additional investments and expansions to the platform.

The development of EZ-Hub is a rare case in which competitors have joined together to enhance an existing taxpayer-funded program. It is a prime example of what can be accomplished through regional collaboration, coordination, and partnerships. The app, available from the App Store and Google Play, has connected residents of California’s Central Valley with affordable, clean, and safe transit.

EZHub How to Video



2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: A Conversation with the Honorable Garret Nancolas

Garret Nancolas — who has spent over 20 years as mayor of Caldwell, Idaho, and over 30 years as a public servant in the region — stands as a prime example of the good that can come from people who understand and care for the place they call home, and we are pleased to recognize him as a recipient of the 2021 NARC President’s Award. Although he has decided not to seek reelection this year, he leaves behind a legacy of dedication and success in his region that will remain for decades to come.  

Mayor Nancolas began his career in public service as a member of the Caldwell Planning and Zoning Commission in 1987, before moving on to the Caldwell City Council in 1989 and finally being elected mayor in 1997, where he has served ever since. He is the only mayor in the city’s history to serve more than one term, and looking at his track record of success, it’s easy to understand why. Under his watch, the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS) expanded from a small planning association in Ada County into an effective and successful Metropolitan Planning Organization serving the entire Nampa Urbanized Area.  

Mayor Nancolas has also invested significantly in the next generation of leaders in his region and throughout the country. He previously served as the Vice Chair of the Youth, Education, and Families Council for the National League of Cities, and also established an award-winning Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council in his own city.  

These efforts exemplify how Mayor Nancolas’ leadership will benefit not just the current residents of Caldwell, Idaho, but residents for years to come. To gain insight on his successes as a regional leader, we asked Mayor Nancolas about his own leadership style, as well as the future of regional planning in his hometown and beyond. 

To further highlight the tremendous work done throughout the Caldwell region, we asked Garret Nancolas about his leadership style and the role he sees for regionalism in government — both today and in the future.  

1.) What role has regional cooperation played in your successes as mayor?  

The most important factor in success regionally is friendship, trust, partnerships, and relationships. Little is ever accomplished in a vacuum. As we know, regional cooperation is imperative to the success of any city, county and region. Working together has brought many regionally significant transportation projects to our valley, which in turn has helped bring many new major companies to Caldwell and the Region. Our household income has risen dramatically because of the new jobs created through this process. Our transportation systems are improved, jobs are created, families’ lives have improved, and we are enjoying a better quality of life as a region! 

2.) What lessons have you learned about encouraging people to cooperate on important projects? 

By encouraging others to cooperate, trust is built, friendships are established, partnerships are created, and the better for the whole is achieved. There have been numerous times over the years that the trust created has allowed us to make decisions that benefit the region over individual desires. In the long run, however, we have benefited individually as well. There is no question that the Theory of Rising Tides is true. When we succeed as a region, we have all been impacted positively by that success.

3.) In over two decades as mayor, you’ve obviously spent a lot of time getting to know the people in your community. How instrumental has that familiarity been in addressing community issues?  

It has been my privilege to serve the City of Caldwell for nearly 34 years. Two years on planning and zoning, 8 years on city council, and nearly 24 years as mayor. This has been the privilege of a lifetime, and I am so thankful for this opportunity! The best part is the wonderful friendships, working relationships, and partnerships that have been created. This is especially important in forming workgroups, committees, and commissions that are essential to the ongoing success of any City. When we need input on projects, events, policy changes, etc., it is so important to have citizens who are engaged and willing to participate! Our downtown is the epitome of this type of collaboration! With a new plaza, ice skating ribbon, more than 250 event days a year, a new college campus, and new businesses in downtown, which together draw more than 400,000 visitors a year. This could not have happened without the input and support from a wonderful community. 

4.) What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you first began your career? 

I truly wish I had known that I cannot make everyone happy. There will always be opposition in all things. My job is to work hard, be dedicated, be honest and serve with integrity, always working for the best for our families and businesses, the rest is up to them.   

5.) How has the shape and scope of regional cooperation changed throughout your career 

When I first took office, regional cooperation was literally nonexistent! Cities in the Valley did not communicate well, the cities and counties did not cooperate. Ada County was referred to as the Great State of Ada. Boise was considered an 800-pound gorilla that always got its way. Canyon County did not like the cities and vice versa. Needless to say, things have improved dramatically since then. I believe that everyone realized that we, in fact, needed each other if we were truly going to maintain the wonderful way of life that Idaho and the Treasure Valley provides. The level of cooperation is amazing, and the results show how well it now works!

6.) What traits — in both yourself and others — do you think are most important to being an effective community leader? 

 I believe the most important traits for success in any arena are the same. Honesty, selfless service, truly being a good listener, integrity, teamwork, and placing your faith and prayers in a loving Heavenly Father. This formula will always work! 

7.) What future role do you see for regionalism in government?  

Regional cooperation is absolutely essential for future success in this and any region. With rising costs, difficult rules and regulations, rising populations, demands on all resources, etc. If we do not work together, it will be difficult, at best, to deal with these, and all issues we will face in the future. 

8.) How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way you view your work?  

The COVID-19 Pandemic was unexpected and difficult. It made me realize how much kindness, patience, and understanding matter in the world we live in. With so many impacted in so many ways, it made me realize, again, how important families are, and how important friendships and relationships are. Yes, we deal with roads, and crime, and parks, and economic development and public services. But if we forget that lives and people matter the most, then we have truly failed in our obligations. 

9.) What impact has coordination with like-minded colleagues had on your own leadership abilities?  

The most rewarding part of my many years of being an elected official is the wonderful, kind, thoughtful, intelligent, dedicated, compassionate people I have had the privilege of learning from and working with! The lessons they have taught me are the treasures of being an elected official. I will be forever grateful for every moment of mentoring and teaching from these incredible people!! 


2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: SCAG’s Go Human Kit of Parts: Impacts on Street Level Community Resiliency

SCAG’s Go Human Kit of Parts: Impacts on Street Level Community Resiliency 

Go Human is the active transportation safety and encouragement campaign from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the nation’s largest metropolitan planning organization. Go Human‘s goal is to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities involving people walking and biking and to increase rates of active transportation. Since its inception in 2016, Go Human has expanded the conversation beyond vehicular violence into a suite of traffic safety programs, including:  

  • Community Streets Mini-Grants, a funding program for projects that build street level community resiliency and increase traffic safety which just awarded 31 community-driven traffic safety activations. Read more on our blog 
  • Community Safety Ambassadors, a paid training opportunity in partnership with California Walks that consists of educational and engagement strategies to improve safety through virtual interactive workshops.  
  • Traffic Safety Peer Exchanges, a series of in-depth virtual sessions convening traffic safety practitioners discussing topics such as equity, funding, and community-centered safety strategies. Register now! 

One of many pivotal Go Human strategies includes engaging priority and historically disinvested communities through the development of its “Kit of Parts,” an engagement tool to temporarily demonstrate potential and planned street design treatments and safety infrastructure. The Kit of Parts (“Kit”), designed by the Kounkuey Design Initiative, includes modular, lightweight, and durable components that can be easily assembled to demonstrate five different street design treatments (protected bike lanes, parklets, crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands and bulb‐outs).  

Installed on a temporary basis, the Kit of Parts transforms a conventional street into one that prioritizes the safety of people walking, biking, and taking transit. Participants engage with the temporary street treatments, learn about their purpose and impact, enjoy a new public space, and give their thoughts and comments on the improvements through surveys and other feedback tools. Go Human’s temporary safety demonstrations provide a creative avenue for residents who have not traditionally engaged with their local jurisdictions to inform planning decisions. More than just getting projects in the ground, these pop-ups serve essential roles in facilitating community participation and leadership development within planning efforts. 

Additionally, SCAG has developed its Resilient Streets Toolkit. This pandemic response strategy utilizes street space for community resiliency, recovery, and resource delivery that prioritizes impacted and historically disinvested communities and identifies use of the Kit of Parts as a strategic resource. The Kit of Parts was included as a resource and proved instrumental in supporting nonprofits with Resilient Streets efforts. Many of the Kit of Parts items were repurposed to adhere to COVID‐19 public health parameters. To date Go Human has partnered with 20+ civic organizations to use the Kit to address the evolving needs of the region’s communities. 

Often, community-identified safety improvements can take years, if not decades, to address. Go Human collaborates directly with community stakeholders to respond to safety needs in ways that are timelier and focus on community-led strategies. The Kit brings a wide range of active transportation interventions to under‐resourced communities in the short term, allowing residents to enjoy them and understand their benefits without having to wait many years for full implementation. By helping build this constituency for future improvements, these projects build community capacity, strengthen resilience, and advance equity at the local level.  

Since its release in 2019, the Kit has been showcased to tens of thousands of residents at events across Southern California.  Prior to the pandemic, the Kit was deployed over 45 times for a variety of projects, in conjunction with open streets events, Safe Routes to School demonstrations, bicycle-friendly business district programs, safety demonstrations, and conferences. To date, over one-quarter of the 40+ Go Human safety demonstration projects have been funded or permanently installed. 


Go Human at CicLAvia

Stay tuned on the Go Human social media pages @gohumansocal on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter for upcoming deployments of the Kit of Parts in conjunction with Mini-Grant recipients, Community Ambassadors, SCAG’s Active Transportation Program projects, and more! Subscribe to our newsletter and contact Alina Borja at borja@scag.ca.gov with any questions. 

Go Human Kit of Parts Parklet deployed during COVID-19 recovery

2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: A Conversation with Executive Director David Warm

In more than 30 years working as the Executive Director of the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), David Warm has consistently been a remarkable leader for the Kansas City metropolitan area, and we are pleased to recognize him as a recipient of this year’s NARC President’s Award. His effectiveness as a community leader has earned him respect and admiration not only in his own community, but among regional planning organizations across the country. For nearly an entire generation, David has been a true ambassador for the principles of regionalism in government and an example for other regional leaders to follow.

This is especially seen in the growth of MARC over the past three decades. Under David’s leadership, the regional council has seen its staff increase from 55 to 166 employees and its budget grow from $8 million to $83 million. He’s used that growth to spearhead countless regional initiatives, from the agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to greater commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, to the development of a thoughtful and innovative long-range transportation plan. Even beyond MARC, David has modelled what regional cooperation should look like through his work advising various non-profit and civic organizations in the Kansas City area.

David’s achievements in the Kansas City region and beyond serve as a model for what effective regional cooperation can look like in the future. We asked him about some of his own accomplishments and what he sees as the future for regionalism in government.

What role has regional cooperation played in your successes at MARC?

I think we have succeeded on many fronts at MARC because we tend to view regional cooperation not as the goal, but a means to a goal. We approach our work by first trying to understand a shared need or opportunity. Regional cooperation often emerges as an important, though not exclusive tool, to help us move forward.

We also understand that regional collaboration can never be built on sacrifice or loss — it must find the intersection among disparate interests where a unified interest can emerge. We try to pay close attention to creating the conditions for cooperation and, as often as not, the actors themselves arrive at solutions that make sense for the community.

What lessons have you learned about encouraging people to cooperate on important projects?

I have found these three things matter the most to facilitate cooperation:

First, leadership matters. We always get farther when we are supporting one or more people or groups — elected officials, professionals, civic voices — who bring energy and vision to an idea and who inspire commitment and action. These are the kinds of leaders who do not use their positional authority but are by nature collaborative peer problem solvers skilled at building broad-based support among diverse interests.

Second, process matters. How we approach an issue often determines our progress. Regional affairs require careful attention to the process by which we address a situation: engaging the right people, framing the issue positively, setting principles, focusing on facts, clarifying the need or opportunity, continual communication and many other strategies that increase the possibility for progress.

Third, what matters the most is trust. Regional councils are not merely in the regional business—we are in the trust-building business. To succeed, we need to create the environment in which diverse actors not only trust us, but also find ways to trust each other to advance an idea. Regional trust is built as is any facet of life, through fostering mutual respect, open communication and addressing the needs of others.

In an era where government at all levels is the target of suspicion and mistrust, collaboration can be a powerful antidote. Working together creates bonds, both professional and personal, and out of those bonds emerge the seeds of trust that can bear fruit in the form of better outcomes for residents and communities.

During your time at MARC, how important has familiarity with the people in your community been in addressing issues?

Familiarity is very helpful. Our organization has formed deep partnerships and credibility that continues to serve us well. But all relationships require continual care, and it is imperative that we constantly stay connected, relevant and valuable to our partners, civic leaders and the community at large.

It is equally imperative that we work with intentionality to form new relationships as actors change, circumstances shift and new opportunities emerge. We need to be especially attentive to building authentic, effective relationships with diverse communities and interests across the region who have historically been left out of many regional conversations, but whose active voices are essential to our future. Engaging these new voices will be critical as regional councils work to address racial inequities, which in most American regions has been aggravated by regional housing, transportation, and educational systems.

What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you first began your career?

I wish I had held a different view of the role and process of planning. For much of my career in local government and at MARC, we followed a process for thinking about the future that strived to express a coherent vision and lay out the steps to achieve that vision. We relied on assumptions about the future that were essentially an extension of trends at the time.

We now have a much clearer understanding of the broader driving forces that will shape the future of our region — including globalization, demographics, technology and climate change. The impact of these is not clear and can be impossible to predict. We are now adjusting our planning to consider new scenarios so we can make choices today to minimize threats and maximize opportunities. As a result, I think we are making more resilient plans and decisions today than we did in the early part of my career.

How has the shape and scope of regional cooperation changed throughout your career?

Regional collaboration is more prevalent and more complex than it has ever been.

When I started my career in city government 40-plus years ago, one of my early assignments was to help create an inter-governmental insurance pool, and one of the major civic efforts I worked on was to build a community center connected to a middle school to share recreational and performance facilities. These were not original ideas but at the time were considered progressive. Yet today, these kinds of joint service agreements are now commonplace across America.

In addition to becoming more prevalent, collaboration has become more complex. Early in my career, collaboration tended to be bilateral or inter-local relationships around a specific issue or outcome, e.g., cities cooperatively forming an insurance pool, or the city and school district building a shared facility.

We now also have countless robust relationships that involve multiple partners and sectors that are aimed at achieving long-term outcomes — everything from joint ventures to technology platforms and service agreements that allow for person-centered, cooperative case management to civic partnerships that drive regional agendas and coordinate public and private resources. Technology, resource constraints, public expectations and competitive forces continue to drive innovation in the models used to advance regional outcomes.

What traits — in both yourself and others — do you think are most important to being an effective community leader?

I think of public leadership not as specific traits, but as the process by which you try to make decisions or approach situations to strive to simultaneously advance three core goals:

  1. Be true to yourself — to your values, principles and your authentic character.
  2. Honor your relationships — with your organization, your partners, your funders and, above all, your community.
  3. Honor your obligations — to your duties, your profession, your associations and, above all, to continually find ways to better serve the public.

How to approach any situation that balances all three goals will change, but in a community context, it usually involves active engagement and communication that enables solutions to emerge that find the confluence between what you believe, who you need to serve and how you can be effective.

What future role do you see for regionalism in government?

Several realities make regional approaches ever more essential: Fiscal pressures in the face of increased public expectations, competitive global pressures that compel communities to build the collective capacity to compete, and practical pressures — from homelessness to environmental protection to workforce development to traffic management — that require multi-faceted regional strategies.

Despite these pressures to collaborate, many factors combine to make regional approaches challenging, including structural fragmentation, social and economic disparities, conflicting values, and the time and patience required to craft thoughtful regional strategies.

Yet, given the overriding pressures to collaborate, local government leaders will be compelled in the coming decade to spend increasing amounts of time, political skills and resources to support collaborative strategies to guide their communities. They will spend as much time looking outside city hall as inside. Basic service delivery will remain important, but the key drivers of local government will be resource leveraging, community positioning, problem solving and strategic leadership — all of which require work in tandem and in sustained, collaborative partnerships with many other institutions.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way you view your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had two major, opposite impacts.

On the one hand, it has opened our thinking about the ways in which we manage our organizations, deliver services, engage with our partners and communicate with the public. It has demonstrated our value, nimbleness and creativity as an organization as we have retooled virtually everything we do — internally and externally. We have built new partnerships with philanthropy, hospitals, community-based organizations and many others as we have come together to address pressing public health, economic and social issues that have converged over the last two years.

On the other hand, the pandemic has been hard on regional relationships. Interactions via electronic means have been more transactional, and it has been challenging to nurture engagement, especially among new public officials. We have also had to make very difficult decisions on how to manage the public health crisis, and the diversity of views, values and perspectives has tested relationships. At the same time, economic stress and the compelling but difficult issue of racial disparity has made every decision more complex.

As we move forward, I am hopeful that we will be able to use the innovation and openness we advanced during the pandemic to address the deeper issues in front of us as a regional community and, that as we do so, we will foster even stronger, more resilient relationships for the future.

What impact has coordination with like-minded colleagues had on your own leadership abilities?

Perhaps the greatest honor and greatest joy of my career has been to be able to work alongside talented, dedicated public officials, civic leaders and professional peers.

I have worked with and for hundreds of elected leaders over many years, and I continue to be impressed by the caliber of the people who step forward, with no personal benefit, to take on very challenging roles, motivated simply by a goal to advance the quality of their community.

I continue to be inspired by countless civic leaders — from neighborhood advocates to corporate executives — who care deeply about the places they call home.

And I am fueled by the examples of my peers — regional council directors, public administrators and nonprofit managers — whom I consider to be friends, teachers and mentors. I have been deeply privileged to work with so many amazing people who exemplify the very best of public service.

2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: Ohio River Recreational Trail Digital Guide

OKI Regional Council of Governments: Winner of this year’s Project Achievement Awards with their Ohio River Recreational Trail Digital Guide

The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) developed the Ohio River Digital Guide, an interactive digital map that is designed to aid boaters, paddlers, anglers, cyclists, and motorists to safely explore the Ohio river communities. The guide provides real-time updates of where commercial vessels are and where the barge “sail line” is in the river. In addition to this, the guide includes links to river community websites so travelers can learn about the wonderful amenities that can be found within the river communities.

David Rutter, Senior Planner at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments  explains just how important this river trail guide is to the region at large and his personal experience with this guide:

My first experience of the Ohio River occurred from the backseat of the family car driving across the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati in the early 80s. We were near the end of a multiday family trip from Texas to my parents’ hometown in central Ohio. From my backseat vantage, I looked out at a brown industrial looking riverfront, not really inviting. Views from bridges pretty much sums up the fullness of my experience of the river for the next several decades whether that was in Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Marietta, or Cincinnati. They all looked very similar, lots of concrete, industry, and very little public access. 

It was not until I moved to Cincinnati in 2016 to work for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) that I finally got close to the river and began to kayak on it. Tentatively at first, always looking out for barges and motorboats. My love of paddling led to my involvement on the Paddlefest planning team. Paddlefest is an annual event held on the first Saturday of August in Cincinnati, where the Ohio river shuts down to motorized traffic and over 2,000 people paddling nine miles from the East side of Cincinnati to the west side through downtown. It is a great way to see the city skyline and the communities on both sides of the river with the added benefit of not having to watch out for those larger vessels. Proceeds from the event help to support Adventure Crew, whose mission is to get city kids out into nature.  

In 2018 my involvement on the Paddlefest planning team also gave me the opportunity to be part of a team of nine people paddling in a 30-foot voyager canoe straight through from Cincinnati to Louisville, 130 miles in 33 hours. The organizers of the trip were from River City Paddle Sports in Louisville who invited people from the Paddlefest team to join them. I learned a great deal from the seasoned “big river” paddlers on the trip such as the benefit of paddling in as straight a line as possible to reduce the distance traveled and with it the number of strokes required. This involved continual crossing from one side of the river to the other on the diagonal between bends. All of us kept our eyes and ears open for barges in case we needed to make a quick dash towards the nearest shore to avoid being river kill. As we paddled through the night our conversation turned to how we could make it easier for others to experience the river like we were doing.  The seed for the digital guide was planted and the Ohio River Recreation Trail began to germinate. 

OKI supported Paddlefest for years and had recently created an online map that participants in Paddlefest could pull up on their phones to see the route, where they were at, and learn more about some of the things around them by clicking on them. As the Ohio River Recreation Trail planning committee began, we knew we wanted something similar but more robust, a guide that would show the user where they were at, access points, points of interest around them, and most importantly where the barges were located. 

Barges, big seemingly slow-moving juggernauts, easily avoidable so long as one knows where they are. That seems like it should be easy given how big they are but they can be amazingly quiet, especially when coming up from behind or if you are around a bend in the river. More than anything else, fear of the barges seemed to keep people from paddling on the Ohio River. One of the most unique aspects of the digital guide is having real time AIS data showing the location and direction of travel for commercial vessels.  

A few months after our initial paddle from Cincinnati to Louisville, I decided to do a solo trip from Portsmouth, OH to Cincinnati after dropping my oldest off at Ohio University. To plan for the trip, I used the Ohio River Guidebook by Jerry M. Hay since the digital guide was still just an idea. It was helpful but bulky and required me to continually guesstimate my approximate location and how far to my next stopping point. It also did not provide much guidance on things to do, places to see, where to eat, or sleep. So, I rarely stopped to explore the small towns I was passing. Meanwhile I was continually hyper alert for any indication of a barge headed in my direction. Every crossing from one side of the river to the other to take the shortest route involved intense paddling to get out of the shipping lane as quickly as possible.  

In June 2020 we released the digital guide. My first trip out on the river was very different. I still watched and listened closely for barges and other motorized traffic but now I could more confidently decide when it was a good time to cross the river. The real time data allowed me to see around the bends of the river and look several miles up and downstream to anticipate when I would need to be extra cautious as a barge approached. It also helped me know what our river towns have to offer, restaurants and shops, hotels, campgrounds, and marinas. It encourages the user to explore further and conversely for our river towns to keep the data for their communities up to date. Local leaders have been quick to see the potential for the guide to bring people to their communities fueling their economies. 

The digital guide has helped make recreation on the Ohio River safer, at least for the 274 miles between Portsmouth, OH and West Point, KY and helps highlight the unique character of each of the towns along the route while emphasizing their connectedness. It is our hope and aspiration to expand it to the full 981 miles of the Ohio River in the near future.    

Written by David Rutter, Senior Planner, OKI Regional Council of Governments

2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: A Conversation with Executive Director Becky Bradley

In her over 20 years of regional experience in economic development, historic preservation, and transportation planning in the Lehigh Valley region, Becky Bradley has demonstrated brilliant problem-solving skills and exemplary leadership abilities, and NARC is pleased to recognize her as the recipient of this year’s Walter Scheiber Leadership Award. Prior to her current role as executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC), Becky worked as the Director of Planning, Codes, and Development at the City of Easton, where she helped lead a $500 million revitalization of the community. She brought that experience to LVPC, where, in 2013, she immediately got to work revamping the organization to work more efficiently in the digital age.  

That eye for modernity has also played into Becky’s planning success at LVPC, where she’s managed the success of one of Pennsylvania’s fastest-growing regions while still preserving its historic farmland and natural resources. While there, Becky spearheaded the comprehensive “FutureLV” plan — one of the first programs in the nation to link planning with transportation infrastructure funding — allowing the region to employ its $2.5 billion Long-Range Transportation Plan in its land use recommendations.  

Becky’s achievements in the Lehigh Valley region exemplify the leadership qualities needed to confront future challenges in regional development. To further highlight her tremendous accomplishments, we asked her about her leadership style and the future she sees for regional cooperation.   

1.) What role has regional cooperation played in your successes at LVPC?  

Regional cooperation is exactly what I do every day, it is at the center of everything.  I think I am the proudest of recognizing that having a bi-county comprehensive plan separate from our long-range transportation plan was inefficient, confusing of the community and thwarted policy implementation.  By working with our 37-member bi-county planning commission, the metropolitan planning organization for transportation planning and investment, both Lehigh and Northampton County boards, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and US Department of Transportation as well as, our many, many publics, non-profit and for-profit partners to create a single plan with a $4.3 billion transportation investment plan has been one of the greatest successes on my career.  Through the new FutureLV: The Regional Plan we now have a balanced policy and funding approach to everything from housing and economy to equity and the environment, while positioning the Lehigh Valley for the massive technological and societal changes that are emerging as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.              

2.) What lessons have you learned about encouraging people to cooperate on important projects? 

Actively listening to individual needs, seeking out the voices of people who are under-represented and truly building a bigger decision-making table builds the implementation culture needed for success.  No one plans or implements alone and every citizen, business, transit rider, tractor trailer driver, Uber driver, airline pilot, child, adult…all have a roll.  Our lives and our success are intertwined and to be successful we must recognize, honor and invite everyone to the table.  Beyond that, in equity communities we also need to bring the table to them.  We have long consulted with the titans of industry, so we have no excuse but, to ask our underrepresented population, from Moms and Dads to the elderly and the poor to the racially and culturally-under recognized to be a part in our region’s future.  It is everyone’s after all.        

3.) During your time at LVPC, how important has familiarity with the people in your community been in addressing issues?  

It is everything and as the population, economy, transportation systems, housing, educational institutions, governance structured, etc. change so does the familiarity.  You must be a very astute observer of people and of place.  A region’s inherent dynamisms and the compound-complex nature of regional work must be a healthy obsession to be successful.      

4.) What is something you know now that you wish you knew when you first began your career? 

That regional work was a viable career option.  Not once in my K-12 education or in college was regional work ever discussed.  It wasn’t until I pursued a graduate education in City and Regional Planning that I understood the power and logic of working at the metropolitan level.  The regional scale is where most people live their lived and where companies and even small businesses operate.  I am glad I found regional work and with every opportunity to speak to children and young adults I speak about how communities really work, at the metro-scale.      

5.) How has the shape and scope of regional cooperation changed throughout your career?  

The need for a regional mindset is the only way to remain viable as a community in a global economy.  The only way to distribute vaccines or carry people and goods from destination to destination is regional in most cases.  Ten and 20 years ago the mindset was still local or hyper local.  Now everyone knows regional cooperation is needed to remain relevant and to thrive.  Regional cooperation has evolved with society itself and is only rising more quickly now.          

6.) What traits — in both yourself and others — do you think are most important to being an effective community leader? 

The ability to zoom in and out on any given issue by seeing the detail and bringing in many voices to solve problems.  It is both an art and a science.  Effective community leaders see how the past, relates to the present and the future, brings them into a logical, achievable path to move a community forward.  It is the ability to see inter-relationships, communicate them and work all angles of the issues simultaneously.  Effective regional leaders are adept at this and love a good challenge.  Leadership is always intentional, steady, open-minded and willing to evolve.                 

7.) What future role do you see for regionalism in government?  

As local government and even county governments struggle to implement programs the need for support and leadership will only grow.  Especially, technological advancements begin to require strong regional coordination between federal, state and local governments, the private and non-profit sectors.  Electric vehicle charging networks and small cellular technology systems are two perfect examples of this.  The average person does not know what township or even county they are in, they just know they need to get their kids to school or their delivery to the company that will turn it into a finished product.  They know they need to communicate with their husband or their coworker or their client along the way.  The cell service or connectivity better be there in order from them to be successful in whatever tasks they need to do, wherever they need to do them.  It is the nature of the connected, on-demand economy.  It is society now and into the future.  Regional agencies coordinate systems and networks at the scale that is most relevant to our day-to-day lives.  We have a strong future in supporting, coordinating and convening communities as a result.        

8.) How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way you view your work?  

The COVID-19 Pandemic showed us all systemic vulnerabilities, especially inequities, in decision-making, policies, investments, educational systems, work-life balance, you name it.  In many ways it was a great upheaval and one that I know has fundamentally changed, for the better, how I view community and the need to provide access to opportunity for everyone.  I see this new normal as one of the most exciting and remarkable opportunities to become better people and places.  We have always, as regional councils been able to do the work that others could not, at the scale people needed, but, now more than ever I believe we have a moral obligation to support our communities as they navigate a great unknown.  We can help unravel the uncertainty, provide guidance and support in new ways and make sure that everyone is included.  Our place in this time could not be more important and that obligation is really energizing.          

9.) What impact has coordination with like-minded colleagues had on your own leadership abilities?  

I learn so much from people who work in the regional space.  It is necessary to successful leadership to have string collegial relationships.  I often find that the space where like-minded people come together is where the most exciting and successful problem-solving happens.  We work across regions on transportation system coordination all the time, entering a four-state, eight Metropolitan Planning Organization partnership has allowed us to build trust and work towards common solutions.  Five years ago, the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority would not have known who to contact in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania when Interstate-80 improvements were being planned.  Now we talk, we coordinate, and we partner regularly.  There’s trust and integrity, and our transportation system functions better because of it.  I am a better leader because of the connection which lead to the commitment to coordinate and collaborate.  It is a win-win.