Urban planner: Macon silent on visual preference survey results

Nine years ago, 1,400 Macon residents participated in a “visual preference survey” by an internationally known urban planner. Locals looked at photos of different streetscapes and chose the one they preferred.

The resulting report recommended several policy changes to realize a vision for Macon that was aligned with residents’ clear choices. Among other things, it encouraged mixed-use, higher-density “infill” development as well as “strict design standards” for commercial signs.

Anton Nelessen, a professor of urban planning and design at Rutgers University, conducted the survey, as he has in 167 cities in the United States and many others around the world. Nelessen recalls resistance bordering on hostility to his work in Macon. He heard the words “communist plot” in reference to his efforts. For that reason, he said, he suspected his work in Macon would amount to nothing more than an “interesting exercise.”

And unlike every other city he’s worked with, Nelessen said, no one from Macon called him back since he conducted the survey. Over the years, he has formed a belief about why cities like Macon fail to move forward, fail to keep up with the tides of change, he said.

“It’s my fundamental feeling now that those places where (planning) has not moved forward have typically been the places where the major support in the town is by baby boomers, who are car-oriented, who believe they are doing the right thing by allowing all the sprawl to occur,” Nelessen said.

“They get fixed into a kind of genetic attitude that was locked into the 1950s,” he said. “If they can’t shake themselves out of it, the city has languished.”

Conner Wood is a student at Mercer University.