Want to Change Lives? Come Work in St. Louis, says Executive Director of Planning and Urban Design Don Roe
When Don Roe moved to St. Louis from Boulder, Colorado in 1988, it was for a temporary consulting contract to work as an Airport Planner for Lambert Airport. He did not expect to stay longer than two years.
Now, almost three decades later, Roe is still here, with more than a few stories to tell.
Shortly after arriving in St. Louis, while waiting for his contract with the airport to start, Roe began doing consulting work on new neighborhood plans for then-Mayor Vince Schoemehl. That led to his involvement with Operation Conserv, a project that was profiling 13 city neighborhoods as part of an effort to adopt a more holistic approach to neighborhood development and build resident confidence.
At the time, Roe had “put his life on hold” back in Colorado, where he had been working with Frontier Airlines as a planning representative, negotiating deals with small towns and city councils throughout the state. He had not intended to make St. Louis his home.
But Roe ultimately decided to stay, and he worked as a General Planner for the City of St. Louis through the 1990s. In 1999, the City created the Planning and Urban Design Agency as St. Louis’ first standalone planning department in decades to consolidate fragmented planning processes that had previously been housed in several separate departments. Roe served from 1999 to 2002 as the agency’s first Director and from 2002 to 2008 as its Deputy Director under then-Director of Planning Rollin Stanley. He’s been the Executive Director of the Planning and Urban Design Agency since 2008.
Today, the Planning and Urban Design Agency employs 18 people across four main areas of focus. Their Research Division provides technical and field data related to planning, public works, and other issues affecting city government and maintains a GIS database for mapping and data evaluation. The Cultural Resources Office is the City’s Preservation agency and manages historic districts, landmarks, parks, and buildings. The Urban Design Department works on St. Louis’ physical form and public spaces to create a more functional, safe, and livable city. Finally, the Planning Office manages neighborhood, topical, and comprehensive plans to improve and stabilize the physical, social, and economic qualities of neighborhood life for St. Louis residents.
In 2005, the agency created a Strategic Land Use Plan, the land use component of the City of St. Louis Comprehensive Plan. The previous plan had dated to the 1940s. Roe says this gap is typical of Rust Belt cities like St. Louis, where fighting decline has been a bigger priority than planning in recent decades. The Planning and Urban Design Agency produces a routine update to the 2005 plan every year, but now that it’s just over ten years old, they’re considering a more complete update soon.
Roe has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Design from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Master of Urban Planning from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. When asked why he chose to pursue his line of work, Roe talked about how a model train set he had as a teenager shed light on what was interesting to him. “It was a custom-made thing, and I worried about and worked on the topography and making the little town more than I did the train,” he recalled.
More importantly, though, Roe entered the planning profession so that he could make a positive difference in people’s lives. That’s one of the things he likes about working as a planner in St. Louis. When Roe joins other planning directors from across the country to speak with Harvard planning graduates each fall, he’s always careful to drive that point home. “I say to these students, ‘As you’re flying to interviews in L.A. or Seattle, think of us in St. Louis,’” he said. “‘If you were to come to St. Louis and do planning, you would be working on and influencing things that would help change people’s lives.’”
Roe’s experience is a testament to that. During his tenure here, he’s had opportunities to apply a “forward-thinking” approach to his work and lead important community projects like light rail, which helped pave the way for the Cortex Innovation Community. Roe created the original plan for Cortex, initially called Technopolis. The Brookings Institution recently highlighted Cortex as one of the country’s leading anchor-based innovation districts.
Cortex’s first major tenant was the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), which has been “courted all over the world” with bids to expand. When the CIC team chose St. Louis as their first location outside of Cambridge, they had a few conditions, including a new light rail stop and an adjacent public space.
Thanks to the strategy and foresight of St. Louis’ community leaders, both contingencies were within reach.
“We opened MetroLink 22 years ago, and that was a regional decision. And Great Rivers Greenway was an output of a big community effort that came together in 2004,” Roe explained. “If we as a region had not made the decision to have MetroLink and the greenway system, then we certainly would have stagnated. We would not be in a competitive position to compete outside of our region as well as we do. And Cortex has really come along.”
Cortex’s success corresponds with one of Roe’s core principles: that ensuring a bright future for cities like St. Louis depends on a balanced “triple bottom line” that incorporates social, economic, and environmental outcomes. It also calls for creative solutions to community problems, something that St. Louis doesn’t always embrace as well as it could. “We have boundaries, we have divisions, and we don’t always think of ourselves as a community,” Roe said. “Where that comes quite radically is in the racial divide, but it’s also an economic divide, and it’s in political divides.”
Roe wants to change that dynamic, and he points to positive momentum at the neighborhood level as a promising starting point. Several years ago, Roe spent some time introducing St. Louis to a representative from the Rockefeller Foundation, which named St. Louis one of its 100 Resilient Cities in 2014. During their tour of the area, Roe and his guest visited with the Executive Director of the South Grand Community Improvement District (CID), who talked with them about the post-Ferguson civil unrest that had damaged district storefronts in November 2014.
“There were 22 stores that had their windows knocked out,” Roe recalled, but that’s not what moved the South Grand CID’s Executive Director the most about the experience.
“She mentioned to me a time when she had cried. It was when she got to work the next day. And it wasn’t the destruction that caused her to cry,” Roe continued. “It was the fact that neighborhood residents had gone out and everything was swept up, cleaned up, and painted. The community had come and done that.
“I’d like to do that—in a bigger sense,” Roe concluded.
When asked for his thoughts on how we can strengthen community development in our region, Roe’s response was twofold. One opportunity, he said, involves cultivating a better sense of identity and ownership among St. Louis neighborhoods. “That’s gotten far too watered down,” he said.
The second piece? Building a more robust charitable funding base for community development, something Invest STL is working to establish right now. “One of the things that we have little of in comparison to other cities—Pittsburgh being a shining example—is involvement from the philanthropic community,” Roe said. “That’s an old song, and it’s just started to build momentum. But it’s really, really important.”
That type of visionary work—projects that “break the mold”—are what excite Roe most about his field.
“The future of our locations and places in society is the future. It’s not today,” he pointed out. “And we want it to be better.”
Written by Jenny Connelly-Bowen, CBN Community Development Specialist