The Importance of Regional Planning That Matters

Why big-picture planning that saves natural resources, woodlands, and farmland can be the key to sustainable success

land use pattern in 2031 under Places to Grow plan (by: Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure)

The Places to Grow land use plan for the region of Ontario around Toronto and Hamilton (image above) is one of the best I have seen. I will discuss it more below, but you can tell how well-conceived it is just by looking at the amount of protected land it saves while accommodating a tremendous amount of regional growth in population and jobs.

Planning at the regional scale is critical.  As our economic, land use and transportation patterns have evolved over the last century, metropolitan areas have become increasingly important. In most parts of the country, the political boundaries established by municipalities long ago are no longer relevant to businesses' or residents' activities, to say nothing of environmental media such as air and water.

As a result, to meaningfully influence environmental impacts associated with development, land use, and transportation, we must act at a level where central cities and suburbs can be considered together. As President Barack Obama has put it, "that is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it."

At least with respect to land use, this is not a novel idea. Most U.S. metro areas have some sort of regional plans, and many of them are very good. For example, in 2010 the American Planning Association praised the sustainability features of an environmentally sensitive regional plan for Baltimore County, Maryland:

Baltimore County farmland (by: Joe Orbital, creative commons license)

The approach to ecological design and growth management represents a pioneering effort to direct growth away from sensitive ecological features such as the valley floors, steep slopes, woodlands, and fertile soils through a combination of growth boundaries, restricted sewer and water expansion, conservation design, and restrictive zoning that remains progressive to this day.

The previous year, the federal Environmental Planning Agency bestowed a smart growth award on a plan called Envision Lancaster County (Pennsylvania), noting that it directs new development to defined urban and village growth areas in existing communities in order to spare the farmland, rural areas, and natural landscapes that define the county's character. The plan also promotes reinvestment in the county's cities and towns and encourages more compact, interconnected neighborhoods while preserving open space, protecting water resources, and providing for greater housing and transportation choices.

participants work on the Dallas-Ft Worth regional plan (by: APA)

Those are excellent planning and growth management principles. And sometimes these plans cover a lot of ground, quite literally: the metropolitan planning organization for the Dallas-Fort Worth area recently adopted an award-winning plan for the country's fourth largest metropolitan region, covering 12,800 square miles and encompassing more than 200 individual communities. In bestowing an award on the plan's framework for accommodating a doubling in population by 2050, the American Planning Association praised both the results and the process of an effort that "creates a framework for innovative sustainable development" in the region.

The problem is that the history of sprawl and unsustainable land use in America is largely a history of good plans ignored and overridden. We don't have a lack of good plans as much as a lack of good implementation of plans that, ultimately, are largely advisory in nature. We have a lack of plans that matter.

Toronto neighborhood (by: Prashanth Raghaven, creative commons license)

There are a few places on the continent where planning matters more. As I alluded at the top of the post, the Canadian province of Ontario has adopted an excellent (and enforceable) growth management framework for the "Greater Golden Horseshoe" region surrounding Toronto and Hamilton. The plan requires that at least 40 percent of new growth be accommodated within the boundaries of existing development, with transect-based densities for different parts of the region. Where greenfield development must occur, it must create complete communities, with development configurations and streets that support transit services, walking, biking, parks, and a mix of housing and jobs. And it must be built to a scale that makes efficient use of land, accommodating a minimum of about 20 residents and jobs per acre. All areas must accommodate affordable housing.

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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