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