Comprehensive plans – helping or hurting?
Easy steps can be taken to provide more vision and effectiveness for a municipal road map to the future.
Note: This article is in the January-February print issue of BCT.
Most cities and towns have a comprehensive plan, an earnest document intended to guide elected and appointed officials as they make decisions about the future. Some comprehensive plans are quickly forgotten; others are followed literally when land is being rezoned and infrastructure expansion are being considered.
How can you tell if a comprehensive plan has become stale, meaningless, or even harmful? Watch for these tell-tale signs:
• When the vision described in the plan sounds like it was written thirty years ago – or the plan is vision-free.
• When the comprehensive plan has to be retrofitted to allow walkable neighborhoods or “complete streets.”
• When rezoning applications routinely require amendments to the comprehensive plan.
• When the city engineer insists he must widen a road to meet the plan’s level-of-service standards, despite adopted complete-streets policies.
• When the future land-use map in the plan looks like a zoning map, breaking the community into single-use monocultures.
• When the plan is no longer being implemented.
It doesn’t have to stay that way! A tool with such authority and potential is a great opportunity for a community to identify and respond to current challenges and opportunities.
Comprehensive plans are so-named because they address the local government’s entire area and cover a variety of topics including transportation, utilities, housing, and the environment. These plans, known as general plans in many states, usually contain a future land-use map and related goals and policies that can be a strong positive force in redirecting ingrained habits about how a community should grow (or not grow, as circumstances dictate).
Communities across the country take advantage of the comprehensive planning process to set a new course for their future. The best comprehensive plans define and protect natural features and farmland, are explicit about the nature of the future street network, and have future land-use maps that establish the desired character of existing and future urban areas.
The examples highlighted here just graze the surface of what has been happening recently in comprehensive planning.
In Somerville, a “SomerVision Map” designates great residential neighborhoods that are to be conserved, mixed-use areas around transit stations and commercial corridors that can be enhanced, and opportunity areas that should be transformed. This simple triage device helps communities focus their regulatory reform, for instance the creation of form-based codes, in areas that should be enhanced or transformed.
Somerville's map showing conserved / enhanced / transformed areas
Nashville’s “Community Character Manual” combines a similar triage technique with a local interpretation of the rural-to-urban transect. First adopted in 2008, this manual is a component of the general plan for Nashville and all of Davidson County.
This manual is a dictionary of policies on how to create the appropriate rural, suburban, and urban form for open spaces, neighborhoods, centers, and corridors. A subsequent community planning process creates detailed maps showing where these policies apply in individual communities. Form-based codes then implement these community plans.
To date, community plans have been updated in accordance with the Community Character Manual for North Nashville, West Nashville, Bellevue, Madison, and Antioch-Priest Lake.
Nashville’s integration of the transect with other planning tools
Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh’s 2030 comprehensive plan, was completed by city staff in 2009.
In addition to a conventional (use-based) future land-use map, the Raleigh plan includes a Greenprint Map that highlights environmentally sensitive lands and an innovative Growth Framework Map that expresses the city’s growth vision for transit-oriented development around rail stations, plus growth centers in defined locations.
A strong implementation/action plan is an integral part of this plan and is monitored by a staff implementation team. Implementing regulations adopted in 2013 added an Urban Form Map and a Street Typology Map.
Raleigh Growth Framework
El Paso, Texas
Plan El Paso was completed in 2012 after two 14-day design charrettes led by Dover, Kohl & Partners, involving citizens from every part of this city of 650,000.
El Paso’s new goal is to become the least car-dependent city in the southwest. Plan El Paso includes a heavily illustrated community design manual and urban design guidance for revitalizing specific neighborhoods.
Plan El Paso’s new future land-use map uses regional growth and open-space sectors based in part on the model SmartCode. The map identified fertile land along the Rio Grande for continued farming and future station areas along four new bus rapid transit lines for mixed-use development.
The map’s sectors have been grouped into compact urban, drivable suburban, rural, and open-space sectors to guide street design through a new Thoroughfare Plan that will provide a dense network of collector streets.
El Paso’s draft Thoroughfare Plan overlaid on future land-use map sectors
Effective comprehensive plans identify the specific steps to be taken after the plan is adopted to implement the plan. These can include better methods of selecting capital improvements, new annexation policies, and zoning-code overhauls.
Without thorough implementation, a comprehensive plan’s true potential has been wasted.
Bill Spikowski, FAICP, operates Spikowski Planning Associates in Fort Myers, Florida. This article appears courtesy of the Form-Based Codes Institute, which advances the knowledge and use of form-based codes.
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