When your city is looking in the wrong direction.

Urban planning is not what it seems. It brings to mind planners conducting comprehensive analyses of the factors that go into the development of a place (e.g. population growth, current and projected land uses, availability of utilities, etc) and somehow then creating a plan that will lead to good urbanism. A few issues come up: 1) Is this what urban planning is about, 2) what is good urbanism, and 3) do plans have any capacity to shift the trajectory of a city (if not, why bother)?

Well, it turns out that a lot of the actual work of urban planning is about trying to meet present demands rather than fixing broken systems that perpetuate dysfunctional cities. How is this? Current planning can be thought of as the part of planning that deals with the processing of development applications within the existing framework of current codes/regulations. This is the half of planning that is basically permitting projects to allow them to move forward. Then there’s long-range planning that focuses on the bigger picture problems (i.e. outdated plans or zoning codes). From this perspective, half of urban planning is about moving development through the process and the other half is about fixing the broken system (assuming that long-range planning is half the size of the current-planning staff).

There is a huge elephant in the room that many planning departments fail to address sufficiently, however: roads and transportation infrastructure. In many cities, including all of North Carolina, the state transportation agencies have purview over the principal roads throughout AND WITHIN cities.

What does this have to do with urban planning? Roads make up about 25% of the land area of cities and they set the stage for the built environment: what type of development occurs, how people can access property, what the environment looks and feels like, which all has a significant effect on how cities operate. These state agency rights-of-way are beyond the purview of most city jurisdictions, however, so naturally they are subordinated in review and any related decision making.

This might not be a problem if state-run transportation departments took city goals into consideration but they don’t. In fact, most probably don’t even take into account their own goals. Broadly speaking, when it comes to the streets state transportation departments are behemoths that continue to operate an outdated model that seeks to increase capacity for cars and to keep them moving quickly.

Take the North Carolina Department of Transportation, for example. If we look at their current 10-year plan, there are about 400 projects that include widening of streets/roads as part of their scope of work. In total, these projects include billions of dollars in public funds that are taking property and transforming roads to carry more cars, which correlates to faster speeds because wider roads allow for easier speeding, especially during non-peak travel times.

This leads to the second issue about defining good urbanism. Good urbanism can depend upon the perspective of the user: some people love Vegas and others prefer Venice. But when we look at the guiding principles of “good urbanism” in any city, what you’ll find is that a city will likely define what is the preferred type of development as identified in a comprehensive plan or vision statement.

My community of Asheville, NC promotes in their vision statement “pedestrian-oriented development for all ages and abilities, harmonized with an integrated transportation system.” They don’t mention urbanism but this is it. Walkability is a necessity for urban form because it’s a proxy for patterns of development that have buildings spaced close together to encourage interaction, ease of business and communication, and sociability. So in the case of Asheville, “good urbanism” is walkable urbanism that we can call New Urbanism, which is defined by the Congress for the New Urbanism as a “planning and development approach based on the principles of how cities and towns had been built for the last several centuries: walkable blocks and streets, housing and shopping in close proximity, and accessible public spaces. In other words: New Urbanism focuses on human-scaled urban design.” So let’s assume that “good urbanism” means walkable, human-scaled urbanism.

We get to the third question, does urban planning have any capacity to shift the trajectory of a city toward the goal of good urbanism? If walkable, human-scaled urban design is the goal, then the outcome will only be successful to the extent that the city has purview over the 25% of the city land area that forms the transportation system. Land-use planning can require development to include sidewalks and mixed-use development but if the roads prioritize cars and higher speeds, walkable urbanism fails.

This may not be news for those who work in the field, although a lot of planning departments still fail to integrate transportation into their work’s focus. In cases where cities have little control over the roads, there’s a disincentive to focus on them. The result is that the state-run transportation agencies’ operations act as THE planning driver for how cities will evolve over time. The result is more driving, more cars, roads that are less safe, and cities further from a walkable future.

The only way to get to walkable urbanism is to first understand this dysfunctional system.

Endnotes

    1. I suppose we could just call “current planning” something like “permit application review” but it does involve a significant amount of land-use, zoning, and planning knowledge, which is why it’s generally linked with urban planning departments.
    2. Here is a case of a state agency not following its own goals: The North Carolina DOT’s first goal (link to NCDOT goals) is to “Make Transportation Safer”, yet most of the organization’s funding for streets aims to better accommodate the movement of automobiles.

 

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash