The way we use and plan the development of the space in which our communities exist is crucial to the creation of sustainable infrastructure and vibrant healthy communities. The planning process impacts how communities use their land, and how they grow and develop over time. All too often land use planning is carried out on an ad-hoc basis with development decisions being made in isolation from considerations of the long-term and consideration of the community landscape. This has led to urban forms that are pre-disposed to sprawl, car focused networks and separation of living, working and leisure spaces; the public realm deteriorates and opportunities for nature and social interaction decline.
Sustainable infrastructure demands planning that is efficient, helps support or create closer knit neighbourhoods and the sense of community with them, and preserves natural systems that existed on the land prior to human development.
Two methods, currently popular in North America, that have been used to support more sustainable planning decisions are ‘Smart Growth’ and ‘New Urbanism’. These two approaches are very similar. Both encourage the development of high density neighbourhoods with a diversity of land-use, housing types and integrated transport solutions.
The commonality between these two approaches, and those characteristics that mark sustainable planning processes are the development of neighbourhoods that are good places to live and where most of life’s requirements are provided within walking distance in a place that inspires those that live their and promotes community spirit. The aim is to develop a quality of life that promotes well being and lifts the human spirit.
This model arose out of the realization that sprawl-based models come with long term costs as infrastructure is allowed to decay in downtown cores and reconstructed at the edge of the growing region, and municipalities are faced with large maintenance bills for the road infrastructure. Such planning leads to long commutes and neighbourhoods that are not easily served by transit, while brownfields sit empty within older areas with established infrastructure already in place.
In general, smart growth aims to revitalize city centers by making them better places to live, supports the quality of life in established communities, and presents a model of new development based on mixed use, transit use, and pedestrian spaces. There are several principles that are found within smart growth planning processes:
Mixed Land Uses: A mix of commercial, business and retail uses reduces the need for people to travel. Mixed use areas can then be pedestrian friendly as space is not needed for cars. Public transit is easier to plan as passenger numbers remain stable throughout the day. The constant presence of people means an area is safer, encourages community life and increases the opportunities for business bringing more tax revenue and higher property price. As mixed use is still illegal or discouraged in many places there are many opportunities for development of such areas.
Compact Building Design: By increasing densities means the required population base for local business and transit success is provided. Compact building design also allows more open space to be preserved for recreation, storm-water mitigation and places for nature. These designs decrease ecological footprint as less energy is required for heating and cooling. It is also much cheaper to provide services to densely developed neighbourhoods.
A Range of Housing Opportunities and Choices: Sustainable communities are diverse, provide housing for such communities means providing a mixture of high density and lower density housing choices. This also helps to create a balance of green space and business districts. A variety of housing choices introduces other forms of neighbourhood diversity as well, including a mix of age groups and lifestyles.
Walkable Neighbourhoods: Walkability is created by mixing land uses, building compactly, and creating safe and inviting pedestrian corridors. In many ways this is a return to past patterns of development; before the mid 20th century most short trips were made on foot. This pattern of development carries many unexpected benefits; lower transportation costs, greater social interaction, improved health, and environmental benefits.
Foster Distinctive, Attractive Communities with a Strong Sense of Place: Defined neighbourhoods with a strong identity improve the sense of community and increase the desirability of a place. Natural and manmade features can be used to create the borders of such communities, and development should reflect the surrounding landscape. Local business and building styles are encouraged over generic “big box” development. Architectural innovation is to be encouraged. These communities are scaled to their surroundings to create a sense of “home”.
Preserve Open Space, Farmland, Natural Beauty and Critical Environmental Areas: Open spaces are important for both social and ecological functions. Preserving important habitats, community space, farm lands, wetlands, and other critical elements of the landscape, contribute to the character of a neighbourhood, the environmental integrity of the landscape and provide animal and plant habitat, combat air pollution, filter runoff, and control wind and noise.
Strengthen and Direct Development towards Existing Communities: Directing growth towards existing communities and downtowns preserves open space and maximises the value of existing infrastructure maximized. Developing within communities also improves quality of life within that community as goods and services are added. Service provision becomes more cost effective as density increases.
Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices: As congestion and gridlock becomes a larger and larger problem, there is a growing movement to get people out of their cars. A mix of automobile infrastructure, rapid transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian friendliness can greatly increase the efficiency of travel.
Encourage Community and Stakeholder Collaboration: As people spend more time in their community they will need to have more input in to the decisions that develop their community. Participation in the ongoing planning processes that all communities undertake will increase support for smart growth.
Historic preservation: The past in creating a sense of place. Preserving historical sites helps to maintain identity, provides a sense of pride about the factors that created the community. Historical structures can be incorporated into new development and serve new purposes. Historical preservation can focus on buildings of artistic merit, archetypes of a design style, scenes of important historical events, and the past processes that helped create the communities identity.
New Urbanism shares many characteristics with Smart Growth, the focus is on walkability and people rather than car centred planning and development. The principles of New Urbanism are:
Walkability: A neighbourhood should have most things required for living in it within a 10 minute walk. The streetscape should reflect this by being pedestrian friendly in design and free of cars as much as possible.
Connectivity: An interconnected street network disperses traffic and eases walking. A hierarchy of narrow streets, boulevards and alleys also increases the pleasure of walking.
Mixed-use and diversity: Within buildings, between blocks and within neighbourhoods helps the delivery of the walkability of the neighbourhood. Diverse neighbourhoods make a vibrant community more likely and will support more business activity.
Mixed housing: A range of types, sizes and prices increases social diversity.
Quality architecture and urban design: Community pride and a sense of place is enhanced if the living environment is attractive and comfortable. Human scale architecture & beautiful surroundings nourish the human spirit.
Traditional neighbourhood structure: This means having an edge, public space at the centre, a public realm that is high quality in appearance and is designed as civic art. The neighbourhood should also have a transect that moves from dense in the centre to less dense at the edge, including the consideration of natural habitat into the urban area.
Increased Density: Having people and services close together increases liveability and walkability in the neighbourhood.
Smart Transportation: A network of high quality mass transit options connecting towns and neighbourhoods. This in combination with local networks that encourage a greater use of bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and walking as daily transportation.
Sustainability: Minimal environmental impact and respect for the value of natural systems.
Quality of Life: The creation of places that enrich, uplift and inspire the human spirit.
Go to the Resources page.
Go to the Case Studies for land use.