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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

The importance of regional planning that matters

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 12, 2011

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  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 US 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.

Those are excellent planning and growth management principles.  And sometimes these plans cover a lot of ground, quite literally:  participants work on the Dallas-Ft Worth regional plan (by: APA)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.

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

An important benefit of the regional plan is that it provides for the maintenance of a greenbelt comprising 1.8 million acres of rural and conservation land.  It is forecast that regional growth under the plan will require only one-third as much new land for development between 2006 and 2031 as the trend prior to the plan’s adoption.  But what really sets the plan apart is that it has the full force and effect of law, thanks to Ontario’s Places to Grow Act of 2005.  That law requires that local planning decisions, including zoning, conform to the policies in the regional plan.  If there is a discrepancy, the provincial government has the authority to amend municipal decisions. 

In the US, an important opportunity to develop plans that matter has been presented in California by that state’s landmark planning law, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (more commonly called SB 375).  chart of GHG sources in California (via Loma Prieta Sierra Club)That law requires the adoption of land use and transportation investment strategies that reduce greenhouse gas pollution by amounts assigned by the state’s Air Resources Board.  The ARB must approve the strategies, and implementing municipalities are required to conform; some smart growth projects that conform to approved plans will receive the benefit of streamlined approvals.

NRDC is working with California partners to ensure that the law’s implementation fulfills its promise to use smart growth and efficient transportation to reduce carbon emissions.  Significantly, several of the state’s major Metropolitan Planning Organizations – which have responsibility for the law’s implementation – have adopted strong 15-percent-by-2035 greenhouse gas reduction targets, which will deliver significant benefits of better transit, reduced consumption of farms, ranches and other rural land by suburban sprawl, improved air quality and public health, and reduced household transportation costs.  (Those targets represent a major improvement from what was originally proposed, which would have increased heat-trapping emissions.)

Our staff will monitor and advise the Air Resources Board on the regional SB 375 implementation process, with a special emphasis on Southern California, where we are serving on the regional metropolitan planning organization’s stakeholder committee.  map of land use plan for SacramentoWe will also work with our partners to align discretionary state infrastructure funding – including support for public transportation – with  the goals of SB 375 and the resulting regional Sustainable Communities Strategies.

NRDC is investing in the California law in part because we believe that, if we can achieve smart-growth planning success in California with great enforceable regional plans, it can set a precedent for other states and regions across the nation to emulate.  Indeed, in his signing speech, Governor Schwarzenegger explicitly called SB 375 a model for national action.  The framework has already been replicated at least once with passage in 2009 of Oregon’s HB 2001, which directs that state to provide greenhouse gas reduction targets to metropolitan areas (though implementation has been weak).

This highly technical work, requiring the balancing of multiple considerations, won't be easy.  But that's a good challenge to have, partly because in the case of SB 375 all concerned know that the plans developed under the law will matter.  If they didn't matter, why would we bother? 

This is the third in a series of posts introducing NRDC’s agenda for sustainable communities.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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Debbe CrandallAug 13 2011 01:45 PM

As someone who has been a land use planning advocate in Ontario and specifically within the "Greenbelt" since the early 1990s, it is heartening when people from outside one's immediate community pay tribute. A more nuanced look at Ontario's Greenbelt (which unfortunately is not apparent from the map) would show that there are two major landforms within the Greenbelt that together form the backbone of southern Ontario's natural heritage system - the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine. In fact the Greenbelt Act knits together three distinct socio-ecological landscapes - the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine and 400,000 hectares of protected countryside. The Greenbelt Plan (2005) was inspired by the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (2002) which in turn was inspired by the Niagara Escarpment Plan (1985). So not only is there a kick-ass growth management framework, i.e., Places to Grow, in place there is also a world class ecosystem based planning framework with an objective to improve ecological and hydrological integrity, to improve biodiversity of s. Ontario, to define and grow a natural heritage system and to make agriculture sustainable - all within two hours of Canada's largest city. Now that's what i call innovative.

Jim NoonanAug 13 2011 08:28 PM

Excellent article. Just two minor points.

The Valleys Plan honored in Baltimore County is a privately (non-profit) sponsored plan done in the 1960's. Though valuable and still referred to, it is not a regional plan in the sense that it combines policies in multiple jurisdictions.
Envision Lancaster on the other hand is a true regional effort. Given the multiplicity of boroughs and townships with planning authority in Pennsylvania, it is a true effort at coordinating planning in multiple jurisdictions. It illustrates an important point, which is that regionsl should not always be interpreted as encompasing a huge geography as i Toronto.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 14 2011 04:01 PM

Debbie, thanks so much for that additional perspective. I had the honor of participating in a conference on the Niagara Escarpment back in, I think, 2003. Very impressive ecosystem. I wasn't familiar with the Oak Ridges work until now. You provide an excellent indication of how multiple planning and conservation efforts can work together.

Jim, useful perspective from you, too, as always. It's impressive that the Baltimore County Valleys plan was conceived that long ago and yet still contributes to the region's sustainability framework. I agree also with your observation that "regional" planning can itself comprise a number of multi-jurisdictional scales.

CameronAug 14 2011 06:51 PM

It is good to see emphasis on the (deceptively) simple point that future development should be concentrated in areas where growth has already occurred. It seems that this principle should be emphasized just as much as density and mixed use. One modeling study found "densification of urban zones [is] more than twice as effective in reducing VMT" than adding density in suburban areas (Stone et al., JAPA 74(4): 416 (2007)).

Michael LewynAug 15 2011 03:27 PM

If you want a more realistic perspective on Places to Grow, read "Shaping the Suburbs" by John Sewell (a former mayor of Toronto). He asserts that the 40% target is pretty much a "business as usual" result and that the plan also includes sprawl-inducing highway expansions.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 15 2011 05:42 PM

Anyone who thinks Places to Grow is a poor plan is very spoiled and completely unfamiliar with the mostly irrelevant regional planning in the US. By comparison to planning in the US, I stand by my claim that it is outstanding.

I'll grant that implementation is difficult and uneven, but that's a different matter. It is much better to be debating whether a plan's density targets and conservation objectives are being met in a timely manner than whether those targets and objectives should exist.

Could implementation be better? Undoubtedly. Could the plan itself be better? Probably. Is it realistic to expect it to be? A little; I suspect it will get even better over time. In that context, we can discuss which of our views is actually "more realistic" at another time.

G.W.Aug 17 2011 08:30 PM

I'm curious, Kaid, why you say that the implementation of HB 2001 in Oregon has been "weak", while you make no such comment about the implementation of SB 375 in California, which has been around longer... what, in your view, accounts for the weakness of implementation in Oregon?

Also, you say that SB 375 caused regions to adopt "strong 15-percent-by-2035 greenhouse gas reduction targets, which will deliver significant benefits of better transit, reduced consumption of farms, ranches and other rural land by suburban sprawl, improved air quality and public health, and reduced household transportation costs." These targets actually represent, in many cases, the level of performance that would already have been achieved by the regional plans that were in the works when the 15% targets were adopted. So, what is it that makes them strong? Finally, you say "Those targets represent a major improvement from what was originally proposed, which would have increased heat-trapping emissions." Indeed, it is possible that total "heat-trapping emissions" could still go up, as the 15% reduction target is per-capita. So, large population increases could still cause absolute emissions to rise, even as emissions per capita decrease by 15%. Oops!

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