Most American cities are broken into districts, wards, neighborhoods or some other means of definition. For example, since 1974, Atlanta’s two hundred and forty-two neighborhoods have been organized into twenty-five Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs) that allow residents to meet monthly to review planning, zoning, code enforcement and other issues that affect their NPU. All of the neighborhoods in each NPU are adjacent so they share similar concerns. It’s an efficient way for the local government agencies to communicate with the citizen advisory councils that lead the NPUs.
A small town may function like one of Atlanta’s NPUs. If you’re in a large city, there’s probably a similar system. Many neighborhoods also have their own governance – whether formal (through covenants) or informal.
Most people have a reason to get involved in urban planning – there’s a project they support or oppose. If you’re intersted in getting involved in urban planning, please try to work through an existing group in your neighborhood or area. The contacts in that groups can typically make it much easier for you to get up to speed on rules, regulations, terminology, process, contacts, etc. If you can’t find a group, you may have to start your own.
Future Land Use
Most municipalities have a future land use map like the image shown on this web page. It’s how the government makes and communicates long-term plans to change the density of an area and account for other issues like transportation. Communicating that long-term plan is important to property owners and developers – it let’s you know the vision for the area surrounding a property so you can make investments accordingly.
Tied to Transportation
Future land use is tied to transportation like roads, mass transit, airports and others because they control the flow of people. On a future land use map, you’ll often see a projected increase in density (more people and businesses) close to intersections or stops for roads, mass transit and airports. The Department of Transportation in your state or city probably has future plans for their transportation systems.
Continuity Through Education
It’s important to understand the future land use and transportation issues in your area by reviewing them regularly. Even if your neighborhood group gathers with other neighborhoods to get an update from your local representatives. Keeping an open line of communication and staying abreast of the issues is much easier than trying to find people who can get up to speed on land use, transportation and zoning when an issue arises – that’s one of the most significant challenges for neighborhoods.
If you’re having some trouble getting started, you have a couple of options. First, you can invite your local planning commissioner or appropriate government official to your community meeting to explain the technical issues. Second, you can invite an architect (or construction professional) to explain the technical issues. The government official has probably not actually permitted and built anything so you might get a more comprehensive and practical presentation from your architect.
It’s critical that your neighborhood has some sort of mechanism for keeping up with land use, zoning, transportation and other planning issues – a standing committee, report from your local representative, a member who attends meetings and reports to your group, etc. Politicians, developers and other areas can easily take advantage of poorly organized areas so you have to be vigilant. (Other areas could take advantage of your disorganized area by lobbying to direct more traffic through your area. They may also fight for resources that should be shared with your area.)
Don’t forget, density is not always a bad thing. As our communities continue to sprawl through inefficient land use, we add more transportation in the form of roads. More sprawl directly translates to increased costs for schools, hospitals, municipal services, etc.
Sprawl also tends to drive up the cost of real estate near city centers so the workers who support our local economy are forced to live further and further from their jobs. In this way, sprawl also directly translates to a decreased standard of living.