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Section 13. Enhancing the Built Environment through Design

Learn how to use zoning and city codes to improve neighborhoods.

 

  • What are zoning and neighborhood design, and how do they work together?

  • Why use zoning and neighborhood design to influence the physical structure of your community?

  • When should you use zoning and neighborhood design?

  • Who should use zoning and neighborhood design?

  • How do you implement zoning and neighborhood design?

Suppose you were designing a new town or city. How would you want people to feel about living there? What would the buildings and spaces have to look like and how should they be laid out in order to make the community as livable as possible? What concerns could you address through the physical structure of the community and the way it was organized? And how would you make sure that your design continued on into the future, and was flexible enough to meet needs that might now be unimaginable?

Or what if you were looking at your own neighborhood or small town? What changes would make it more pleasant and livable? What relatively simple and inexpensive steps could you take to improve residents’ quality of life? How would you approach more complicated possibilities, such as cleaning up a polluted industrial site or encouraging commercial development? And what would you have to do to make any of this legally permissible?

We have previously explored how laws and regulations can be used to shape the physical environment of the community. In this section, we’ll discuss how a specific set of regulations – zoning codes – can be used to shape both the physical and social character of neighborhoods and communities.

What are zoning and neighborhood design, and how do they work together?

Zoning and neighborhood design – and some hard work – can turn into a neighborhood plan that influences how residents use and live in their neighborhood. Let’s look at each in turn, and then examine briefly what happens when you put them together.  We’ll look at their interaction more closely in the “How to...” part of the section as well.

Zoning

Zoning is a set of community laws and regulations that divides a community into various zones, and specifies what kinds of building, development, and economic activity can take place in each zone. Nearly every incorporated community has its own zoning code, although all of them have to adhere to state laws that concern zoning. (Communities that don’t devise zoning codes generally  In general, when a town or city makes a change in its zoning code, the change has to be approved by the state Attorney General, to make sure that it follows the state constitution and state laws.

Most states, for instance, have laws against “snob zoning,” the practice of requiring lots or houses so big that only the affluent could possibly afford them.  A town, therefore, can’t simply decide that all lots have to be four acres.  An exception (although probably not for lots quite that big) might have to do with physical or environmental health concerns – septic drainage, the protection of an important watershed, or a guard against a source of pollution.

Zoning codes can be simple or complex.  In general, the major types of zones they describe include:

  • Residential. These may be further divided into single- and/or two-family and multi-family, and by lot size.
  • Commercial. Merchants, services, entertainment, restaurants, lodging.
  • Industrial. Industrial zoning usually distinguishes between light industry, heavy industry, and warehouse and storage.

In some communities, particularly traditional mill towns in various parts of the U.S., you often see housing that was built expressly for workers right next to, or just down the road from, an industrial plant.  In some cases, the mill might be in the middle of town, right in the midst of a residential district.  If the industrial operation is clean and relatively quiet, this may be a good use of neighborhood space, allowing people to walk to work, and even to go home for lunch.

  • Office.
  • Civic. These are buildings that provide various kinds of public services, including public and private schools and colleges, hospitals, museums, concert halls, community centers, libraries, and government buildings.
  • Open space. Parks and playgrounds, athletic fields, plazas, and wilderness or natural areas (often wetlands or water frontage, or prominent natural features). Open space zoning may also preserve land that’s traditionally been kept open, or provide a buffer (i.e., a protective barrier) between industrial or transportation zones and residential areas.

Forest Park, within the city limits of Portland, Oregon, preserves over 5,000 acres of wooded hills.

  • Transportation. Roads, railroad and trolley tracks, airports, railroad stations, etc.

In some communities, hospitals and other medical facilities may have separate zones as well.

  • Various mixed-use zones are possible and common. Neighborhood zoning may be quite specific, changing from block to block. Some communities may insert mixed-use zones between, say, residential and commercial areas, thereby providing a smooth, gradual transition from one to the other. We’ll discuss mixed-use zones later in the section.

In addition to controlling the kinds of activity that can take place in a given zone, zoning codes can also regulate a number of other factors:

The fact that codes can regulate these factors doesn’t mean that they do. Many towns have only minimal zoning (or none at all), and regulate very little other than the uses permitted in a particular zone. Others regulate all of the elements below, and others besides.

State laws also come into the picture. In Massachusetts, for instance, zoning codes can’t regulate the design of someone’s house, or what color it’s painted. In some other states, they may be able to.

It’s important to note that most zoning regulations have to have a purpose related to the public good. A community can’t simply tell someone that he can’t use his property to his economic advantage because it wants to limit development, for instance, unless the property is zoned to prevent whatever it is the owner wants to do. If zoning limits the owner’s property rights too much, that is legally the same as taking his property without paying for it. A court could throw out the particular zoning ordinance, and might award damages to the property owner as well.

(The community or state can take private property for a public purpose, such as a highway – that’s called eminent domain – but must pay fair market value for it.)

  • Density. The number of square feet of building area allowed per acre. This includes not only the amount of ground the building covers, but the total square footage of its floor area.  If a building is three stories high, and each floor covers 2,000 square feet, the building area is 6,000 square feet.
  • Building height. A whole community or a particular area may disallow buildings above a certain height, either for practical reasons (e.g., earthquake potential), to preserve a unique built environment (an area known for a particular architectural style), or to protect property values (to preserve views from other buildings).
  • Lot size
  • Setbacks. A building’s distance from the street or sidewalk and/or from the edge of the lot. Zoning may dictate either minimum or maximum setbacks, or both.
  • Space between buildings. Zoning may prescribe minimums, maximums, or both.

A special case of zoning is that of a historic district. This is an area of a community with specific historic connections and/or historic value – usually architectural, but sometimes stemming from a direct connection to an important figure, event, or period. In historic districts, there are specific regulations about building styles, additions or renovations to existing structures, and other factors that could change its character. These districts are usually overseen by a citizen board or commission that must pass on any new project, and may change or reject any that threaten the district’s integrity.

  • Variances – permission to ignore some zoning rules for a particular project – are sometimes granted, based on a number of factors. One is usually whether the project is of benefit to the community. Thus, a development that will ultimately provide a number of jobs for local workers may be granted a density variance to allow larger buildings, or one that will allow it to build mixed-use buildings in a residential zone.

In some cases, variances may be offered to developers without their asking in exchange for a community service or benefit – building a certain number of affordable housing units, for example, or cleaning up a polluted site. Such variances might be written right into zoning regulations: the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse Solution Database has numerous examples.

  • Neighborhood design. Neighborhood design looks at neighborhoods as the basic units of a community, and considers the design of each neighborhood as a whole. It’s not about designing buildings, although what the neighborhood looks like may be an important part of it; it’s about designing a neighborhood that allows and encourages such qualities as diversity, interaction, easy access to services and amenities, less automobile use, a pleasant and low-stress environment, safety and security, and a high quality of life, regardless of residents’ income.

Most of the material that follows looks at neighborhood design as tied into zoning and working with planners and others to make neighborhood changes that involve government in some way. It should be noted that not all changes in design are necessarily so sweeping. Planting flowers on a median strip can be undertaken by a group of resident volunteers, for instance. Plantings or flower boxes on a town sidewalk may be funded and installed by one or more local businesses or the Chamber of Commerce. Empty lots can be cleaned up and turned into pleasant pocket parks or other community assets by the work of residents who live near them. In other words, government doesn’t have to be directly involved to create positive changes in the neighborhood.

Neighborhood design

Neighborhood design looks at neighborhoods as the basic units of a community, and considers the design of each neighborhood as a whole.  It’s not about designing buildings, although what the neighborhood looks like may be an important part of it; it’s about designing a neighborhood that allows and encourages such qualities as diversity, interaction, easy access to services and amenities, less automobile use, a pleasant and low-stress environment, safety and security, and a high quality of life, regardless of residents’ income.

Most of the material that follows looks at neighborhood design as tied into zoning and working with planners and others to make neighborhood changes that involve government in some way.  It should be noted that not all changes in design are necessarily so sweeping. Planting flowers on a median strip can be undertaken by a group of resident volunteers, for instance. Plantings or flower boxes on a town sidewalk may be funded and installed by one or more local businesses or the Chamber of Commerce. Empty lots can be cleaned up and turned into pleasant pocket parks or other community assets by the work of residents who live near them. In other words, government doesn’t have to be directly involved to create  positive changes in the neighborhood.
 
A neighborhood can be defined by its geography, its ethnic or racial makeup, its architectural style, its history, its function (multi-family housing, for instance), its political status (precinct, school district), its gathering places (pubs, social clubs), its transportation hubs, or its designation by civic authorities.  In addition to its residential component, a neighborhood is made up of the landmarks, historic buildings and monuments, parks, stores and services, municipal or other government offices, transportation features (roads, railroad tracks, bus and subway stops, etc.), and industry contained within its boundaries. All of these elements have to be considered when you address neighborhood design.

Here are only a few of the long list of issues that neighborhood design might encompass:

  • The layout of streets and other transportation arteries. The street layout can encourage or discourage walking or vehicle traffic.

In Barcelona, Spain, boulevards with many lanes of traffic in each direction carry cars across the city, leaving the residential neighborhoods surrounding them relatively car-free.  The famous Avinguda Diagonal (Diagonal Avenue), for example, cuts diagonally through the street grid, allowing easy vehicle access to the far corners of Barcelona, while channeling traffic away from quieter neighborhoods.

  • Parking. Offstreet parking can keep pedestrian-friendly streets clear of driveways, and allow room for onstreet parking for deliveries, visitors, etc.
  • The density of buildings and square footage.  Building densely in central urban areas and areas that are already built up can help to control the sprawl that eats open land around so many American and European cities and suburbs.
  • The position of buildings within their immediate surroundings
  • The architecture of buildings in relation to other buildings in the area and to the history and character of the neighborhood
  • The design and placement of plantings, lawns, and other spaces around buildings
  • The location of both individual merchants and commercial areas
  • The location of government and other civic buildings, including libraries, schools, cultural attractions (theaters, museums), and community centers
  • The placement and use of open space (not only parks, but protected green space, plazas and squares, and empty lots)
  • The location and buffering of necessary facilities

A large wastewater treatment plant in New York City has a public park – grass and all – on its roof

  • The ease and safety of walking, biking, rollerblading, and other human-powered transportation
  • Safety and security in general

New Urbanism

We can’t really discuss neighborhood design without referring to the New Urbanism movement in planning. Growing out of a reaction to uncontrolled growth and sprawl (the tendency for suburban communities to expand outward on large lots, rather than filling in spaces in already-built-up areas and expanding upward in higher rise buildings), New Urbanism in fact looks back to the old urbanism, the way communities functioned in the days before the automobile changed the developed world.

New Urbanists seek to reinstate the neighborhood as the fundamental unit of a community where most things residents need are in walking distance of their homes, or easily accessible by comfortable and efficient public transportation. Open space – both within and outside of cities and suburbs – is preserved by increasing density in already built-up areas, thus avoiding sprawl and the strip development that plagues once-scenic roads and small towns all over America.

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) was founded by a group of architects and planners in 1993, and is the perhaps the leading organization of the movement. In the preamble to its charter, CNU sets out the basic principles of New Urbanist thought:

The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society's built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.

We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy...

We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

CNU also maintains that Rebuilding neighborhoods, cities, and regions is profoundly interdisciplinary. We believe that community, economics, environment, and design need to be addressed simultaneously through urban design and planning.

Because New Urbanist ideas have been tremendously influential in actual planning over the past several years, much of the material on neighborhood design and neighborhood planning that follows is either based on New Urbanism principles or on the CNU or Newurbanism websites.

Neighborhood design refers not only to the design of buildings, but to the design of the neighborhood as a whole. The layout of the neighborhood, for instance, influences how residents live in it.  If there are many local businesses and food markets, and if the neighborhood is pedestrian- and bike-friendly (sidewalks, bike lanes, trees for shade and windbreaks, etc.), more people will walk or bike to errands and appointments, and there will be less vehicle traffic.  More people on the street – encouraged not only by ease of shopping and walking, but by good street lighting, long views, many doors and windows on the street, businesses open all day and through the evening – also makes for a much safer neighborhood and for more human interaction.

Many of these neighborhood design factors are particularly relevant in the suburban environment that fully half of Americans now inhabit. The frequent adoption by suburbs of single-use zoning – where each zone has one, and only one, permissible use – invites the growth of bedroom-community housing developments and outlying malls and shopping centers. It separates commerce and industry from living areas, and means that residents live far from where they work, shop, go to school, and find recreation. This separation increases automobile use and encourages sprawl.  All of which leads us to...

The interaction of zoning and neighborhood design

Here is where zoning and neighborhood design come together. The type of zoning a community adopts can greatly shape the design of neighborhoods subject to that zoning. Single-use zoning, as we’ve pointed out, can lead to sprawl. Other types of zoning can influence community design in other ways. Zoning for shallow setbacks, for instance, can affect the look and feel of a streetscape (the “room” created by a street, its sidewalks, trees, plantings, lampposts, parking, etc., and the walls formed by the buildings on both sides). Allowing greater density and/or mixed zoning in residential and commercial areas can help to eliminate car traffic in those areas.

Zoning can be flexible, depending on the nature of the development or neighborhood improvement involved, or it can provide incentives for certain types of activity (building affordable housing, for instance). As we’ve mentioned, we’ll explore the role of zoning in neighborhood design further in the “How to...” part of the section.

Why use zoning and neighborhood design to influence the physical structure of your community?

  • They can guide public spending toward the appropriate places by putting money into projects and improvements most needed and wanted by neighborhood residents. As we’ll see when we address neighborhood planning, good neighborhood design arises from the vision of those who actually live in the neighborhood in question.  Using zoning and neighborhood design to help realize that vision increases the chances that the changes involved will actually make a positive difference in residents’ lives.
  • They can foster economic and racial/ethnic diversity. By encouraging the building of affordable housing and/or the renovation of subsidized housing in a mixed-income format (i.e., with housing of different kinds and varying prices intermixed), neighborhood design and zoning can help make or keep a neighborhood diverse, creating a richer experience for all residents.
  • They can foster social interaction and mixing among neighbors, and among neighborhood residents from diverse backgrounds, leading to more community involvement and more effective problem solving. Neighborhood design that places shopping and services within walking distance, and zoning that provides incentives for a wide range of housing bring neighbors into daily contact. At the market, at neighborhood events, at the neighborhood school, and simply walking from one place to another, people meet, exchange greetings, and ultimately get to know one another. This can produce not only good relations and a pleasant atmosphere, but more discussion about community needs and goals, and community action to address them.
  • They can make the chores of daily life easier and more convenient. A neighborhood where people can walk to shopping and services, and where kids can safely and easily walk or bike to school by themselves means that residents spend less time traveling and more actually doing what they need to do. The result is that they also have more time to do other things, and that the chores themselves are made more pleasant by the interactions residents experience in the course of them.
  • They can provide health benefits from walking and biking. More walking and biking in a neighborhood that’s designed to be bike- and pedestrian-friendly leads to better heart health and to residents feeling better.  It also means less automobile pollution, leading to fewer respiratory problems and bad-air days.
  • They can create ease of travel and independence for everyone. Neighborhoods with services and shopping within walking and biking distance and with efficient public transportation afford freedom to those who don’t or can’t drive – the elderly, children, and those who lack the resources to own a vehicle. This results in access for everyone to cultural, educational, medical, recreational, and other facilities.
  • They can provide easy access to jobs. Mixed residential/commercial/ industrial zoning, where appropriate (clean and relatively quiet) industry, producing no threats to health can make it possible for residents to walk to work, saving them and their employers time, money, and stress, and eliminating some of the need for employee parking. For low-income residents, the opportunity to work within walking distance of home may make employment possible
  • They can afford residents savings on transportation. With the ability to walk or bike to work, school, and shopping, neighborhood residents can save large amounts on gas costs and on car service and repair.  Some may decide they don’t need cars at all.
  • They can produce environmental benefits. Less traffic results in cleaner air and less noise pollution, not only for the neighborhood, but for the whole community.  More density in the urban core can mean more open space outside it.  Green buildings conserve energy, as do native plantings.
  • They can foster development that’s energy efficient and environmentally responsible. Zoning can provide incentives or regulations – or both – that encourage energy and water conservation, preservation of (or creation of) open space, the cleanup of polluted sites, connections to public transportation, and adherence to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards from the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • They can lead to more profit for developers, and more reasons for them to invest in affordable housing. Increased density is good for developers, since they can build more units on a given lot.  Because urban land is generally extremely expensive, even a few extra units can make a huge difference. Trading density bonuses for affordable housing is one way to encourage developers to build it, but even expediting permits may be enough to do so, given the opportunity for profit in a high-density area.

Many environmentalists and fair-housing advocates are accustomed to thinking of developers as the enemy, but they can, in fact, be allies in the effort to create livable, resident-centered communities.  Some want to do the right thing, as long as they can make some profit – everyone has to live, after all, and very few of us can afford to work for nothing.  Even those developers who aren’t particularly concerned about anything but their bottom line can be convinced – through incentives and regulations, as well as other arrangements – that building affordable housing, or creating a green development is in their self-interest.   If you start with the assumption that your goals and the developer’s can be compatible, you might be surprised at what you can accomplish together.

  • They can create a better commercial environment. When merchants and service providers are local, and can get to know their customers personally – and vice-versa – loyalty develops in both directions.  People shop locally not only because it’s convenient, but because they get personal service and the satisfaction of supporting their friends.  Residents are more likely to get the products and services they want (smart business people give customers what they ask for), and neighborhood business people get a steady flow of business.
  • They can make for a physically and aesthetically more pleasant neighborhood. Tree-lined streets, less traffic, long views, striking architectural features, open space to compensate for density – all of these and a number of other elements that can be produced by design and zoning can make a neighborhood a more pleasant place to live.
  • They can foster safer and more secure neighborhoods. Less traffic means fewer vehicle accidents and fewer risks for pedestrians and bicyclers. More people on the street at all hours means less opportunity for violence and street crime, as does more familiarity with neighbors, better lighting, and more windows on the street.  Increased interaction can assure that elderly residents living alone are checked on daily.  All of these can be promoted through a combination of appropriate design and zoning.
  • They can enhance neighborhood quality of life. A friendlier neighborhood with more interaction, a healthier lifestyle, less traffic, more convenience, lower stress, a cleaner environment, ease of access, more aesthetically pleasing surroundings, safety and security – any of these, or any combination, can contribute to a better quality of life for neighborhood residents. The more of these elements that can be incorporated into neighborhood design, the higher the quality of life residents are likely to experience, regardless of their income or status.

When should you use zoning and neighborhood design?

In many places in the Community Tool Box, the response to the “When...?” question is “All the time.” Here, the answer is a bit different, because, while it’s important to think about these issues all the time, many of the possibilities are limited by political and economic factors. Zoning codes are fully rewritten only occasionally, though they can be revised when necessary.

Neighborhood planning usually needs a spur to get it started. Some projects that would improve neighborhood design are simply not affordable. Advocacy is important here, but so is keeping your eyes open for a chance to raise the subject and start the process.

One way to handle the time question is for neighborhood residents to institute an ongoing participatory planning process, or to appoint a standing neighborhood committee to consider change possibilities.  Since either of these would operate continually, conducting regular meetings and discussions, the neighborhood would always be ready either to generate or to seize the opportunity for improvement.

The editor’s community, for instance, has a citizen-led zoning committee, independent of the Planning Board, that meets regularly to review and make recommendations on town zoning. The Planning Board itself also makes regular recommendations for zoning change. Furthermore, in his town’s system of government, it is possible for citizens to petition for zoning changes, which must then be acted upon by town government.  All of these mechanisms make it more likely that zoning changes that benefit neighborhoods and meet residents’ needs will be considered and enacted.

So the answer is still “All the time,” but that may mean having to work to get to the point where you can use the tools that zoning and neighborhood design provide. Given that, here are some times when using those tools is often possible.

When a zoning code is being developed or reworked

An active Planning Board reexamines zoning regularly, and even longtime zoning codes are revisited eventually, either as part of a larger municipal plan, or on their own. Usually, any new zoning involves community input, at least in the form of public hearings. In some communities, citizens are encouraged to be involved throughout the process.

Whatever the procedure, this is perhaps the best time to find out what residents want and need, raise issues of livability and other elements that might affect zoning, suggest alternatives, etc.  It’s important that everyone know what the alternatives are, and examine the possible effects of each before a code becomes law. Developing zoning can be contentious, but if residents and other interested parties – developers, businesses – go into it with the idea that a code can be written that ultimately benefits everyone, the result can be neighborhoods that work.

A citizen zoning review committee like that described in the editor’s community can help neighborhood residents to be aware of, understand, and influence zoning code revisions that affect them.

When a community strategic planning or neighborhood planning process is in place

Communities, especially those that expect significant growth in the foreseeable future, often turn to a strategic planning or neighborhood planning process to try to control the effects of that growth.  Sometimes, the process can be a response to a mandate from a higher level of government (Seattle started its neighborhood planning process in response to the state of Washington’s Growth Management Act, for instance). In other cases, it may be a response to events (see the description of the Austin, Texas, Neighborhood Planning Process later in the section).  In either case, it’s an opportunity to engage in a discussion of neighborhood design and zoning that can lead to positive change.

When a major development that could change the character of the neighborhood is proposed

Generally, any kind of major development, whether residential, commercial, or industrial (or civic, for that matter), has to be approved through a process that involves public hearings, permits, the submission of various reports and applications, etc.  Whether the development has the potential for harm or benefit to the neighborhood (or both – not an unusual possibility), people are likely to have strong opinions about it.  This situation provides an excellent chance to raise issues of zoning and neighborhood design, and to help residents consider how the development could be turned to the neighborhood’s advantage.

Turning the development to the neighborhood’s advantage is the ideal.  Everyone – residents, the developer, the larger community – benefits, and conflict is minimized.  That ideal isn’t always possible, however, and the neighborhood may also have to be mobilized to preserve itself by resisting development, or demanding changes in the developer’s plan.  In either case, the issues of zoning and design are ripe for discussion.

When a community or neighborhood development effort is under way

Although the intent here may be largely economic, the results are likely to have a large impact on zoning and neighborhood design. It’s important that those issues be raised at the beginning of the effort, so that it can include well-thought-out plans for incentives to development, and for what the neighborhood will receive in return.

When a community or neighborhood appears to be in a downward spiral

When the future looks bleakest can be the best time to institute planning for change, since most people are willing to admit that the situation is unacceptable. When jobs have gone elsewhere, when housing has deteriorated and crime has become rampant, residents may be more than willing to reconsider the design of their neighborhoods, and to advocate for changes in zoning and other areas.

When a neighborhood is in the midst of or threatened by changes in population

The classic examples here are those of urban neighborhoods in which the racial composition is changing (people of color moving in, whites fleeing to the suburbs), or rural towns suddenly overwhelmed by the expansion of suburbia (housing values quickly skyrocketing out of reach of lifelong residents, new residents demanding services the town has never considered before).  If residents face the issue squarely, they can often – through careful design and zoning – maintain their neighborhood’s character while still absorbing a new population.

In the late 1950’s, the West Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia was a target of real estate blockbusting.  This is the unscrupulous real-estate-agent practice of frightening white homeowners with threats of African-Americans moving in and lowering property values, thus convincing the whites to sell cheaply to the agents.  The agents then sell at an inflated price to black homebuyers, thus turning the neighborhood from an exclusively white one to an African-American one, often nearly overnight.

Instead of engaging in panic selling, West Mount Airy residents banded together to resist real estate agents’ pitches, and to welcome the African-Americans who did buy homes in the neighborhood.  The result is that today, West Mount Airy is a fully integrated neighborhood, and one of the most desirable places to live in Philadelphia.  Its residents of all races continue to be active in community affairs, and to maintain the inclusiveness that preserved the neighborhood 50 years ago.

As the final edit of this section takes place (2008), economic contraction highlights a new set of problems, having to do with trying to maintain neighborhood quality of life with reduced resources. This too calls for neighborhood planning and design, keeping dollars closer to the forefront, but also with an eye toward involving more residents in planning for and helping to sustain their own neighborhoods into the future.

Who should use zoning and neighborhood design?

A well-run neighborhood design process should involve all the stakeholders in a participatory effort.  Many cities that have embarked on formal neighborhood planning efforts have used that model (we’ve mentioned Seattle and Austin, but others include Norfolk, Virginia, Syracuse, New York, and Atlanta, Georgia), for three main reasons:

  • It is a basic tenet of the New Urbanist philosophy on which much current neighborhood design and planning is based

  • It is the fairest and most respectful way to approach designing or redesigning a neighborhood

  • Most important, it is effective in creating neighborhoods that meet the needs of residents

A participatory neighborhood planning process produces plans that start with a shared neighborhood vision, receive input from all stakeholders, and are therefore owned by the whole neighborhood.  No one is left feeling the plan was imposed from outside, and everyone works to support the plan and implement it properly. Such a process doesn’t just happen, however – it requires leadership and commitment on the part of at least a core group of residents, and support from the neighborhood and/or the larger community as well.

Between 1980 and 1990, the city of Austin, Texas grew in population by more than a third, from about 345,000 to 465,000.  Projected growth for the next ten years was even higher (the actual 1990-2000 growth rate was about 41%, to over 650,000), based on the growth of high-tech industries and other economic factors, and on the general shift of the U.S. population toward the south and west of the country.  As a result, the city appointed a citizen review board to recommend a plan to manage that growth.

The result, in the mid-1990’s, was the Neighborhood Planning Process, originally conceived as part of the city’s Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan.  The city is divided into neighborhood planning areas, and the residents and other stakeholders of each neighborhood are asked to participate in designing their neighborhood’s future.  Austinites voice their ideas in surveys and in person, and those ideas are then turned over to neighborhood planning groups – one for each of several issues, such as land use, environment, and transportation – made up of neighborhood stakeholders.

Ultimately, the Neighborhood Planning staff uses the input from surveys and planning groups to craft a plan that often reflects the vision of a diverse collection of stakeholders.  Each plan is then turned into a Future Land Use zoning map, goals based on the neighborhood vision, and a set of specific recommendations, which are reviewed by the neighborhood and by City of Austin staff.  Finally – after revisions to the recommendations, after appropriate zoning amendments are suggested and approved, and the plan is deemed by everyone to be both workable and a reasonable reflection of the neighborhood’s vision – it is reviewed by the Planning Commission, which sends it to the City Council with a recommendation (usually for approval).  After a public hearing and possible further adjustment, it is approved by the City Council as an amendment to the Austin Tomorrow plan.

Several Austin neighborhoods are still engaged in the planning process. If needed, plans can be revised every five years.

Zoning is a legal tool and is usually encoded by the appropriate government or citizen body – often a Planning Board. Depending on local laws, it then has to be approved either by voters or by a governing body (or sometimes both) before it becomes law.  Thus, those who write and approve zoning codes must also, in some way, be part of the neighborhood design process, so that necessary zoning changes can be made as smoothly as possible.

In the case of Austin, the Neighborhood Planning Process staff serves as the neighborhoods’ connection to the city government, and provides information about what kinds of zoning changes, if any, are needed in each area in order to carry out the neighborhood plan.  Where zoning changes are necessary and deemed appropriate, they are accepted as part of the approved plan, so that plans can be implemented without further steps.  (There is also a mechanism for those who oppose zoning changes to their property to appeal and negotiate.)

An alternative to this kind of process would be one where the liaison to city government was provided by a citizen group.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches: a citizen group would better reflect the concerns of the neighborhood, and be more likely to try to find ways to address them.  The Neighborhood Planning Process staff have better access to officials and government bodies, know the existing regulations, and may carry more clout if they choose to argue in favor of neighborhood priorities.

Stakeholders who should be involved in neighborhood design efforts include:

  • Neighborhood residents.
  • Neighborhood business owners and professionals (i.e. those who make their living in the neighborhood, although they may not live there).
  • Industries with facilities in the neighborhood.
  • Those with financial interests in the neighborhood (landowners, developers with current plans).

It may seem a bad idea to include those whose only interest in the neighborhood is financial, but it is important for at least three reasons: they have legal rights in the area, as well as the right to be treated with the same respect as anyone else; they may have good ideas for neighborhood development that benefit residents as well as themselves; and if they’re part of the planning process, they won’t feel they’ve been unfairly treated, and will have no reason to try to hold up implementation of the plan once it’s finalized.

  • Neighborhood health and community service providers.
  • Civil servants – police, firefighters, etc.
  • Local government representatives and agencies that serve the neighborhood – city councilors, state representatives, municipal recreation agencies, public transportation, etc.
  • Cultural organizations with a venue or base in the neighborhood – museums, libraries, performing arts centers.
  • Educational institutions, both public and private.
  • Neighborhood houses of worship.

How do you implement zoning and neighborhood design?

Because it calls for a participatory effort, a good neighborhood design and zoning process takes time and organization.  If it’s done right, however, it can have positive effects for decades or longer.  So how do you do it right?  Each community and neighborhood is different, with different populations, different attitudes, different amounts of knowledge, different skills, different landscapes – the list could go on and on. The process should be one that’s appropriate for the neighborhood and for the situation in question.

That said, there are some general rules that we believe are helpful, as well as lots of actual efforts to use as models (many can be found on the Internet, and we’ll list several of those under “Resources”).  We’ll present a set of guidelines to follow here, but be aware that we don’t mean to imply that this is the only way to proceed.

In order to put some flesh on the bones of neighborhood design, we’ll use the Austin, Texas Neighborhood Planning Process for examples of how various steps can be implemented.  Austin’s is not necessarily the best process available, but it is coherent and participatory to a large extent, and is being used in a city that is experiencing rapid growth, transportation and education problems, and population changes – issues that are common among 21st Century American cities.

Your city may be entirely different – or may not be a city at all, but rather a small town or rural area.  Spread-out, low-rise, largely single-family Austin neighborhoods are very different from neighborhoods in New York or other older cities, where multi-family dwellings are the rule, rather than the exception.  If some of what you find in the Austin example makes sense, by all means use it; but remember that it’s just an example.

Create a neighborhood design plan

This is where the participatory neighborhood planning process comes into play. The first step in implementing neighborhood design and zoning is to create a plan that reflects a shared neighborhood vision and a way to realize it. And it will be even more effective in the long run if this participatory planning process is institutionalized, so that it doesn’t have to be recreated every time a planning issue surfaces.

Reach out and recruit stakeholders

To carry out a participatory planning process, it’s important to involve as many stakeholders as possible from the beginning, which means making them aware of the process and recruiting them to participate.  Many communities start with a community survey or meeting to solicit ideas about the neighborhood’s future. Outreach – to neighborhood residents (both homeowners and renters), businesses, property owners, organizations, and institutions – about such a survey or meeting can happen in a number of ways:

  • Direct mail to every address in the neighborhood
  • Mail or e-mail to a selected list
  • Announcements on a community website
  • Flyers and posters in appropriate places – supermarkets, laundromats, community bulletin boards, institutions, lampposts, neighborhood gathering places, etc.
  • Announcements through existing organizations, agencies, and institutions (Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood association, local hospital, welfare office, houses of worship, etc.)
  • Phone calls to a list of community leaders or contacts
  • Personal contact - this might include such strategies as enlisting neighborhood merchants and service providers (grocers, barbers and beauticians, bartenders, hardware store owners, restaurant owners, medical personnel, etc.) to recruit their customers
  • Press releases and press conferences
  • Notices in local newspapers and newsletters
  • Radio and TV spots
  • Announcements at neighborhood or community events
  • Notices sent home with kids from school

Solicit stakeholders’ ideas about the ideal future for the neighborhood

A neighborhood survey or public meeting, asking for both the answers to specific questions (“How important are neighborhood schools?”) and general comments and ideas, could produce a set of basic principles to serve as the base for future discussion.

In Austin, the Neighborhood Planning Process starts with a neighborhood survey, asking about neighborhood strengths and challenges, and about what aspects of the neighborhood are important to stakeholders, now and in the future.  The survey is followed up by a meeting to which all stakeholders – residents, businesses and industries, property owners, and neighborhood organizations and institutions – are invited to discuss the survey results and learn about the neighborhood planning process.

Hold a series of public meetings where stakeholders can discuss their initial ideas and develop a shared vision for the neighborhood

These meetings can serve a number of functions:

  • Laying the ground rules for discussion. This is important, since the mix of participants at these meetings is likely to produce disagreement and a number of different conceptions about what the neighborhood’s future should be.  If everyone can accept rules about listening carefully to everyone else’s point of view (which includes allowing others to speak uninterrupted), responding respectfully, focusing on ideas rather than personalities, and actively seeking common ground and mutually beneficial solutions, these meetings can be enormously productive.

There might also be discussion about factors to consider in the planning process, particularly the feasibility and affordability of recommendations; the need for diversity of participation in the process; the need for open and clear communication among participants; and the fact that neighborhood development is a shared responsibility, and implies a shared concern for the interests of all who live, work, and own property in the neighborhood.

  • Education of participants about important concepts of neighborhood design and planning, including principles of neighborhood design, environmental concerns and green building, various conceptions of “neighborhood,” zoning and how it works, and current neighborhood zoning.

Austin uses city staff to make initial contact and to present at an initial, all-community meeting a neighborhood profile including demographics, land use and zoning, transportation, etc.

  • Assessment of the neighborhood’s assets and challenges, and how they fit into a vision of the future.

Initial meetings (called “workshops”) in the Austin planning process use a PARK exercise, asking participants to identify those neighborhood elements they want to Preserve, Add, Remove, and Keep out in the future.

  • Drafting of a shared vision statement for the neighborhood, incorporating what they’ve learned about neighborhood design and zoning.  This statement should probably be fairly general, while stating clearly the neighborhood’s priorities.

After the initial meeting, the Austin process calls for “focus groups” – actually working groups that focus on a specific area or task.  One of these groups takes the information from the community and from city staff and develops a general vision statement and a set of goals designed to realize the vision described in the vision statement.  Here are examples of vision statements from two quite different neighborhoods:

Crestview/Wooten, several miles north of the city center, is a largely working and middle class, majority white (although with a growing Hispanic population, particularly in the Wooten district) neighborhood that includes some public housing and one large former industrial site, and that appears to be in the process of gentrification.  Its response to the neighborhood development process was enthusiastic (the initial meeting drew the largest number of people to attend any such meeting up to that point), and went fairly smoothly.Its vision:

  • Preserve the character of the neighborhood by encouraging owner-occupied single-family housing offering diversity, pride of ownership, and a sense of community. Promote small neighborhood-oriented businesses and services where appropriate.  Maintain and encourage accessible, quiet, clean, safe and pedestrian and bike friendly neighborhoods, with tree-lined streets and a park-like feel.
  • Govalle/Johnston Terrace, in East Austin, is a low-income to working class, overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, with a small but significant African-American population left from the days when the area was zoned for “colored housing.”  One of the legacies of that era is a large amount of industry in or near the neighborhood, including a power plant and a now-retired tank farm.  Like Crestview/Wooten, a majority of residents are homeowners, but there is far more commercial and industrial land in this neighborhood than in the other.  It took two tries four years apart and a fair amount of negotiation to get the neighborhood planning process off the ground in Govalle/Johnston Terrace because of disagreements among stakeholders as to who would take the lead in the process.  Ultimately, the process was successful, and produced this vision statement:
    • The Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood will be an affordable, family-oriented neighborhood with a strong sense of community and a place where people want and are able to live their entire life. The neighborhood will be pedestrian oriented with a well-balanced mix of residential and business uses, shops that serve neighborhood needs, and public spaces where the community comes together.  The neighborhood will protect and emphasize its natural environmental features, historic character and residential areas.  The neighborhood will be a safe, healthy, clean, well-maintained place, with unique cultural opportunities and quality schools.

Flesh out the vision statement with outcome goals

Once a vision statement has been developed and approved by stakeholders, it may make sense, rather than continuing to meet as one large group, to break up into working groups to examine and set goals for each of the concerns raised in the vision (land use, transportation, etc.)  These working groups are more likely to be efficient than a larger group, and also let people work on the topic they’re most interested in.

A vision statement is only the beginning of the neighborhood design process. The next step is to decide what outcomes would indicate that you’d realized your vision, and to put those outcomes in the form of goals to accomplish. For instance, if your vision statement, like both of those quoted above, calls for a bike- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, some goals might be to create or expand a network of bikepaths in (and perhaps also outside of) the neighborhood, build and maintain sidewalks on all streets, improve public transportation, etc.

Many of the transportation goals in the Crestview/Wooten neighborhood plan address bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets:

  • Increase alternatives to driving by improving routes and facilities, access for pedestrians, bicycles, and public transportation.
  • Preserve and improve routes for pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation.
  • Maintain a transportation network that allows all residents to travel safely throughout the neighborhood by improving safety on major corridors and preserving and enhancing neighborhood-friendly streets.
  • Provide safe accessible routes for residents of all mobility levels.
  • Encourage the use of major corridors by all traffic generated outside the neighborhood, and discourage that traffic from using interior streets.
  • Provide better connection between corridors to reduce neighborhood cut through traffic.

Generate concrete objectives tied to specific actions to achieve outcome goals

Each of your goals has to be considered in light of the reality of your neighborhood.  What would you have to do to create bike paths that served most areas of the neighborhood, for instance?  What parts of those paths already exist, and what parts would require construction, new traffic patterns, or other changes? Your objectives should be the specific, rather than general, outcomes you want to achieve.  They should be tied to recommended actions, the projects you actually want to carry out. These should be as specific as possible, with regard both to place (the northwest corner of Main and Johnson) and to action (install a curb cut to connect the street to the existing bike path through the park.)

Transportation objective #1 in the Crestview/Wooten plan reads: Improve pedestrian safety and general walkability in the Crestview-Wooten neighborhoods.  Recommended actions include adding sidewalks along a number of specific streets, repairing broken sidewalks on others, adding crosswalks in specific places, and generally improving the pedestrian climate with the addition of “landscaping and other amenities that make walking safe, desirable, and efficient.”

Some of the other transportation objectives concern bike-friendliness, public transportation, and traffic reduction, with specific recommended actions (installing bike racks in named locations and adding bike lanes to specific streets, for instance, or adding traffic controls at particular intersections) for each.

Prioritize the lists of goals, objectives, and recommendations

You have to acknowledge the probability that not everything you plan for will be possible – at least not right away, and perhaps not ever. For reasons of cost, demographics, state law, municipal comprehensive plans, or just plain politics, some of your ideas may simply not be feasible.

You should be clear, therefore, on what’s really important to the neighborhood, and what you can live without. You’ll almost undoubtedly have to do some negotiating with civic authorities, whether it’s a small-town public works department or a number of big-city boards and commissions, in order to get approval for the recommendations you’ve made. Knowing which of them you’re willing to give up and which you’ll fight strongly for will make those negotiations much easier.

It can also make the process easier if you confer with adjacent neighborhood groups, especially if you’re part of a city-wide planning effort. If there’s a shared concern among a number of neighborhoods (an interconnecting, car-free bike path, for example), the city is more likely to pay attention.

By the same token, it may simply make sense for neighborhoods to coordinate plans, so that various concerns and land use options can be discussed and shared.  A commercial/residential mixed-use area might be located where it overlaps two neighborhoods, for instance, so that each might take advantage of the convenience and streetscape improvements it will bring.

Where possible, you might want to confer throughout the planning process with the appropriate community departments or boards, so that you’ll know what they have planned, and what they consider possible.  In Austin, the Neighborhood Planning staff either consults with city officials or brings them into community work groups to discuss issues and recommendations.  All recommendations are reviewed by the appropriate departments.  If they’re rejected, that’s known immediately to the planning group, and the reasons for the rejection are explained and included in the appendix to the final plan.

Identify and implement zoning changes necessary to realize the plan’s goals and objectives

Identify the necessary zoning changes

This may be a large or a small job, depending on the differences between the planned and current land use in the neighborhood. In some cases, almost every lot in a neighborhood may have to be rezoned; in others there will need to be very little change in zoning.

Zoning changes start with current zoning. Each lot or section of the neighborhood is zoned for a particular use (or uses, through mixed-use zoning). Any community that has a zoning code has a land-use map to go with it that shows the zoning of all the land in town covered by the code.  A small rural town may be divided into only two or three zones (residential/agricultural and residential/commercial, for instance). The zoning map of a city neighborhood may have ten or fifteen different zoning categories (each usually identified by a different color, explained in a map insert), and depicts every lot in the neighborhood.

Zoning may be single-use or mixed-use.  Single-use zoning may be further broken down into even smaller categories (lot size, building height, number of units, etc.) There may be many options for neighborhood zoning, and they may sometimes be confusing. This is clearly a time when conferring with city departments and boards can be helpful.

In general, looking at the current land-use map, if it’s not overly complicated, will make it relatively simple to understand what changes have to be made. If the plan calls for an abandoned industrial site to be turned into a mixed-use residential/commercial development, the site will have to be rezoned to make that possible. If a row of abandoned houses is seen as a possible commercial area, those lots will have to be rezoned. The same is true for undeveloped areas that are meant to be kept open, but are currently zoned for industrial use; or for undeveloped areas zoned for residences that are slated for mixed or commercial uses.

Ultimately, the planning group should prepare a future land-use map that reflects the changes called for in the plan. (This can usually be done by GIS mapping, either by the municipality, by a private firm, or by someone in the neighborhood with the proper expertise.  If the planning process is part of a municipal effort, the map will certainly be made by the planning office. Once the approved zoning changes are made, this will become the new land use map for the neighborhood.

The Austin Neighborhood Planning staff researches the zoning issues and suggests the appropriate zoning changes as the neighborhood plan develops.

Implement the necessary zoning changes

There are two stages to planning the rezoning for a neighborhood. The first is the technical one we’ve been discussing: understanding what the zoning needs to be for each part of the neighborhood in order for the overall zoning map to match the neighborhood plan. The second, and often more difficult, stage comes in convincing all the relevant parties that the proposed changes should actually be put into effect.

To address this second stage, you have to know the relevant decision-making structure in your particular neighborhood or community. How do decisions get made, and who are the people who make them? Understanding the decision-making structure and players will help you persuade those who need to be persuaded to support your neighborhood vision.
We’ve mentioned, for instance, how many suburbs (and other municipalities as well) favor single-use zoning.  Yet, in many cases, mixed-use zoning can result in more walkable streetscapes, and can allow such conveniences as the ability to walk to work and shopping, or permit more affordable housing. Convincing municipalities to be flexible in considering zoning changes, however, can run into a “But-we’ve-always-done-it-that-way” attitude that can be hard to change, or can threaten existing political or economic interests.

There is also, of course, the possibility that the municipality’s reasons for challenging your proposed changes are perfectly reasonable. Many neighborhoods may request zoning changes that would effectively keep out affordable housing, for instance, or bar all commercial activity. The community has obvious reasons to reject such proposals. Make sure that what you argue for is defensible.

To win over civic authorities, first make sure you clearly understand the issues and zoning in general, so that you can argue rationally and convincingly for the neighborhood’s point of view. If reason doesn’t help, the answer here is often advocacy.  What kind of advocacy really depends on a number of factors, among them the overall importance of the changes you’re requesting, the level of the municipality’s resistance to change, the reasonableness of the arguments against you, and the amount of neighborhood support. Your advocacy can range from private conversations with public officials to orchestrated testimony by many people at public hearings to media publicity to some sort of direct action to a community organizing campaign.

In addition to whatever resistance you may encounter from municipal authorities, there may be resistance from neighborhood property owners about the rezoning of their property. The owner of an industrial-zoned parcel may balk at having its zoning changed to commercial, for instance, because of his development plans for that piece of land. Homeowners may not want multi-family zoning on their block or the next. Some neighborhood residents may challenge the whole plan, or the rezoning that affects them. While they certainly have the right to do so, it may be easier to get a plan approved and implemented if you can resolve these differences during the planning process.

We’ve already emphasized the importance of including in the planning process everyone with interests in the neighborhood. Ideally, that means that all those interests are considered from the beginning, and that decisions can be reached that leave everyone feeling reasonably satisfied with and reasonably unhurt by the final plan. In practice, this will probably only work some of the time.  Some residents or property owners will be able to negotiate something that’s acceptable both to them and to the neighborhood at large; others won’t, and will contest or challenge at least the portion of the zoning they object to. In that case, you and they simply have to be prepared to argue your points of view to civic authorities, and let them decide.

Many of Austin’s neighborhood plans have been approved except for the zoning of  contested lots or parcels. Those have then been decided by the City Council on a case-by-case basis, with the resultant zoning added to the future land use map and incorporated into the neighborhood plan.

Implement the plan in order to realize your objectives and reach your goals

Once a neighborhood design plan and its necessary zoning changes are approved, the plan has to be carried out.  The goals and objectives the neighborhood has chosen are only useful if there’s an effort to turn them into reality.  Some ways to do that:

Choose a neighborhood design committee or other body to coordinate the effort

Such a committee might be made up of some of the people who were most enthusiastically involved in the neighborhood planning effort, or might be made up of both neighborhood stakeholders and community officials. Whatever its composition, its main task should be keeping track of how well the specific actions meant to accomplish objectives are being carried out. That means communicating with the appropriate municipal departments and boards, as well as coordinating the work of community volunteers. Without some sort of coordinating body – in some communities, this may be a civic entity, such as a planning office – it’s unlikely that the plan will be realized.

Each Austin neighborhood with an active plan has a Neighborhood Planning Team/Neighborhood Contact Team that works with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning office to monitor the work to be done by the city as a result of the neighborhood plan recommendations, and to discuss any necessary changes in scheduling or scope.

A committee or other coordinating body might also work with municipal officials to communicate the concerns and pulse of the community, warning of potential problems and helping to devise solutions before they become serious. It might also help in finding private or grant money for projects the neighborhood wants, but that are simply too expensive for the municipality to take on.

Keep in close contact with everyone involved in changing the physical structure of the neighborhood

Much of the actual work in changing physical structure – especially in the case of a neighborhood plan that is part of a larger community effort – is likely to be done either by the municipality or by developers. Such activities as neighborhood clean-ups or yard beautification, on the other hand, are the province of community volunteers and residents. Whoever is responsible, the neighborhood – in the form of a committee, if there is one, or in some other way – needs to monitor the work to make sure it gets done within a reasonable time frame and in a reasonable way. If there are delays – because of funding problems, emergencies in other areas, permitting, etc. – it can eliminate a lot of potential problems if the neighborhood knows and understands about them.

If necessary, work with the municipality and developers to attract businesses and residents to the neighborhood

If the plan involves commercial development, storefronts or new office buildings have to be filled for the community to benefit. Developers and city agencies often run public relations campaigns for this purpose, and the neighborhood may want to be involved in these in some way (testimonials from residents and current business owners, for instance, to be used in ads).

Encourage neighborhood events, use of new bike and walking paths, public transportation, etc.

There should be some mechanism to build on the changes to physical structure that will help to establish the neighborhood as a friendly and vital place. Events and campaigns that encourage the use of the neighborhood’s physical advantages – public spaces, trails, public transportation, new or rehabilitated buildings, etc. – can both highlight positive changes for neighborhood stakeholders and begin to alter the way the neighborhood is used.

Deliver regular progress reports to the neighborhood on work toward specific objectives and goals

Annual or semi-annual meetings to discuss the state of ongoing and scheduled work and to keep the community informed can do a great deal to keep relations friendly and to enlist neighborhood stakeholders in advocacy where necessary.  They also serve to keep the neighborhood plan in people’s consciousness, and to make sure that it maintains momentum.

Revisit the neighborhood plan regularly, and revise it as needed

Circumstances change, populations shift, and neighborhoods grow.  No plan is likely to be perfect forever, and most need to be adjusted from time to time.  In addition, some original suggested changes may turn out to be less than ideal, and may need to be changed before they’re carried out.

Every year or two, the plan should be reevaluated to make sure that its elements are still relevant, and that the work being done in fact helps the neighborhood toward its original vision.  If priorities have changed – because of an emergency (earthquake, flood), because of changing conditions (gentrification, population growth), or because of unforeseen needs (building deterioration, road repair) – then the plan should change to reflect that.

Austin’s neighborhood plans are meant to be reevaluated and reapproved every five years, with the assumptions that, by then, much of the initial work called for in the plan will be completed, and stakeholders will have a chance to see how it works.  At that point, the neighborhood may be ready to recommend the next round of work to be done to sustain the plan, or to suggest new directions.

By the same token, plans can’t be changed until at least a year has passed, although they can be amended at any time at the request of the Neighborhood Planning team.

This is the point where we tell you to keep at it indefinitely. A neighborhood plan is still only a plan. If it’s based on solid neighborhood design principles, the chances are that it will result in a livable, pleasant neighborhood...but only if the elements of the plan are carried out and supported by the neighborhood. (An unused bike path is no better than an unbuilt bike path, after all.)  Making sure work is done that leads the neighborhood toward its vision, encouraging continuing involvement and continuing communication among stakeholders, regularly reevaluating and readjusting the plan to respond to changes in the neighborhood and larger community – all these are necessary to maintain a high neighborhood quality of life, and they have to continue for the life of the neighborhood.

In Summary

Careful attention to the design of neighborhoods can lead to zoning changes that make them more pleasant and livable for residents of all income levels.  Taking the neighborhood (which may encompass the whole community in the case of a small rural town), rather than individual buildings, as the target of design makes it possible to use zoning codes to shape the neighborhood to the advantage of residents and other stakeholders.

Current ideas of neighborhood design – based to a large extent on the work of the New Urbanists – considers residents first, and encourages healthy neighborhoods where residents can walk and bicycle to most services and shopping, where efficient and comfortable public transportation will take them to other parts of the municipality, where streets are safe and secure, and where street life encourages interaction and creates a lively and stimulating atmosphere.

In order to bring this picture to reality, it makes sense to institute a neighborhood planning effort. A participatory planning process, based on sound principles of neighborhood design, and working with the municipality to use zoning to shape the character of the neighborhood, can turn a neighborhood vision into the actuality of safe, pedestrian-friendly streets lined with trees and neighborhood businesses, and populated by neighbors who know one another and work together to keep their neighborhood a good place to live.

Contributor 
Bill Berkowitz

Online Resources

Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design from The New York City Departments of Design and Construction (DDC) seeks to educate designers about opportunities to increase daily physical activity, including measures such as making stairs more visible and providing inviting streetscapes for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Building Healthy Places Toolkit from the Urban Land Institute outlines opportunities to enhance health through changes in approaches to buildings and projects. It provides 21 evidence-based recommendations that are supported by action-oriented evidence-based and best practice strategies.

City of Baltimore Neighborhood Plans seems to be a top-down process, and it’s not clear whether it’s working or not – the information on the website appears to stop at 2000.

Congress for the New Urbanism is organization promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.

The Curb-Cut Effect by Angela Glover Blackwell. Laws and programs designed to benefit vulnerable groups, such as the disabled or people of color, often end up benefiting all of society.

Housing and Community Development Advisory Board a neighborhood planning board for the town of Blacksburg, Virginia.

Involving the Community in Neighborhood Planning” is a report from the Urban Land Institute about collaborative neighborhood planning, including the benefits and challenges.

Neighborhood Design Center is one of several non-profit (in this case, volunteer) neighborhood design centers around the country started in the late ‘60’s in response to a speech to the American Institute of Architects by Urban League Director Whitney Young. It is still going – meant as a seed organization, doing the groundwork which can then leverage further support and funding (architectural/engineering studies, e.g.).

The City of Austin's Neighborhood Planning website details the neighborhood planning process, including much general information and specific plans from neighborhoods that have completed the process.

Raleigh, North Carolina's Neighborhood Planning Strategy.

Neighborhood Planning and Urban Growth Strategies is a good resource on neighborhood planning from Louis Colombo and Ken Balizer, two long-time Albuquerque, New Mexico-area planners. Lots of information on planning history, New Urbanism, and general neighborhood planning and design.

Neighborhood Transformation Initiative is Philadelphia’s neighborhood planning process.

New Urbanism provides lots of information and links on New Urbanist thought and practice.

Open Space Zoning: What it is and why it works,” is an article by Randall Arendt that describes cluster zoning

Seattle Neighborhood Plan offers information on existing neighborhood plans, efforts to update existing plans, and how to get involved.

Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MPH, USA Surgeon General - APHA 2015 is an online video interview conducted by APHA TV of the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, to learn about his Call to Action to promote more walkable communities in the United States.

Zoning Law - Regulartions, Property Zoning, Land Use Attorney provides free advice on zoning.

A Wikipedia article on zoning, explaining its origins and possibilities.

Print Resources

Bressi, T., & Davis, R.  (Eds.) (2002). The Seaside debates: A critique of the new urbanism. New York, NY: Rizzoli international Publishers.

Duany, A., Plater-Zyberk, E., & Speck, J. (2000). Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream. New York, NY: North Point Press.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. New York, NY: Random House.

Kunstler, J. (1996). Home from nowhere: Remaking our everyday world for the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Morris, D. (2005). It’s a sprawl world after all: The human cost of unplanned growth – and visions of a better future. Gabriola Island, British Columbia, New Society Publishers.