Thursday, September 15, 2011
It is conventional wisdom in some circles that “comprehensive planning” and sprawl are polar opposites- that planning is the enemy of sprawl.
But in fact, a comprehensive plan is almost as likely as a zoning code to be pro-sprawl. Many of the land use policies that make suburbs automobile-dependent: wide roads, long blocks, low density, single-use zoning, etc. can just as easily be found in a comprehensive plan.
For example, Alpharetta, Georgia is an outer suburb of Atlanta. Its plan’s future land use map , like the city's zoning code, lists a variety of single use zones. Most of these zones are quite low in density; the highest density, for apartments, is only 10 units per acre, barely enough to support minimal bus service. At these densities, not too many people live within walking distance of public transit, so there is not enough demand to support buses running more often than every half an hour or so, let alone rail service.
The plan also provides for numerous zones that are clearly incapable of supporting public transit, such as a “residential estate” area of 3-acre lots and a “very low density” area of half-acre lots. The plan provides that only 4% of the city’s land is to be used for apartments, as opposed to 54% for low-density residential.
Moreover, the land use map reveals that what passes for compact development in Alpharetta is not intermingled with the city’s offices; instead, high-density residential is a buffer zone between the city’s large stock of offices (near the Georgia 400 highway) and the city’s even larger stock of single-family homes. As a result, most of Alpharetta’s renters will not be able to walk to work even if they work in Alpharetta.
The transportation elements of suburban land use plans may also support car-oriented sprawl. For example, Jacksonville, Fla.'s comprehensive plan calls for 150-foot rights of way on major streets, thus effectively mandating streets with eight or ten lanes. Such streets are a bit too wide for most sane pedestrians.
In sum, comprehensive plans will typically reincorporate the status quo. So if a municipality's zoning code favors sprawling, low-density development, so will the comprehensive plan.
P.S. A more comprehensive discussion of these plans and their deficiencies is in a more extensive blog post at www.planetizen.com.