Smart Regional Planning Can Help Struggling Suburbs

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  • February 06, 2014

Smart-Growth-HomesliderSomerville, outside of Boston

By Sarah Jackson

Poverty today has become a regional challenge. It affects a wide range of places, which have varying and uneven capacity and infrastructure to help low-income residents cope and to connect them with economic opportunity.  These changes have forward-thinking planners and community groups around the country asking: Now that we understand how places are changing over time, how can we can effectively plan for those changes? What strategies make sense to ensure all residents can share in future prosperity?

The Denver area may have some of the answers. The region has been struggling with one of the most rapid shifts in the location of jobs to the suburbs in the country. By 2010 only about one in five jobs in the region was located within three miles of downtown. And as Elizabeth Kneebone and Melinda Pollack note in a recent op-ed, even when suburban residents can use transit, “they can only reach one-third of the region’s low- and middle-skill jobs on average in a 90-minute commute.”

To address this, the region is in the midst of a transit expansion project to build new commuter and light rail and improve bus services across eight counties. But most impressive are the ideas developers have come up with to ensure all residents of the region can benefit from this investment.

The new Mile High Transit-Oriented Development Fund, for example, is leveraging public and private dollars to increase access to affordable housing, jobs, and services around transit sites. The Urban Land Conservancy (ULC), Enterprise Community Partners, and the City and County of Denver partnered with public and private funders to create the fund. The fund aims to create and preserve at least 1,000 affordable homes along current and future high-frequency bus and rail corridors. The plan is to take the model region-wide in 2014.

“Locating affordable housing in transit corridors allows households to reduce expenses, while increasing access to employment, educational opportunities and services,” organizers write on ULC’s website.

Recognizing the intersection of housing, transportation, and jobs, the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development have put together a new location affordability portal that aims to help residents make better decisions about how housing and transportation costs affect the affordability of a given area.

In Boston developers are also working to connect neighborhoods and promote principles of smart growth, like coordinated planning around affordable housing, transportation, and economic development decisions, which, they say, also promote equity.

Speaking at a recent conference there, Larissa Brown, director of community planning at the local firm Goody Clancy, laid out the smart growth design principles that planners designing for today’s suburbs should incorporate:

  • Design for people first, then cars.
  • Promote connections between towns, rather than isolation from adjacent areas.
  • Balance open spaces with high-density development.
  • Orient buildings to the public realm and to the connecting streets.

Planners like Brown advocate developing a variety of housing types and promoting mixed-use development where feasible, allowing housing to coexist with retail, work places, and recreation; enabling people to live closer to their jobs or transit; and making it easier for struggling residents to access needed services.

Planners say zoning reform—improving the way communities allocate land, zone, and permit—is also a key piece of the puzzle. Communities that allow higher density neighborhoods and more affordable housing can ensure poor residents are not priced out of developing neighborhoods and communities entirely as they change.

As Elizabeth and Alan argue in Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, communities need to work together to plan regionally. As Alan noted with Natalie Holmes last month, developing “quarterbacks,” or lead organizations that operate across multiple communities and programs to coordinate resources and market expertise is another smart model for change.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance’s Great Neighborhoods program is a good example of a quarterback. The program has partnered with five communities in the Boston area to better support affordable housing development, preserving open space, and building alternative transportation infrastructure that encourages walking and biking. They’ve worked to help local residents, community leaders, and municipal and state officials achieve their goals more quickly by providing resources and technical assistance.

The Great Neighborhoods program has helped cities and towns collaborate across issue areas and agencies to work at a regional scale, creating hundreds of affordable housing units and miles of new parks while engaging thousands of community members. As we respond to changing demographics, that’s a future plan more suburban communities across the country should get behind.


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