The Politics of Space
Are neighborhoods fully hospitable to residents with a range of incomes, ages and abilities? (Consider gentrification)
Does the community respect nature, integrating natural areas and systems into regional planning and neighborhood design? This has been another weakness of the smart growth agenda; in its enthusiasm for hardscape urbanism and downtown infill, it too often has ignored our innate need for living nature. To be sure, integrating nature into a highly urban neighborhood requires considerable thought and effort. But it is critical if we want our cities to be living ecosystems that people want to live in.
Do buildings and infrastructure take advantage of resource-efficient design and management practices? Green buildings are mainstream now, and green infrastructure is advancing. Indeed, some progressive institutions believe it is time to begin installing “net-positive” buildings that produce more sustainable energy and water than they consume, and that generate no net waste. In the meantime, we should at least ask if our structures are moving in the right direction with regard to reducing resource consumption and pollution.
Do the community design and social structure encourage healthy living and well-being? This is another biggie, and it can lead to fascinating inquiries, including whether there is clean air and water; walkable access to shops, amenities, and services, including good schools, healthy food, and parks; good health care facilities and services; and plentiful playgrounds and sports facilities.
Is the overall metropolitan or community development footprint discernible and no larger than necessary? Are there measures that limit the encroachment of new development onto natural and rural land? Leapfrog development in particular should be strongly discouraged with appropriate policy and incentives.
Does the community include public spaces of beauty, character, and utility? Qualities such as “beauty” and “character” may be hard to define, but it is essential that we ask these questions and try our best. Public spaces in particular give definition to a neighborhood, a town, a city. These include parks, plazas, and monuments, of course, but we must not forget that streets are our most plentiful, visible, and important public spaces. Do they serve pedestrians well? Is their scale pleasing and harmonious? Are they inviting?
Are there convenient, safe, affordable and efficient transportation choices? It is critical that residents have multiple ways to get around. In communities of any scale, this must include convenient, pleasant public transit. For all communities, there should be “complete streets” with inviting accommodation for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people with disabilities. Many cities are also now hosting carshare and bikeshare programs: would the community make a good candidate?
Does new development use land efficiently, with appropriate attention to the context? We made a terrible mistake by allowing the grossly inefficient use of land that characterizes the suburban sprawl – both commercial and residential – that we built in the late 20th century. That mistake must not be repeated. But this question embodies a tension: at least in theory, the highest density that the market will bear on a particular site will always make the most efficient use of land; but sensitivity to context may well dictate something lower. I think the tension is healthy: it can be a painful process, but within reason I believe it is entirely appropriate for the community (not just the immediate neighborhood, importantly, though their views should be given extra weight) to decide where the balance is struck in each case.
Does the community respect and enhance important local conditions, resources, and culture? It is hard to justify places like Dubai and Las Vegas – rapidly expanding, highly water-consumptive metropolises in the desert. On the other side of the climate spectrum, it is equally hard to justify building in floodplains, especially as sea level rises and storms tend to get stronger. Local climate conditions matter. So does local culture, including historic resources; a great community will celebrate its cultural assets, not denigrate them.
Does the community encourage collaboration in planning and development? Easy to say, much harder to do. But so important. Decisions stand the best chance of success when there is a feeling of collective ownership over them.
Planning issues commonly involve a conflict of values and, often, there are large private interests at stake. These accentuate the necessity for the highest standards of fairness and honesty among all participants.
(As Adopted by the APA Board, May 1992)