Communities can plan for character and form not just specific types of use

Communities can plan for creating complete neighborhoods that are walkable, mixed use and meet daily needs.

Conventional master plans tend to look at future land uses as just that, a category of allowed uses in a particular area. The Michigan Planning Enabling Act speaks directly to this with future land uses of residential, agricultural, industrial and commercial. This has been the standard for the last 70 years. But what if we were to look at areas where communities intend to grow or infill by the character of the development rather than the use? What if instead of uses we focused on mixed use neighborhoods and walkable places?

Historically (before zoning), neighborhoods were made up of a mix of housing and commercial activities that supported the neighborhood. There was a mix of housing, retail and services, civic and institutional places, and employment opportunities. The neighborhood was built on a pedestrian scale because few people had access to use of a car. These same concepts can be applied to how we plan for a community today.

Neighborhoods have differing levels of intensity. Some are very intense and active and have larger commercial and employment components. Others are more residential in character and have less commercial activity that is focused on meeting the needs of the neighborhood only. When we talk about these types of places we can categorize them by form and character. In the realm of placemaking, we talk about how we categorize them according to the transect, which is a means of distinguishing between different levels of human impact and activity. The most active and intense areas are our urban cores - the centers of our major cities. Traditional commercial districts (downtowns) are considered urban centers. Neighborhoods with relatively high density and a mix of services in a walkable environ are considered a general urban place. The neighborhoods with larger lots and houses and less mix of uses are considered sub-urban in character. The two remaining types of places are working lands and natural areas, both of which are inappropriate for development according to the organizing principles of transect.

We can plan to create these types of places just like we code for these types of places. Instead of an area being residential only, we can plan for urban or sub-urban neighborhoods. Instead of commercial we can plan for an urban center node of commercial activity. These areas are all based around pedestrian sheds, or the area covered by a person on foot meeting daily needs.

Looking at it in detail we would typically see an area planned for growth as being one of the use categories detailed above. Instead of a vague guideline of residential, we would look at an area as intended growth and designate the neighborhood place types. If it is an area that is not intended for growth in the near future, it is designated as restricted growth area and the place types are conservation design communities or hamlets.

The process of identifying where we plan for future neighborhoods is often accomplished through sector mapping (see Using sector planning to strengthen master plans). This process looks at what is wanted to be preserved and where growth is desired.

For more information on how a community can begin these processes and assistance in it contact Michigan State University Extension or contact a Land Use Educator for more information on these issues facing communities. 

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