Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan, Second Edition

Community Planning: An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan, Second Edition

by Eric Damian Kelly

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This book introduces community planning as practiced in the United States, focusing on the comprehensive plan. Sometimes known by other names—especially master plan or general plan—the type of plan described here is the predominant form of general governmental planning in the U.S. Although many government agencies make plans for their own programs or… See more details below


This book introduces community planning as practiced in the United States, focusing on the comprehensive plan. Sometimes known by other names—especially master plan or general plan—the type of plan described here is the predominant form of general governmental planning in the U.S. Although many government agencies make plans for their own programs or facilities, the comprehensive plan is the only planning document that considers multiple programs and that accounts for activities on all land located within the planning area, including both public and private property.

Written by a former president of the American Planning Association, Community Planning is thorough, specific, and timely. It addresses such important contemporary issues as sustainability, walkable communities, the role of urban design in public safety, changes in housing needs for a changing population, and multi-modal transportation planning. Unlike competing books, it addresses all of these topics in the context of the local comprehensive plan.
There is a broad audience for this book: planning students, practicing planners, and individual citizens who want to better understand local planning and land use controls. Boxes at the end of each chapter explain how professional planners and individual citizens, respectively, typically engage the issues addressed in the chapter. For all readers, Community Planning provides a pragmatic view of the comprehensive plan, clearly explained by a respected authority.

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Editorial Reviews

Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University - Stuart Meck

"Eric Damian Kelly's Community Planning, Second Edition is nothing less than a master work planning practice. Whether you are a student or seasoned pro, you absolutely cannot be withou it. Kelly goes well beyond the conventional land use perspective in describing the formulation of comprehensive plans and addressing all plan elements and how they fit together. Moreover, he teases out implementation issues in evey chapter, propelling the reader from analysis to action. Finally there is always an ethical backdrop in this book, distinguishing it from others in the field. Kelly reminds us that we are commanded to 'replenish the earth' as a basic concept in sustainability—wise advice, like everything in this magnificent text."

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Community Planning

An Introduction to the Comprehensive Plan

By Eric Damian Kelly


Copyright © 2010 Eric Damian Kelly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-592-8


Some Overarching Issues: Sustainability, Sprawl, and Human Health

This chapter introduces some overarching issues—issues that affect many aspects of local planning. Some specific issues, such as transportation and land use, are typically the subjects of specific elements or sections of a local comprehensive plan. The issues discussed in this chapter are rarely treated as separate elements, but they often affect most or all elements of a good local plan and are very important issues with which it is important for planners to become familiar.

The three issues—sustainability, sprawl, and human health—are closely related. The sprawling patterns of development that emerged as consequences of road building, home financing, and other post–World War II policies are fundamentally not sustainable; many of the sprawling suburbs have physical designs that discourage active, healthy lifestyles. Any effective effort to create more sustainable, healthier communities entails an understanding of the government programs and socioeconomic forces that have led to the movement of people from walkable cities to isolating suburbs.

Sustainability is the extent to which development and the resulting lifestyles can be sustained over a long period of time without depleting natural resources. If one (or two or three) generations exhaust scarce resources (e.g., petroleum reserves), those are not available to future generations, and therefore a lifestyle dependent on them is also not sustainable.

Sprawling development patterns may compromise our ability to live sustainably when considered from the perspectives of energy, the environment, or, for most communities, even local fiscal policies. The most sprawling suburbs are the ones where people walk the least, a fact that leads to major health problems. One of the secondary effects of the excess energy consumption and environmental impact of sprawl is that it increases the amount of air pollution generated by automobiles, thus adding to human health risks.

Relationship to Climate Change

An emerging issue of note, which is not addressed in this chapter in detail but is directly related to sustainability and health, is climate change. Climate change is a major international public policy issue in the early twenty-first century. In a 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that global warming is real and that human activity creating greenhouse gases is a major contributor to the warming trend. According to the report, "There is very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming." In a new book, Reid Ewing and others recommend reducing the miles traveled by automobile as one of the legs of a "three-legged stool" needed to address the contribution of transportation to the carbon dioxide emissions that damage the ozone layer; the other two are improvements in automobile technology and changes in the types of fuel. Although automobiles are not the only source of greenhouse gases, one third of carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation uses. Thus, reducing sprawl—low-density, auto-dependent development resulting in overconsumption of land—and creating more walkable communities to reduce driving are positive local contributions to reducing damage to the ozone layer. The initial focus of most state and local governments in the United States that have adopted climate change plans, however, has been on making government buildings more energy efficient and, at the state level, taking steps to change the mix of automobile fuels or adopt tougher emission standards for vehicles. As discussed in Chapter 13 and other parts of this book, a number of state and local governments have implemented programs to reduce sprawl; although not identified specifically as plans to address climate change, those and other efforts recommended in this chapter to address sprawl and human health will also contribute to the effort to mitigate climate change.

Complexity of the Issues

Sprawl is an issue high in the public consciousness and is often the topic of discussion at planning meetings. The fact that people are aware of the issue does not mean that they all agree on it, however. Although researchers have offered plausible working definitions, there is no general agreement among citizens and public officials about what sprawl is. To some public officials, new development represents growth, and growth is good, even if it consumes additional land and expands the urban area. To individuals and families seeking an idealized lifestyle, the most distant, least dense suburbs (often the very definition of sprawl) may seem like utopia. And residents of growing areas who purport to hate sprawl may oppose new development in their communities, thus pushing additional housing development farther and farther out. Although most people would agree that sustainability is a good goal for an individual lifestyle and for a community plan, few are willing to give up their automobiles to make their lives—and communities—more sustainable.

There appears to be increasing public awareness of sustainability issues, but there is seldom a connection made to what sustainability means for individual communities and lifestyles. To the extent that it means tax credits for solar collectors, green roofs on buildings, and other measures with lots of glitz and little apparent cost in lifestyle, many people are supportive. To the extent that it means smaller cars, more walking and less driving, more dollars spent on transit, a smaller selection of mostly local groceries to reduce shipping costs and energy, and a reduction in the use of products shipped from halfway around the world, there appears to be far less public support. That lack of support often leads people to decide that maybe it is not an issue after all. Nevertheless, it is a real issue and one that ought to be addressed.

In short, these are not easy questions. With limited public awareness, lack of agreement on definitions, and lack of agreement on priorities, it is difficult to build a consensus around a definition of each of these issues, making it very difficult indeed to build a consensus around solutions. On the other hand, simple things such as including sidewalks in all new developments and allowing developers to build at the higher densities that they request can help improve a community's performance in dealing with these issues. Because they are overarching, or cross-cutting, issues, planners and public officials should be conscious of them when creating plans. A plan can help to reduce sprawl, reduce automobile dependence, and encourage more walking, thus helping to improve human health, without ever using the terms sprawl, sustainability, or human health.


After World War II, suburban communities grew significantly while the population density of cities declined. Two sets of federal programs and policies contributed to suburban growth: federal guarantees of home mortgages and the construction of the interstate highway system.

Through a series of laws, the U.S. government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which provided mortgage insurance. After World War II, Congress created the Veterans Administration (VA) home loan program, which guaranteed low-interest, long-term mortgages with low down payments.

Through these programs, the federal government began to redefine housing. During the years after World War II, the FHA published an increasing number of guidelines and regulations for homes that would receive insurance through the program. These guidelines showed a strong bias toward suburban, single-family developments. Developments like the one show in Figure 1.1 are a direct result of such policies. The VA typically adopted the FHA standards.

Although neither the FHA nor the VA is a big factor in the housing market today, some of the standards that they once imposed have been adopted by the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA, commonly called Fannie Mae). FNMA is a large mortgage pool (obtaining its money by selling bonds to investors) that, through 2008, was the largest buyer of home mortgages in the United States. Many local mortgage "lenders" are actually "loan originators" that sell most of those loans to FNMA. Even banks that own some mortgages want to make loans that can be sold to FNMA in case the bank suddenly needs cash (e.g., if many depositors suddenly want to withdraw their money). Therefore, most mortgage loans in the United States today meet FNMA standards, which are, in part, carryovers from the FHA standards. As a result, the FHA standards that favored new homes in new, residential-only suburbs continue to influence lending practices today.

When Dwight Eisenhower became president of the United States in 1953, he led the federal government in creating what has become today's interstate highway system. Its original purpose was defense oriented, to provide high-speed transportation for soldiers and equipment between all U.S. metropolitan areas, but it was that system more than anything else that opened up the suburban development of the 1950s and created the sprawl of the 1970s and beyond. Today, most of the spending on the system involves system improvements within—not between—metropolitan areas. The Surface Transportation Policy Project calculated that the increase in roadways in urban areas in the 1990s amounted to more than 22,000 lane miles per year (the equivalent of 5,500 miles of new four-lane road). Although the stated purpose of much of that road expansion is to address current congestion, it has the indirect but entirely predictable effect of facilitating future commuting and sprawl.

Most people think of their commuting burden in time, not miles. Therefore, widening a road or adding a road to a particular area makes that area more attractive to residential users because it "moves" it closer to town by reducing the commuting time to it.

Easy access from the interstate highways made large tracts of suburban land attractive to developers, often leaving developable land in the city vacant or underused. Into the 1970s, local governments contributed to sprawl by providing the necessary infrastructure of roads, schools, water and sewer systems, electric and gas lines, and neighborhood parks. However, by the mid-1970s, as federal funding decreased, communities found it more and more difficult to finance sprawl, particularly when existing infrastructure needed more funding for maintenance and upgrading. As older schools became vacant, inner-city parks too dangerous to use, roads more congested, and tax rates high, communities began looking for alternatives to sprawl. This became particularly critical in older cities totally enclosed by incorporated communities. One solution to sprawl has been to make infill a more attractive option.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin examining the relationship between human health and sprawl provide this succinct definition:

We consider sprawl to be any environment characterized by (1) a population widely dispersed in low-density residential development; (2) rigid separation of homes, shops and workplaces ; (3) a lack of distinct, thriving activity centers, such as strong downtowns or suburban town centers; and (4) a network of roads marked by large block size and poor access from one place to another.

Not all growth is sprawl, and not all of the increased consumption of land is necessarily irrational. Changes in society have led most communities to expand outward, even if they are not growing very much in population. Average household size in the United States in 1970 was 3.14 people; by 2007, that figure had dropped to 2.57. If a community anticipated growth of 10,000 people when it adopted a plan in 1971, it would have needed to plan for about 3,200 additional dwelling units to house those people. A community anticipating growth of 10,000 people and adopting a plan in 2008 would have to plan for about 3,900 additional dwelling units. That increase need not result in a significant increase in the land needed for housing. The decrease in average household size includes an increase in households of senior citizens and other family units that are likely to be more interested in townhomes and multifamily units than in sprawling homes on large suburban lots.

Consider land consumption from a different perspective. A typical block in a city built in the nineteenth or early twentieth century was 600 feet by 300 feet, or about 180,000 square feet, or 4 acres, in size. Downtown areas, where most people shopped, consisted of many blocks like that with lots of retail shops on the first floor and some multistory department stores that each occupied a quarter block or a half block. People often walked or rode the bus to these stores. If they drove, they parked on the street or in public parking lots. Today, many people like shopping at Target, Wal-Mart, or Kmart. The "super" versions of these stores typically occupy more than 200,000 square feet, or more than a whole city block. Although the major chains have developed multistory formats for stores in large cities such as New York, Chicago, and Seattle, in smaller cities they still offer only the standard sprawling format; those smaller cities are often auto dependent, meaning that such a store will need a parking lot as large as the store. Such stores simply will not fit easily into traditional downtown areas. It is possible that retail patterns may shift from these stores, but as long as people vote with their feet by shopping at such stores, they will be a fact of life for planners.

Industry has also changed and contributed to the changes in urban form, in part due to early zoning that separated industry from residential areas. Figure 1.2 shows one section of the four-story Stutz building, which was an automobile factory in Indianapolis in the 1920s. Many factories built in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were multistory structures. Such structures were often located on single urban blocks or small groups of such blocks, with minor interruptions to the street system.

In contrast, a modern automobile factory is a sprawling, one-story building designed around the assembly line that Henry Ford helped to perfect (Figure 1.3).

Communities that want large facilities such as modern automobile plants typically have to find large sites, outside the developed area.

In short, changes in family size, shopping patterns, and manufacturing technology have led to some of the increased land consumption. Such sprawl seems difficult to avoid in a healthy, growing city, as some will always want a suburban lifestyle and some who would prefer to live in a walkable, transit-oriented community are unable to find affordably priced housing there.


Excerpted from Community Planning by Eric Damian Kelly. Copyright © 2010 Eric Damian Kelly. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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