Urban Planning For Dummies
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Urban plans help shape the future of a community by addressing everything from housing and transportation to natural resources, public utilities, and more. You don’t have to be a professional urban planner to get involved in planning your community’s future. Whether you participate in the planning process, serve as a local planning commissioner, or help carry out your community’s plan, you can play an important part.

What is an urban plan?

The most common type of urban plan, called a comprehensive plan, examines many different aspects of a community and establishes a course of action for 30 or more years into the future. Here are the topics that a typical comprehensive plan addresses:

  • Land use: The land use component of an urban plan assesses how land is being used by different kinds of activities (for example, residential or industrial). It also lays out a plan for the future, showing how land will be used for different activities. The land use component of a plan not only looks into what areas of the community are most suitable for future development or need to be conserved, but also helps a community establish zoning codes and other land use regulations to guide future development.

  • Housing: Cities and towns are home to many different types of housing, including everything from small houses to high-rise apartment buildings. The housing component of an urban plan determines what types of housing are present in the community today and what types of housing may be needed in the future. It addresses the housing needs of people with disabilities, low-income families, and other people with specific needs.

  • Transportation: The transportation component of an urban plan assesses the overall transportation system serving the community, including everything from roads and highways for cars and trucks, to subways and buses for public transportation, to dedicated paths for walking and bicycling. Planning for transportation helps ensure that every part of the city is adequately served by the transportation system and that all the people in the community can get where they need to go.

  • Urban design: Urban design considers not only how nice a place a looks but also how well it functions. A well-designed urban area looks good and works well. The urban design component of a plan takes a look at many different parts of the physical form of the city, ranging from individual buildings to layouts of entire neighborhoods and towns.

  • Natural resources, recreation, and open space: These components of an urban plan address the quality of a community’s air, water, and land resources, as well as areas of the community that serve as habitats, open space, recreational areas, and other environmentally important areas. Planning ahead allows the community to conserve and protect its natural resources and provide adequate areas for recreation and open space.

  • Infrastructure and public facilities: Infrastructure and public facilities are important components of an urban plan and can include planning for items ranging from sewer pipes to power lines to public safety stations. These facilities and services are essential to the operation of the community, and their planning is closely coordinated with related components of the plan, such as land use, housing, and transportation.

In addition to a comprehensive plan, many communities also write specialized plans that may focus on specific topics and short-range goals or target specific areas of the community. For example, many communities have specific plans for downtown redevelopment areas or have developed disaster recovery plans with five-year rebuilding goals.

How you can get involved in planning your community's future

Getting involved in urban planning in your community can make the difference between a plan for the community and a plan by the community. You can get involved in planning a better and brighter future for your community in a variety of ways:

  • Participate in the planning process. Being part of the planning process is a great way to learn more about your community and contribute your ideas. There are typically many different ways for the public to get involved in helping to make a plan for the future:

    • Attend a meeting. Public meetings are an important part of the planning process. They’re an opportunity to learn more about your community, get information about the potential elements of the proposed plan, and provide your own ideas and feedback.

    • Participate in a survey or focus group. Many planning efforts use community surveys or small meetings of community stakeholders, known as focus groups, to gather information about conditions in the community and what people would like to see happen in the future.

    • Help plan online. An increasing number of communities are using the Internet to communicate with community stakeholders and gather information for their plans using online tools such as discussion boards, “virtual meetings,” and online surveys.

    • Help collect information and meet your neighbors. Some planning efforts use community volunteers to help collect information that can be used in the plan — such as a door-to-door survey of residents — and use volunteers to help get the word out about upcoming meetings or other events by distributing flyers or making phone calls.

    • Get involved in a planning workshop. Many communities hold planning workshops that help get community stakeholders more deeply involved in making the local plan. Sometimes called a planning charrette, these workshops usually take place over several days and use the ideas and feedback of community stakeholders to help plan and design the community.

    • Serve on an advisory committee. Some local planning efforts have advisory committees made up of community residents and other community stakeholders, such as business or property owners. These committees usually provide advice and guidance that is used in the overall planning process and helps professional urban planners better understand the needs of the community.

  • Serve on your local planning commission. A planning commission is a body of elected or appointed local officials that helps draw up the community’s comprehensive plan and may also make important day-to-day to decisions on local land use regulations. Becoming a planning commissioner can require a significant commitment of time and effort, but it’s a great way to get involved in shaping your community. Here’s an overview of what planning commissioners do:

    • Help make decisions. Planning commissioners make decisions on land use regulations that help determine what types of activities will be present in the community.

    • Promote the planning process. Planning commissioners are responsible for advancing the community’s comprehensive planning process and formally adopting the plan after it’s complete.

    • Identify opportunities and challenges. Planning commissioners help identify the opportunities and challenges facing the community.

    • Set goals and targets. Planning commissioners play an important role in helping the community establish its goals for the future and specific targets that the community hopes to meet.

  • Help carry out the plan. After the community’s plan is set, you can get involved in carrying out the plan by

    • Volunteering: Making a plan is just the beginning of changing the community for the better. An effective plan needs to be carried out by residents, businesses, government agencies, community organizations, and other stakeholders. Volunteers often are essential to carrying out the plan’s recommendations. Nonprofit organizations that are helping to carry out the plan in the community often rely on volunteers to carry out community service projects, such as helping to start a community garden.

    • Championing a specific issue as a social entrepreneur: Plans often create new opportunities for enterprising individuals and nonprofit organizations. Social entrepreneurs can help get the plan moving by starting new initiatives that address priorities raised by the plan, such as starting a community recycling program or training high school students for environmentally friendly jobs.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Jordan Yin, PhD, AICP, is a faculty member of the College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He has published research articles in leading academic journals, including Urban Affairs Review and Journal of Urban Affairs, and his work as an urban planner has been reported on by National Public Radio, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

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