Planned communities can play a key role in fostering more efficient growth in outlying areas through development that uses less land to accommodate population growth, according to a new policy paper from the Urban Land Institute.

Green Development Without Sprawl: The Role of Planned Communities” focuses on the benefits well-designed planned communities can provide over typical subdivision developments, including: 1) more conservation of open space; 2) more preservation of environmental attributes; 3) more preservation of the community’s character and heritage; 4) more opportunities for a variety of housing types and price ranges; 5) a wider mix of uses, including office, shopping and recreational space, which can help reduce driving time on major roads; and 6) a greater overall sense of community among the residents.

The analysis, authored by Jim Heid, president and founder of UrbanGreen LLC in San Francisco, was based on a greenfield development policy forum sponsored by ULI last year. The forum was held in conjunction with ULI’s ongoing emphasis on more efficient land development patterns throughout urban regions, including fringe areas. The application of smart growth principles to suburban areas is a top priority for ULI Chairman Harry Frampton.

According to the report, more efficient greenfield development is necessary to accommodate the nation’s population growth, which is expected to rise by nearly 60 million over the next 20 years. While infill development can ease some of the pressure, it is not realistic to expect that the bulk of this growth will occur in urban infill areas, the analysis points out.

“While it is often lumped with sprawl, greenfield development offers the most practical, affordable and achievable chance to build without sprawl…Much evidence suggests that public will plus enlightened private self-interest can rid greenfield development of sprawl’s dysfunctions: indiscriminate and incremental use of open land; low-density residential tract subdivisions; land-consumptive strip commercial development; lack of connectivity among residential and commercial development projects; transportation systems that are exclusively auto-dependent; social homogeneity; and economic segregation,” Heid said.

The report lists three critical prerequisites for sprawl-free greenfield development: 1) a pre-established regionwide system of sustainable open space that is connected and available throughout the region for active and passive recreational use; 2) the reduction of car trips through greater concentration of mixed-use development, a wide range of mobility options, and regional transportation planning; and 3) a diverse mix of housing types, sizes and prices within the communities. “Achieving these prerequisites seems to require what only a larger project (such as a planned community) can offer,” Heid noted. “This includes sizeable resources upfront, economies of scale, a long horizon for planning and buildout, and flexible, multi-product delivery that can test and respond to changing markets.”

The report examines three approaches to achieving smart growth in greenfields: public sector, in which public officials lead the process; public-private, in which a nongovernmental organization such as a nonprofit takes a leading role in bringing together the public and private sectors; and private, in which efforts are led entirely by the private sector. Heid describes three case studies exemplifying each method-the Santa Fe (N.M.) Community College District Plan, which emerged from Santa Fe County government’s efforts to create a growth management plan; a plan for alternative development patterns in Coyote Valley, Calif., sponsored by the nongovernmental organization Greenbelt Alliance; and a comprehensive development plan for 40,000 acres in Fulton County, Ga., created by the residents through the grass-roots efforts of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance.

According to Heid, while each approach is unique, all share common hallmarks of success: 1) Educating the public about the impact, benefits, and various forms of growth; 2) Detailed analysis of natural and cultural resources to support community values; 3) Community consensus on collectively important issues; 4) Community outreach using communications tools ranging from the Internet to town hall meetings; and 5) Patience–the education process takes time to ensure that ideas and opinions are understood.

High-quality planned communities can effectively combat sprawl, because they are organized to foster the intangible benefits of a sense of community and place, Heid noted. “Place making, however difficult to define, is another ingredient without which there can be no smart growth…The role of landscape and pedestrian space, and the spatial organization of furnishings…are all being carefully woven into environments that make places out of projects,” he said.

“Planned communities are a proven tool that is already playing a significant role in balancing the challenges of preventing sprawl, while creating high-quality living environments in greenfield areas. If we are to avoid the development patterns of the past and still respond to inevitable market demand for new housing, understanding the value and role of planned communities is absolutely critical.”

The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit education and research institute with more than 20,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines.

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