6 Things Most People Don’t Realize Actually ARE Urban Planning

Urban planning covers a wide ranged of topics. Zoning codes, parking, and housing issues are some of the first things that come to mind. All of those are part of urban planning, but planning is a big field. When people ask me what urban planning is, I generally tell them its about who is allowed to build what where, but a simplified explanation can leave someone unsure of exactly the scope. Urban planning isn’t just concerned with the details of urban form, such as where to put new apartments or parking; it’s also concerned with the big picture of communities and regions. Here are some things that shape cities and communities but aren’t what most people think about when they think about planning.

1. Highways Highways are key tool in regional planning, as they make travel along their routes quicker. Highways can change the geography of a region by making travel between two places more straightforward (at least for people with cars). Building a new highway or expanding and old one can change where people live and shape where people go. For example highways can be encourage urban sprawl by making it easier for people to commute to far flung bedroom communities. Federal investment in Highways as opposed to other forms of transit has shaped US cities Highways encouraging car centric low-density communities.

2. Water Infrastructure Everyone needs water to live, and urban dwellers also like to have green landscapes around them, which frequently need to be maintained by water. In many places the water comes from somewhere else, and that requires infrastructure and maintenance. If you live in California you probably get some of your drinking water form the Central Valley Project (which includes Shasta Dam and the delta pumping stations) but you might not even know that this vast system involves dewatering the San Joaquin River pumping that water south and refilling the river down stream with water pumped through the delta. Water infrastructure is huge and landscape altering but also almost invisible to most urbanites.

3. Street Trees —I love street trees! They help reduce the urban heat island effect (where urban areas are hotter that surrounding rural areas), they look good, help reduced air pollution, and they help increase walkabilty by providing shade when its hot as well as visual interest for walkers. Its impressive just how many ways trees help cities. Trees might seem like a small detail but most trees you see in urban areas are carefully selected. Planners select hardy trees that don’t shed messy fruit. For example Ginkgo trees have been popular street plantings in recent years but cities carefully plant only male ginkgo trees which produce pollen but not fruit.

4. Food Systems  As well as water people need food. Since most food is grown in rural areas getting food into urban areas can be very complex. Food has to be grown, packaged and processed before it gets to urban consumers. All of that takes a lot of planning. Unfortunately we generally leave all of this planning to corporations who are more interested in profit than justice. This means that some areas are under supplied with access to fresh foods. The term “food deserts” has been used to describe these areas and planners have recently stared paying attention to this aspect of the food system.

5. Wayfinding Have you ever tried to figure out which train or bus to get on in a strange city and wished that the signs where more helpful?  Then you have some idea what wayfinding is and why planners need to keep it in mind. Wayfinding also includes street signs, maps and signs giving directions. When well done, wayfinding takes into account people’s varying abilities and makes everyone safer and more efficient, since when other people know where they are going they are less like to get in the way or bump into other people.

6. Fighting Climate Change —  When discussing how reduce the impact of climate change we frequently talk about national governments, but even small local governments like cities and counties need to address climate change. Plus some of the actions national governments should consider taking are planning related. The most important planning consideration for addressing climate change is urban density– the number of people who live in a given area, the more people the denser the area is considered. Density reduces the number and the distance of trip that people make, eg commutes, trips to the store and trips to visit cultural attractions such as museums. Transportation is responsible for twenty-seven percent of US carbon admissions so by reducing trips we can reduce emissions. Local governments can also help reduce carbon emissions but requiring more energy efficient buildings and making it easier to install solar and wind power, among other things. In addition to reducing emissions we also need to plan for the effects of climate change. What are we going to do about rising sea leaves and increased weather events? We’ll certainly be better off with a plan than without one.

So as you can see urban (and regional planning) covers a lot of ground! Many things that are part of your everyday life touch on urban planning even though you might not have thought of them that way.

Learning About Local History

People often ask me how they can learn more about the history of their local built environment. I’ve put together a list of specific strategies for learning about local history. For me, understanding history is a way of understanding the present. History lets us know why that one street is at an angle to the grid, or why your neighborhood is so segregated. But people also use history to sell their location to others so be careful about boosters who will try and minimize the nastier bits of local history.

Libraries are a great place to start learning more about the history of where you live. Many libraries have special collections dedicated to local history that contain things like old maps, archives of local papers, and yearbooks for local high schools. Also a reference librarian can help you find good resources even if there isn’t a special collection.

Another good resource is local historical societies. Even quite small towns will sometimes have these — so don’t assume that one doesn’t exist until you look. If you can’t find anything online it is worth asking a local librarian. If you do find one these, contact them and ask them questions or if you don’t know where to just ask them for advice on that. Some local historical societies have museums as well, these can be interesting starting places with a lot of old photos and such.

You can also go look at formal records at city hall. These are not generally very accessible in that they are often hard to get at and hard to make sense of. You will probably have to physically go to the location the records are kept which will only be open during business hours. It can also cost money to take pictures of or photocopy records for latter study.  However more and more records are starting to go online.

What kind of records might a city keep? I would expect to find things like the minutes of city council meetings, records of property ownership, old blueprints, records of permits, maybe even photos of historic occasions. There might be restrictions on some records. Things like deed transfers can be technical, and hard to make sense of, and meeting minutes often say what was done but not why. So these types of documents are therefore not the best starting place but can help supplement the overall picture, or provide specific details

Local history focused walking tours can be a good resource though of course they are not available everywhere. Walking tours can be really fun and the people who give them generally do a lot of research on the topic. Some walking tours are just general history focused but some deep dives into specific topics. For example I’ve been on a walking tour about the history of South Asians in my city. Walking tours are nice because they engaged several senses at once. Plus it can be nice to learn about history while moving around outside.

The final strategy I’m going to talk about is developing your eye for historically relevant detail. This a bunch of work but I personally find it very rewarding. If you start with some of the resources above you will probably start to learn a bit of the things to look for. You can use architectural details to give you clues to when buildings were built. Books such as A Field Guide to American Houses can help you learn more about how buildings have changed overtime. The internet also has architectural history resources.

However some of these details can be misleading since people update buildings, add new siding, upgrade windows, and add whole additions. And some telling details are only available inside of buildings which you probably don’t have access to. So it’s also good to learn to look for things like street patterns that don’t change as much. Once you’ve build a street it’s much harder to change. For example railroad towns tend to have square grids oriented towards the railroad tracks. You can also learn about general trends in planning history, like Urban renewal and redlining. The nice thing about learning to read the urban landscape is that it not only helps you learn about where you live but also about places you visit.

Learning about your local history can be a lot of fun, and understanding how your city was put together and why can help you make better choices about how to change it in the future. Cities and buildings should not be static. While it’s important to remember history its also important to adapt to the present.

Tall Buildings

I live in London where we have very few tall buildings. What can the US teach us about doing ten or twenty floors well, to keep views and privacy and clean air and light and so on?

While many US cities have more tall buildings than London they can still be quite controversial. While major US cities do have many tall buildings they also have a lot of urban sprawl and low density urban and suburban areas. People frequently resist taller buildings in their neighborhoods. Sometimes this can be a form of veiled racism, as residents believe taller (and more affordable) buildings will result in black and brown people moving in. However there are some valid concerns regarding how taller building will affect things like sunlight and privacy.

Tall building do have many advantages. They allow more people to use the same amount of land. This means you can have more things close together and that more people can live close to their work and cultural centers, thus reducing the need for trips which take time and use fossil fuels. Building up not out also allows more land to be used for farm land or nature reserves instead of housing.

This doesn’t deal with the physical problems of tall buildings but one thing that US cities are doing that London should consider is Inclusive zoning. This is where building are allowed to be built taller if they include affordable housing units, where the rents are artificially kept below market rate. Like several US cities, London has a housing affordability problem and something along these lines would could help address that. New York is currently trying inclusive zoning at a very large scale and that’s definitely something to watch.

Let’s talk about the physical form of buildings and what can be done to make tall buildings more pleasant to live in and around. One thing that New York City is well know for is building setbacks. These are when the upper floors of a tall building are smaller and further back from the street than the levels bellow, giving the buildings something of the appearance of a wedding cake. This is done to reduce the shadow of the top of the building on other buildings and the ground. Today we can also use software to predict the shadows of new buildings before they are built and therefore mitigate the worst effects. Thus buildings don’t necessarily have to have that characteristic shape but can still be built to maximize sunlight.

Another thing that can make taller buildings more pleasant to live around involves paying attention to rooftops. Rooftop gardens are a great amenity for those who live in a building allowing them more contact with nature. Rooftops can also house other communal outdoor space, like tennis courts or space to BBQ. Plus any such amenity can add visual interests for people in nearby buildings.

So to sum up: Taller buildings can be a good way to for cities to be more resource efficient. They can also help increase the supply of housing and help keep housing prices down. To help make tall buildings nice to live around it’s important to pay attention to shadows. Tall buildings also create opportunities for rooftop spaces. I hope this helps!

Changing Bus Routes

How does my city decide on what the bus routes are?

And a related question, how can I influence my city to make their bus routes better for me?



Dear R,

Bus routes are generally decided by trained transit planners but their priorities in choosing routes can be influenced by agency policy. This a very complex process that takes into account factors like how far people are willing to walk to the bus stop, how many buses are available, and where people want to go.

These planners generally don’t work directly for city governments. Instead regional transit agencies generally run bus and other types of transit (for example light rail or subways). These agencies tend to have names with the words Metro or transit in them, for example there are several Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (MTA). These are public, tax funded agencies that typically cover a metro area — that is a city and its surroundings. Sometimes they overlap. For example in the Bay Area: AC Transit runs buses in the East Bay, Muni runs the buses and light rail in San Francisco, and BART, the Bay Area wide commuter rail, is run by its own board.

The heads of these agencies are public officials, many of them are elected. So you can contact them the same way your would another public official by calling or writing to express your concerns. To find out who runs your local transit search for the name of your transit agency or “[your city] buses”. The transit agency should have a website. If the public transit officials are elected you could also consider running for the office.

Another way to influence bus routes is to get involved with transit advocacy groups in your region. These are activist groups which focus on improving transit. I’d be surprised if any big metro area in the US didn’t have at least one of these groups.  However if you do live in an area without one you could try starting your own. <a href=http://www.publictransportation.org/napta/Pages/default.aspx>NAPTA (National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates)</a> maintains a directory of local transit advocacy groups. You can also try searching for “[your city] transit advocacy”  There are also a variety of national groups.

Another way you can impact local transit policy is by voting. Many/most states allow ballot measures for local districts. Many of these are transit related for example measures that raise taxes to pay for transit. So pay attention and make sure to vote in those types of elections. Since we are on the topic of local elections you should pay attention to the elections of local officials too. If you have chance to ask candidates questions be sure to ask them about buses and the changes you would like to see specifically.

The specifics of bus route planning are not very publicly accessible but as member of the public can try to impact the routes in a variety of ways. It important to let the people who do make these choices know what the public’s priorities are.

Reading Between the Lines and Multi-unit Buildings

Dear Building Community,

I have an urban planning question, though I don’t live anywhere very “urban” – how can I read between the lines in planning documents or town meetings to find out what the actual issues in a municipality are, and who’s being included/excluded?

I.e., when we were outside Chicago, our town was one of the few that banned backyard chickens.  I’m guessing this impacted land use & the people who lived there at least a bit, but also I think the actual rule was maybe a decade old & mostly involved one set of neighbors & their dispute.

Now that I’m living in a small town, it seems relevant to ask what it takes to have multi-unit dwellings, and what kinds of residential businesses are allowed? Maybe? I know that local planning is a policy statement, but I don’t know how to read it.  Suggestions?



Dear J,

Ok, I’m going to give you some general advice about policy then talk more specifically about multi-unit buildings and zoning.

One thing to do when reading policy or listening to neighbors’ complaints is to pay attention to words that seem to mean one thing but imply racist motives. For example if people are worried about an “increase in crime” or “maintaining property values,” that can be a cover for not wanting brown people to move in. Another example is “neighborhood character” which can mean “I don’t want anything to change ever” and change is needed in most places. Because populations change and people move around communities need to adapt to new circumstances. Besides many places in the US have have legacies of poor or just plain  unjust choices that should be rectified.

So more positive words to look for are “affordable housing”, “smart growth”, “Neighborhood density”(this refers to how many units are in a land area), “walkability”, and “transit oriented development”. Obviously you don’t want to judge a project or policy just by the words its supporters or detractors are throwing around, but you can use them as flags to see what you need to pay more attention to.

For general understanding of planning policy in your town I recommend checking out the general plan. These are are non binding (in most states) policy documents describing where the city planner(s) hope the town is headed.  The non-binding nature of these is frustrating but as an activist these documents can be useful for holding officials accountable. The general plan should contain policy statements about a variety of issues such as housing, transportation, historic preservation, and natural resource preservation. You can just read the parts that are relevant to you. It will be written for the general public, not lawyers. Some general plans are very vague and some are more concrete. But either way it should give you some sense of your town’s key issues and priorities.

To understand what’s happening on the ground it can helpful to actually be on the ground. Walk around as see if anything is being built. Some places have signs that go up during the permitting process. Read them. If you see something that concerns you, talk to your neighbors or your city councilperson.

To find out about residential businesses you are going to have to take a look at your town’s municipal code or talk to the city planning department. Municode is frequently available online but is quite dense and difficult to make sense of, especially since it tends to reference other bits of code by number that then in turn reference other bits of code. It can be frustrating.

For a multi-unit building to be built a bunch of conditions need to be met. First, there needs to be some kind of zoning that allows multi-unit development. This is another place where you’ll need to look at the municipal code. If it’s not online you’ll have to call the city planning office or the city clerk. You are looking for the zoning code or ordinance. Look for zones labeled Residential. Generally higher numbers are more dense. So if your city has zones labeled R-1 through R-4, R-4 will generally be the densest. Some places also have mixed used development zones that allow both residential and commercial

One you have a zone that allows multi-unit development the next condition is to have an area of your city that is zoned with that zone. Here it is helpful to be able to see a zoning map. Once again these are often available online, but if not, you’ll have to ask the planning department for one. A zoning map is a color coded map of a city (or county) with each zone marked by its own color. Related zones are generally marked in similar colors. So for example all the residential zones might be marked in different shades of yellow. Smaller towns tend to have fewer zones with less gradations than larger towns and cities.

Next you need someone willing to build a multi-unit building. This will generally be a private developer who expects to make money off of the project, but you might also see a non-profit focused on affordable housing in this role. Whoever the developer is they will have to get the project approved by the local planning process.  This might involve several public meetings where residents will have the opportunity to speak for or against the project, especially for large projects, or projects that are larger than standard in the community. It can be helpful for people to go and say they support the project.

If you are wanting to see more density and affordable housing in your small town it might also be worth looking into Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs as they are called in planner jargon, also know as in-law units or granny flats). These are small apartments built on the same lot as an existing single family home. They can be attached or detached — think backyard cabins. Allowing these types of units can create more density without changing how things look from the street.

Getting involved in your local planning process can be pretty time intensive, especially because it takes time to learn about all the issues, but I hope you can find a way to be take action. What gets built where is very important and will impact your community for years to come. Good Luck!

Hello and Welcome!

Recently political events have gotten many of people interested in being more involved in local politics. All this interest is great because the way US federalism works is that important decisions get made at the state, county and city levels. In the US we have very little centralized urban planning.That means that almost all decisions about the built environment are made at the city or county level. This isn’t ideal because a lot places (like the San Francisco Bay Area where I live) could use a more regional approach to planning, but it does mean that your one voice can be heard more clearly. So let’s talk about urban planning and why it matters.

Why planning matters

I know the subtitle of this blog says “urban planning” but planning is not just an urban issue.  Planning happens across many scales — from street corners to national parks. Planning shapes the built environment – it is about who can build what, where. This has lot of impact on daily life, from how easy it is to get around, to what kinds of buildings people live in and how close the nearest grocery store is.

Planning is an equity issue. The built environment is not apolitical nor race blind. People of color frequently live in worse environments and their communities are more likely to be disrupted by new developments. And of course the build environment directly impacts how people with disabilities can move around. There is a spate of new research on how eviction can reinforce cycles of poverty. All these issues making planning a key part of social justice movements.

Planning is also an environmental issue. Good urban planning makes cities more resource efficient, more pleasant to live in, and can preserve farmlands, wildlands and waterways. Urban density means more things are closer together so cities take up less land, and getting around them is faster and easier. Planning can also address clean water as cities have to manage storm runoff.

Planning is about our values. While we may not always think about it, what we build on the ground is the result of what we, as a society, are willing to spend money on and what types of issues we prioritize. The fact that we’ve spent a lot on highways and not a lot on mass transit says something about how we value different transit modes in the US. I want to help more people think about planning this way and work to make sure that what gets put on the ground reflects what they truly value.

I look forward to answering your questions and helping make your communities better. Email me at askbuildingcommunity@gmail.com