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.