Demographic trends indicate that a larger percentage of Americans live in urban areas than ever before. As a result of this increasing urbanism, a city-centered growth model continues to gain momentum in the philosophical and lifestyle preferences of both the shapers and occupiers of our urban environments. As America urbanizes and planning and development tools based on increased density (such as new urbanism, transit-oriented development, mixed use, infill, regionalism and regional blueprints) gain in their application, what does this mean for planning efforts focused on small towns where such tools may not resonate with Americans’ ideals or realities? Are we to cease devising strategies to improve small town living?
A starting point may be to alter our perception of what it means to be urban. When we think of urban areas we typically conjure up an image of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York and other large metropolitan areas. In contrast, small towns are more mentally and emotionally connected to rural environments. However, the Census Bureau defines “urban” as a population cluster of 1,000 people or more. The EPA, in federal assistance legislation, has defined a “small town” as a city or town with a population of 2,500 or less. Ask anyone on the street, or in the planning profession, and the answers will range widely. I’ve lived or worked in towns ranging from 5,000 to over 65,000 that were clearly considered “small towns.” So, I would suggest that even small towns can be considered urban in character, which supports my premise that city-centered growth can be a model for sustainability, even for small towns.
In contrast to thinking regionally, it is imperative to act regionally. Acting regionally involves a proactive approach to regional opportunities.
Understanding your town’s place in the region involves recognizing that the natural and agricultural resources are “shared” resources, requiring a heightened level of stewardship responsibility through active collaboration among jurisdictions. Acting regionally also involves identifying the opportunities to share resources such as public safety, public services and transit. An example of such strategies can be found in the Central Valley of California. The pressing economic decline has led to the disbanding of police departments in small towns such as the Cities of Riverbank, Waterford and Patterson, which have chosen to partner with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department for contract police services. The City of Modesto has also contracted planning staff out to small towns like Hughson and the City of Oakdale that can’t afford to sustain full time staff.
Transit opportunities not possible at the small-town level may be feasible when considered at a regional scale. In addition, infrastructure such as water and wastewater systems may be more sustainable on a shared basis.
Acting regionally involves collaboration on political, policy and planning matters. For example, Stanislaus County entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with several of its cities to not approve any project located outside the city limits and within a city’s sphere of influence that was inconsistent with the future growth plans of that city. The MOU required a courtesy “sign-off” by the city as a part of the entitlement review process. For example, if a city’s plan for growth in the sphere of influence was residential, the county would not approve an incompatible use, even if it was a permitted use under the county’s jurisdiction.
While engaged in the regional context, it’s also imperative to focus on the challenges and opportunities unique to your small town. The first step in effectively planning locally is to develop a compelling vision. The vision should be concise and clear, not only detailing what the town wants to become at a quantitative level (size, demographic, etc.), but also what it will look like. The vision should take into account the 3 “C’s” of community– Community Values, Community Culture and Community Identity. Finally, it should consider how to maximize environmental and economic assets and how to emphasize a unique sense of place.
City-centered growth really means compact growth. To effectively accomplish compact growth, community edges should be clearly defined. These can be natural or manmade but must be defensible from a policy perspective and then implemented thoughtfully. For example, the City of Turlock (in the Central Valley of California) chose a road and irrigation canal along their northern border as the edge, providing an obvious physical demarcation as well as the opportunity to buffer the adjoining agricultural properties to the north. This buffer also became an important element of the city’s trail system.
Full Story: What’s to Become of Small Towns?
Source: Planetizen, June 28, 2012