Articles from the October 1996 Newsletter

A New Urbanist Lexicon: Part 2
Planning in Minnesota’s Primary Growth Region

A New Urbanist Lexicon: Part 2
BY RICHARD McLAUGHLIN

The current discussion about a regional development pattern is becoming a matter of urgency. One reason is the seeming lack of a clear paradigm, or way of thinking, within the planning profession and among local and regional planning authorities as well, for organizing land development and urban redevelopment initiatives to build authentic community. In order to better inform this discussion, it is worthwhile to delineate the differences between the conventional and New Urbanist paradigms for regional development

The New Urbanist paradigm defines urban form in terms of scale, activity and building type. Its driving force is a pattern articulating a well-crafted public realm. The public realm for multi-modal travel and open space recreation becomes the first design determinant. This then becomes an attractive amenity for subsequent private development. This framework allows buildings that accommodate a variety of activities, are flexible, and change over time according to the changing needs of their users. The resulting pattern appears and functions cohesively.

This approach to planning differs significantly from conventional suburban practices, where object buildings are placed on single-use parcels of land, and collector and arterial streets and highways designed largely for private vehicles form the connections between them. Little attention is given to crafting a coherent public realm. Consequently, cities planned under this paradigm generate a pattern that appears fragmented and functions only through automobile dependence.

The organic settlement patterns of America’s first 250 years are a sustainable model of urban form. Cities never just happened, they evolved over time according to individual needs at the time. In the first era of American city-building, the need to be within walking distance of a vast number of daily goods and services resulted in a dense, compact and varied pattern. Subsequent eras dominated by railroad and streetcar transportation produced a pattern of linear corridors bordered by compact residential neighborhoods. Over time, neighborhoods grew as complete urban units surrounding specialized corridors and districts.

Regional planning practice is capable of delivering the attractive, cost-effective and human-scaled development patterns with which we are familiar, as long as the complete neighborhood once again becomes the fundamental building block of urban form. Along with districts and corridors, incremental development and aggregation of neighborhoods allows us to envision natural evolution of urban form over many years. The goal of New Urbanism is to reverse the trend of “urban sprawl” by learning from traditional urban development patterns and thereby preserving open spaces for natural habitats, active recreation, and productive agriculture.

The following nomenclature addresses regional development patterns using the complete neighborhood as the fundamental urban unit. The next article will address the essential components of a complete neighborhood.

Community – A group of people distinguished by specific common interests and a means of communicating about them. The term embodies social, economic and political relationships among people as well as physical characteristics of their environment. However, community is more about relationships that bind people together than it is about environment.

For example, a church congregation, parents of children attending the same school, and workers at a particular office are distinct communities, yet the individuals may live in different neighborhoods. In today’s society, virtual communities are formed in a shared environment that may consist only of computer hardware, phone lines and data bytes.

At the same time, those who inhabit a neighborhood are a community. They share a physical environment and a common interest in its future condition, as well as their own well-being. When neighbors communicate effectively about these interests, they may be referred to as a “community of place.”

Countryside – An area designated as free of urbanization. Designation of countryside areas is the first step in regional planning, followed by the designation of corridors, neighborhoods and districts, in that order. The countryside contains primary conservation areas (wetlands, floodplains, steep slopes, prominent vistas and natural habitats) and secondary conservation areas (active agriculture, heritage sites and future parkland). Primary conservation areas are designated as permanent preserves, while secondary areas may be designated as temporary reserves for future development. All these areas should be identified on the basis of technical criteria and should be resistant to legal challenge so that their continued existence as amenities for local urbanized areas is ensured.

Corridor – A linear configuration that connects disparate areas of countryside through natural systems, or disparate neighborhoods through transportation systems. Corridors include natural and built components ranging from wztershed flows to wildlife trails to rail lines. These should be considered public elements designed for physical continuity, including a larger network of connections between urban open spaces and the countryside.

Neighborhood – An urbanized area having a diverse range of building types, thoroughfares and public open spaces accommodating a variety of human activity. A neighborhood is a physical entity with typological attributes, and is the fundamental building block of urban form. Its appropriate size may best be described as an area in which most residents are within walking distance of its center. This distance is best represented as one-quarter mile, 1,320 feet, or a five-minute walk.

District – An urbanized area organized around a predominant human activity. Although districts preclude the full range of activities of a neighborhood, their primary activity is supported by typically neighborhood-scale uses. Example include theater districts, medical facilities, capitol areas and college campuses. Other districts accommodate large-scale transportation or manufacturing uses such as airports, refineries, container terminals, distribution and warehousing sites, and “big-box” retail sites. Appropriate connections of special districts to adjacent neighborhoods encourages pedestrian access, support regional transit systems, and increase security.

Hamlet – A compact urban settlement within the countryside, with the essential characteristics of a complete neighborhood, but with few, if any, commercial services. Typically, a hamlet is a cluster of housing around an identifiable multiple-use or open space center, surrounded by countryside prairie, forest or active agriculture.

Village – A compact urban settlement within the countryside, with the essential characteristics of a complete neighborhood, including commercial services used on a daily basis. A village is larger than a hamlet, but smaller than a town, which has a broader range of commercial services throughout. Likewise, although the population of a village may vary, its land area also tends to be larger than a hamlet but smaller than a town.

Town – The aggregate of two or more complete neighborhoods with a central commercial area. Usually at the crossroads of major thoroughfares, the town center provides daily goods and services for neighborhood residents as well as visitors. Its urban character reflects the extension of pedestrian networks into adjacent neighborhoods, while also providing automobile parking.

City – The aggregate of two or more towns, specialized districts and connective transportation and open space corridors. When organized as a composite of complete neighborhoods, districts and corridors, a city appears and functions organically, evolves in an orderly fashion, and preserves environmental resources as sustainable community amenities.

Sprawl – Haphazard outward growth in a disorderly fashion. Urban sprawl is the antithesis of traditional development patterns.

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PLANNING IN MINNESOTA’S PRIMARY GROWTH REGION:
APO Prepares Report on Planning in St. Cloud Region

BY FRED SANDAL, AICP

The greater St. Cloud regional area, which includes the counties of Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright, is the primary growth region in Minnesota. Figures from the State Demographer’s Office suggest that this rapid growth pattern will continue for the foreseeable future. This has led many to question whether the region is ready for the planning challenges ahead.

The status and adequacy of local land use planning and policies in response to the rapid growth and development within the counties of Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright will be the subject of a report by the St. Cloud Area Planning Organization (APO), due in November.

The APO is an advisory body comprised of elected city, township and county officials. While primarily a transportation planning organization, the APO has often been a forum for various policy issues of multi-jurisdictional significance.

BACKGROUND

In July 1995, following several community forums in the St. Cloud area hosted by Representative Joe Opatz, a delegation of central Minnesota legislators came to the APO with concerns about continuing growth, suggesting a study of whether current planning is adequate to address it.

APO staff discovered ongoing interest by many in the Legislature as to how planning in Minnesota is being conducted at the local level. Various reports to the Legislature in 1995 by Minnesota Planning, the Metropolitan Council and others share a common concern for how local governments are jointly coordinating land use planning efforts in response to growth pressures. The Legislature has considered various initiatives to direct or guide local land use planning.

The Minnesota Municipal Board also came to the APO to express concern about the level of planning in the fast-developing St. Cloud area. The Municipal Board has long been and continues to be a visible and active presence. It was their objection to a continued pattern of piecemeal annexations which brought about local discussions leading to the merger of St. Cloud Township with the Cities of St. Cloud and Waite Park in 1995.

Because of these concerns, the APO determined that a regional study of the local response to growth would be of benefit, and proceeded to conduct a Planning Needs Assessment in 1996 through a survey and other data collection for the four-county region.

LEGISLATIVE ACTIVITY

Soon after the APO agreed to conduct the study, Representative Opatz drafted legislation which in its initial form sought to expand and prescribe the scope of activities for the APO study. APO board members had two primary concerns with H.F. 2330. First, the legislation was unnecessary, since APO resources had already been committed. Second, there were provisions in the draft legislation that suggested a policy response prior to the identification of need. These included issues such as regional structure, consolidation of jurisdictions, and tax base sharing.

With bipartisan support, the bill was later amended to remove prescriptive elements of the APO study. H.F. 2330 in its new form would pass both the House and the Senate only to be vetoed by Governor Carlson. In fact, the passage or failure of the Opatz legislation was always considered irrelevant to the timeline and scope of the study.

SCOPE OF STUDY

As there was no special funding for this effort, the Planning Needs Assessment will only provide provide a somewhat cursory but informed analysis of the status of land use planning within the region. It will rely principally on the results of a survey of local government units to determine which communities have comprehensive plans and what planning elements are included.. The needs assessment will attempt to draw some general conclusions as to how local jurisdictions are addressing issues of growth and the adequacy of long-range planning. The result will be findings and recommendations as to whether further planning or other actions will be needed either at the local or state levels.

Other planning-related area activities are being coordinated with the APO effort. A community “visioning process” involving a cross-section of citizens and local leadership is being assisted by the Central Minnesota Initiative Fund. Also, county commissioners and staff from the four counties have been holding bi-monthly “summits” to communicate on issues of joint interest. These groups will be invited to comment on the Planning Needs Assessment.

It is intended that the APO report will be presented to the area legislative delegation prior to the start of the 1997 session.

Fred Sandal is Urban Planner for the St. Cloud APO.

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