Top Urban Planning Issues

Energy price increases and environmental factors are forcing urban planners and civic administrators to reconsider the suburban paradigm of urban development.

Peak oil prices have magnified urban planning issues. The list of planning challenges, however, hasn’t changed much in the last half century. Do cities plan for the car or the pedestrian? How do we create liveable cities? And where will the money come from?

The following list identifies the top urban planning issues facing cities. It’s a short list, easily expanded by anyone concerned with urban issues.

Accommodating Population Growth: Expand or Contain Urban Development

Chewing up scarce agricultural land for suburban development has been hotly contested for some time. The practice has continued unabated because cities and federal governments have been willing to fund expanded road networks, facilitating the suburban lifestyle. Cheaper housing on the periphery of cities has provided starter homes for home owners. Lack of attention to inner city areas has made those unattractive places to live.

The rising price of oil is making commuting from the suburbs expensive and calling into question a lifestyle that requires people to commute long distances to their jobs. The suburban paradigm is finally being challenged by workers who want to reduce transportation costs and travel times.

Changing a paradigm takes time and a shared vision. Only when all of the players—civic representatives, development industry players, urban planners and citizens—agree on a vision for urban development will the status quo change.

Planning and Funding Priorities

Cities are desperate to fund major expansions of rapid transit networks, especially in the light of rising energy costs. Federal sources acknowledge the need for infrastructure improvements but are slow to produce the funds.

The answers to this dilemma may please no one. Cities need to completely rethink their reliance on two factors: the automobile (for transportation) and federal coffers (for money for road networks). Priorities need to be considered as well: should the better part of a city’s budget go on transportation, or should the city explore private sector partnerships to fund transportation, reserving its tax dollars for economic and social development?

Getting Cities the Recognition and Resources They Deserve

The importance of cities to national economic wellbeing is routinely underestimated by national policy makers. Widespread acknowledgement of this phenomenon has not altered old patterns of behaviour by federal funding bodies.

Not only do cities, especially mega cities or hub cities, drive economies, but they create what Jaime Lerner has called “refuges of solidarity” in a global world. It is cities that educate children and care for families and the homeless. With cities becoming more important than countries, and with more than half the world’s population now resident in urban areas, this recognition and resources are long overdue.

Increasing Densities in Existing Urban Neighbourhoods

Public transit is most effective from cost and scheduling perspectives in denser urban areas. Where sprawl has occurred this means planning for re-densification, or increasing the number of dwelling units per acre or hectare. Residents of existing neighbourhoods are not anxious, however, to have densities raised, especially if that means destroying existing housing stock and a sense of community.

Urban dwellers worry that middle class urban planners fail to value inner city communities that have not been gentrified. It’s a well-founded concern that harkens back to Jane Jacobs’ indictment of planners: that they prefer the creation of new, high rise communities to messy, mixed use ones.

Eco-density, or increasing density in existing neighbourhoods, may be part of the answer to rectify the effects of suburban sprawl and rationalize new public transit networks, but it can also be a problem. When it comes to sustainable urban development there are no easy answers.