This is the second article in a series of “ten things you can do without a plan!” Creating a plan is important to document a community’s shared vision and to provide the specific recommendations on how to achieve that vision. However, there are some recommendations that are almost universal and a community does not need a plan to implement them. Some of these are quick and easy while others may require more time, coordination, and money. All of them are proven ways to improve your neighborhoods.
Create “third places”: Besides home and work, there is an important “third” place in civil society, according to Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place. These third places provide opportunities for social interaction, civic engagement, and help to define the character of a place. Picture dominoes players in the park, the buzzing barber shop, or morning coffee groups who meet in the local café. Don’t sequester these third places, only to exist in your commercial districts- be intentional about integrating them into your neighborhoods by using the tools of zoning, design guidelines and incentives.
Be shady: Trees are important for so many reasons but their unmatched ability to provide free shade is an often-overlooked one. It may be time to update (or create!) your tree preservation ordinance to make sure that mature trees are protected.
Provide places to rest: Another aspect to encouraging people to take a neighborhood stroll is to provide opportunities for respite. All kinds of people need rest from time to time but this can be critical for seniors, young children and parents or caregivers of infants. It encourages longer and more frequent walks which adds to neighborhood vitality and security.
Make connections: A core responsibility of a municipal planning department is to look beyond a single development or project to see the big picture. The best example of this is to ensure appropriate connections between neighborhoods and surrounding amenities. Schools and parks are obvious examples but there are also examples that may take more creativity. For example, a new grocery store next to a subdivision may trigger screening requirements including a fence. This should be accomplished while also allowing for pedestrian and/or bicycle connectivity so nearby residents have a choice of how to get to the store. This may also mean partnering with other agencies in their decision-making for the location of community amenities such as schools and parks.
Decide on urban ag: Innovations in urban agriculture are bringing new opportunities to neighborhoods. Even without an extensive planning process, you should engage citizens and elected officials in determining which urban ag trends are appropriate for your community. You can then update your zoning ordinance to determine where to put all of those community gardens, backyard chickens, and bees.
Complete a sidewalk inventory: A regular sidewalk inventory allows you to prioritize capital spending to make sure sidewalk networks are complete and to keep your sidewalk network maintained. This is particularly important as uses change (an old grocery store becomes a library) or new development arrives. Sidewalk networks that are incomplete or unmaintained can have the unintended consequence of confining seniors, people with disabilities, and parents/caregivers of infants.
Foster community through events: Having neighbors who know each other isn’t a nostalgic nicety- it’s good for the community as a whole. Block parties, National Night Out, garden walks, and landscaping contests can be fun and serve a purpose. The planner’s role may include simplifying the application process, creating awareness of event opportunities, and connecting organizers to funding and partners.
Make open space accessible: Sometimes a community has a park, trail or other open space that is great- IF you can get to it. One example is a fantastic regional bike trail where riders drive to it because there is no safe way to access it. Another is a well-programmed park complete with a playground that is surrounded by busy streets and lacks any marked crosswalks (effectively cutting off entire neighborhoods). Partner with your park district and public works department to ensure that these important resources are accessible by pedestrians, strollers, bikes and wheelchairs.
Enhance community wealth: It has been well documented how the built environment affects our health but it can also affect our wealth! For example, living in a subdivision far from any amenities increases the number of cars a family must own. If a family could reduce from two cars to one, they can save thousands of dollars. Another way to increase community wealth is to encourage and permit home additions and accessory dwelling units (where appropriate). Making these alterations legal and easy provides flexibility for the changing needs of families.
Allow residents to age in place: Too often, neighborhoods are designed in a manner that requires moving out when ability becomes limited due to age. Many of the above recommendations make for a healthier and more active neighborhood for all residents, including seniors. Making sure residents can access services and goods (through creative transportation arrangements, adequate public transportation and/or within walking distance) helps to lengthen the time that residents can stay in the neighborhood and people they know.