Last year, there was much lament over the gutting of Florida’s Growth Management Act, the 1985 law consistently hailed as a model for state smart growth planning. But if it was so great, how come there is even more lament over Florida’s sprawl?
Others better versed in Florida planning have written on this topic. Most critiques single out one policy at a time, namely transportation concurrency, or present lists of suspected policies and processes. These are, of course, necessary discussion frames; for the most readable introduction to the topic, see the April 2008 edition of Research in Review (Florida State University) article “Pain in Paradise: Florida’s Failed Fix-All.” The article contains links to the best in the business and I recommend studying up. For a great synopsis of transportation concurrency, see “Rethinking the Florida Transportation Concurrency Mandate,” by Tim Chapin et al, from Florida State Univeristy.
However, if we are to correct course to develop and redevelop better communities, then we a fresh look not only at individual policies, but also at the various planning scales. Growth management in Florida basically focuses on two scales: the (1) comprehensive plan for cities/counties, and (2) individual projects. Regional planning is not as strong as the Act’s language might suggest. “Developments of Regional Impacts” or DRIs are overwhelmingly single owner, large projects, not regional planning.
Now let’s look at these planning scales another way. Florida planning has traditionally focused on two scales that are set by boundaries: jurisdictional and project level. These are two necessary scales, but used alone, produce a landscape built on “pods.” It is hard to get a grip on how various cities and projects connect together when the mind jumps quickly to managing within borders. Suburban discontent, alas, tends to emanate from dysfunctional flows: traffic, water, money.
This is why planning built on flows is so important. It seems like smart growth leaders have picked up on the importance of flows and regional planning, so let’s turn to what I think is the most important – yet least appreciated - planning tool: small area planning.
Planners in urban areas use this scale every single day, but it’s a given to the point of being unacknowledged. Great transit oriented development is based on how pedestrians flow around mass transit station areas. Sub-watershed plans are essential in matching management practice to local water flows. Because efficient land use relies on sharing amenities like parking, streetscape, parks and the like, small area plans facilitate getting more out of smaller, yet linked, parcels. Small area plans that link the built and natural landscapes tend to be adopted over time as communities mature, which may explain why they are more common in urban communities.
Many suburbs are at key maturation points, though may resist the introduction of new planning layers. Neighborhoods naturally react when they see a plan that includes their subdivision with commercial development. Even if no land use changes come into play for residential areas, the border of the subdivision is understood to be the small area plan.
Developers have been programmed to be enemies of each other, not collaborators, often using the very smart growth tools we invented to get better results against one another. In Florida, transportation concurrency forces a death match over road capacity. The best description I have ever heard is that in suburbs, concurrency is like an all-you-can-eat buffet, where the first guy in line’s best strategy is to take all the chicken wings and leave the scraps – and the bill – to everyone else. In California, developers are using the state’s Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in an effort to stall the competition. Smarter growth and great redevelopment rely on cooperation among landowners, a topic that needs more examination.
Most importantly, paying for this level of planning will be difficult. Traditionally, local governments have paid for comprehensive planning within jurisdictions and developers pay for project planning when they are ready to move dirt. So who pays for the new, inclusive and predictive in-between planning layer?
This post is the first of many that will examine the importance of small area plans, their power, and the suburbs. It is the most powerful sprawl retrofitting, traffic subtracting, energy saving, water efficient, quality of life enhancing tool out there. Fixing sprawl in Florida will rely on sub-Comprehensive Plan level planning, and last year's rewrite includes a new sector planning tool. It's a start.