City and Regional Planning

Posted March 20, 2020

Excerpt: Jonathan Barnett on Designing Megaregions

In Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale (Island Press, 2020), Jonathan Barnett, retired professor of practice in the Department of City and Regional Planning, describes how to redesign megaregional growth using mostly private investment, without having to wait for massive government funding or new governmental structures. In this excerpt, taken from the conclusion of the book, Barnett lays out three new initiatives that can reshape current trends in regional design: undertaking practical initiatives to make new development fit into its environmental setting, especially important as the climate changes; reorganizing transportation systems to pull together all the components of these large urban regions; and redirecting the market forces which are making megaregions very unequal places.

A Design Agenda for Megaregions

As megaregions grow to the population and economic importance predicted for them by 2050, we have seen that three new initiatives can reshape current trends into a regional design. Work can begin right now, using government institutions that already exist and development concepts that make sense in today’s real estate market. Implementing this design agenda can begin in parts of a megaregion, and successes in one place can help start the process elsewhere.

Detailed information about the natural environment needs to be available in geographic information systems (GIS) at every level of government. Decision-makers can then use this information to be certain that the evolving megaregions will fit safely into their environmental setting and avoid locations that are becoming hazardous because of a warming climate.

Passenger rail service running through each of the developing megaregions can be upgraded to the level of the Acela service in the Northeast. While intercity trains are only one component of a balanced transportation system, and walking, cycling, driving, transit, and airplane travel will continue to be important—and will also need improvements—the lesson from Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is that fast-enough train service can reduce both congestion within the air-travel system and grid- lock on the highways>

Local development regulations should be changed to counteract past government policies that have made megaregions very unequal places. The two most important changes will be opening suburban commercial corridors to multifamily housing and changing some of the ways individual houses are controlled by zoning.

If you are convinced that implementing these changes is important, a good place to start is your local zoning board or planning commission. They have the power to adopt zoning maps that include GIS information, to rezone commercial corridors, and to amend their development regulations to reduce minimum lot sizes and permit accessory dwelling units. If you want legal and technical backup for advocating these amendments to zoning and subdivision regulations, you can consult Brian Blaesser’s and my Reinventing Development Regulations, published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. This book can be downloaded from Lincoln’s website free as a PDF or EPUB book.

If you belong to a civic organization, an advocacy group like the Sierra Club or the Congress for the New Urbanism, or a professional organization such as the US Green Building Council, the American Planning Association, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Institute of Architects, or the Urban Land Institute, you can work to reinforce policies they may already have toward implementing the agenda for megaregions, including balancing transportation.

And of course, if you are part of the professional staff or a board member of the many governmental  agencies that share the power to implement this agenda, you can work to make it happen.

Here is a summary of actions needed to make the changes described in this book:

Use GIS to Inform Policy Decisions with Environmental Implications

States, their coastal zone management agencies, and the multistate compacts that manage watersheds have powers that would allow them to reshape development within critical ecoregions.  They have not done nearly so much as is needed, because they lacked the necessary detailed environmental information, which has been available only to local governments, and then almost always only for individual properties where development was being proposed. Local governments have not been able to base their regulatory policies on environmental considerations, because they, too, lacked the necessary information. Environmental impact studies, where required, have been focused on individual proposals.

Geographic information systems provide the ability to incorporate an understanding of soils, land contours, vegetation, water flows, flood- plains, and other natural features at the scale of regional watersheds and coastlines. Because the technology is new, its usefulness in making important policy decisions is only now being understood.

The twenty-two Landscape Conservation Cooperatives established in 2010 across the United States, funded and coordinated by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the US Department of the Interior, are becoming an important source of conservation designs that include environmental information in GIS. Environmental information is also readily available from proprietary sources.

The new technology makes it possible to map predicted development trends in GIS and compare them with the environmental maps. Future floodplains, wildland–urban interfaces, areas of potential heat concentration, and similar considerations can also be mapped and compared with predicted development trends as shown in chapter 3. Places that are inappropriate for development can be mapped, and regulations used to guide development to other areas.

In addition to local planning and zoning boards and commissions, Metropolitan Planning Organizations, state planning agencies, and the interstate compacts that administer watersheds are among the governmental entities that should map environmental resources, project future development trends, and then guide the growth of megaregions to locations that will not destabilize the natural environment, and away from places that are becoming unsafe because of a changing climate. This process will need to be repeated at intervals, as the regulations will change the development trends. Because government has gained this ability to safeguard the public interest in development, it now also has the responsibility to use it.

Build Fast-Enough Trains

The United States ought to give priority to building a high-speed rail network comparable to those within Europe and China. There is no current political prospect for doing this. However, existing passenger rail lines connect the major cities within all the emerging megaregions.

Upgrading passenger trains to the level provided by Amtrak’s Acela service is technically feasible and—compared to building Chinese- or European-style high-speed rail—inexpensive.  The money spent will continue to be a good investment for shorter trips even if higher-speed trains are eventually put into service. Tracks need to be improved to support faster speeds, grade crossings gated or eliminated, and the lines electrified.

Private investors have recently shown an interest in providing improved passenger train service, notably the Virgin Trains USA service operating in Florida and projected for other areas. Amtrak by statute has priority over freight trains along rail corridors shared with freight operators, a condition of Amtrak’s taking over passenger service from the other rail lines. Amtrak is thus likely to be an indispensable partner for private investors in upgrading passenger rail service. It is also import- ant that private investors work with Amtrak and state governments and not monopolize the parts of the megaregion where train service is likely to be most profitable, such as the segment from Atlanta to Charlotte within the corridor from Birmingham to Raleigh.

States have the power to negotiate with Amtrak and private investors to implement better regional passenger service. A model for how states can fund the necessary improvements to permit fast-enough trains is the interstate compact among states creating improved rail service between Chicago and Detroit and the State of Michigan’s actions to support this plan, as described in chapter 6. To be fully effective in reshaping regional development, fast-enough trains need to connect to major air- ports and to local rapid transit systems.

Address Inequality in Local Zoning

States and cities are beginning to address the housing inequalities that can be produced by local regulations. In Oregon a new law requires duplex housing units to be permitted on what had been single-family lots in cities above ten thousand people, and up to four units on some single-family lots in cities of more than twenty-five thousand people and in the Portland Metro area. In Minneapolis the adopted policy is to permit three housing units to be built on formerly single-family lots. These initiatives are intended to increase the supply of affordable housing and remove barriers that have kept lower-income people from living in large parts of cities and suburbs.

Oregon has left the details of implementing the new law to the individual cities. Portland has been studying how to manage such a change for some time. Critical variables include the size of the lot, parking requirements, and the way infill is designed. Toronto’s guidelines for infill housing, as described in chapter 8, are useful in showing several different ways to manage increased housing density in established neighborhoods.

The big effect of allowing four units on a single-family lot is not going to be felt in neighborhoods of million-dollar homes, but in relatively modest areas where people might rent or own an older, small house on a lot that is big enough for redevelopment.

While Minnesota and Oregon have intervened to make comprehensive changes in local zoning regulations, local governments have several less sweeping options available to open up residential areas to more diverse kinds of houses and apartments. Many cities and towns now permit what is called an accessory dwelling unit on a single-family lot; and all local governments within the evolving megaregions should con- sider doing this as a simple way to help more people live in single-family neighborhoods. The size of the accessory apartment is generally limited, and it continues to belong to the primary owner, unlike a duplex, where the lot is subdivided. Adding smaller, and consequently more afford- able, rental apartments to single-family houses has proved to be politically acceptable, because the profits belong to the local owners.

While single-family zoning has often been used as a means of exclusion, limiting density through zoning continues to be needed to keep new development synchronized with available utilities and government services. Keeping the zoned density, but reducing the minimum lot size, would make it possible to create neighborhoods of diverse housing types in developing areas, as explained in chapter 8.

Changing retail patterns are emptying out the commercial corridors that run like veins throughout megaregions. This land can, and should, be rezoned for attached houses and apartments, making development more diverse and taking some growth pressures off rural areas. Local governments can make affordable units part of the requirements for these new multifamily housing zones, following the model used successfully for many years by Montgomery County, Maryland. With more people living in these corridors, they can support bus rapid transit, creating opportunities to take some of the traffic off roads and highways.

While such land-use decisions will continue to be primarily the responsibility of local governments, actions to manage the development of the megaregions can be coordinated by the states, which are the source of all the regulatory powers administered by cities and towns. Where the megaregions are within a single state, as in Florida, Texas, or California, the coordination mechanism could be the state planning agency, or a council of metropolitan planning organizations, such as already exists in Florida. Where the megaregion extends across state lines, the mechanism could be an interstate compact, for which there are many possible models.

Individual citizens, civic organizations, advocacy groups, and professional organizations can influence government agencies to implement the megaregion design agenda, as can the staff and leadership of the agencies themselves. These improvements to the way decisions are made about megaregions will still leave many difficult choices to be made within the new framework. However, compared to current trends, adopting these practical and relatively simple changes will lead to a much more desirable future.

From Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale by Jonathan Barnett. Copyright © 2020 Jonathan Barnett. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.