← Back to All ES&S News

Creating Walkable, Livable Suburbs: New Strategies for Community Planning & Zoning

Creating Walkable, Livable Suburbs: New Strategies for Community Planning & Zoning

As civil engineers and community planners see an increasing shift away from siloed suburbs towards livable, walkable communities with a strong sense of cohesion and identity, they are presented with the challenge -- and opportunity -- to embrace new strategies in community planning and zoning. In this article, we'll explore seven strategies for combating urban sprawl and creating modern communities that work for businesses and residents alike. 

1. Interconnected Shared-Use Trails
Multi-use trails are a critical part of smart growth infrastructure to connect community spaces within and around the suburbs. Without an extensive trail system, residents must choose between walking or cycling on the road and driving.

Trail systems encourage walking, bicycling, and other environmentally friendly modes of transportation. They foster safe travel experiences by expanding the space between cars and other traffic.

In addition to a connected trail system, livable suburbs can implement one or more of these strategies to promote walkability:

  • ​Improve sidewalks
  • Plant trees near streets
  • Add crosswalks and signals
  • Reduce speed limits in suburban areas

2. ​Mixed-Use Development and Zoning
Urban sprawl can increase the distance between homes and commercial properties, making neighborhoods less walkable. Civil engineers can enhance the livability of communities by developing land for mixed use. Mixed-use development can take many forms, including:

  • Live/work: Structures that combine residential spaces with commercial or manufacturing spaces.
  • Main street commercial: A revitalized downtown with retail, residential, food and beverage, and civic areas in a walkable format.
  • Historic urban: Converted or retrofitted buildings that offer ground-floor commercial and upper-floor residential opportunities.
  • Lifestyle center: Commercial shopping centers that house services and food and beverage locations near residential areas.
  • Vertical: New structures that include upper-floor housing and ground-floor commercial locations.
  • Horizontal: Interconnected structures that incorporate both commercial stores and housing.
  • Complete neighborhood: A compact, planned neighborhood that positions many or all daily needs within walking distance of homes.

The specific features vary, but all of these mixed-use strategies seek to combine commercial and residential properties. Easy access to community centers, shopping opportunities, and other spaces create a more convenient walking experience.

Unfortunately, zoning issues often limit the ability of civil engineers to implement these strategies. Federal policies, local regulations, and other restrictions may need to be discussed and worked around before you can plan a mixed-use development. Partner with consulting engineers, like our team at Engineering Surveys & Services, to navigate these regulations.

3. Distinctive Community Features
Every community needs an identity to give its members a sense of pride and cohesion. Modern community planning will seek to highlight and celebrate existing community features, or create a sense of shared identity and culture in new developments. 

In some instances, distinct community features are shared by every property in a suburb; in others, various properties are tied together by a single structure or other distinctive feature. For example, a particular architectural style can turn a group of buildings into an iconic neighborhood, but so can a central, iconic commercial building.

Consider restoring historic buildings or looking for unique cultural or ecological features as the cornerstone of your suburb development. Revive or create an identity for a community to encourage new residents and new companies to move into the area.

4. Sustainable Transportation Options
Pedestrian-friendly suburbs offer opportunities to enjoy local parks, restaurants, and other amenities. To create a livable suburb, however, you need to connect this microcosm with the greater community.

Public transit is an opportunity to connect suburbs with each other and the downtown area. Quality public transportation includes these features:

  • Affordable fares
  • Timely transportation
  • Convenient stops
  • Accessible designs

Cars discourage communal travel. Accessible public transportation encourages eco-friendly solutions and gives non-drivers an opportunity to travel safely and efficiently.
Underground subway routes may not be a practical public transportation option for your specific suburb, but consider a bus or tram service. Hybrid and electric transportation continues to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used to operate a public transit route.

5. Predictable and Equitable Development
Development needs to be predictable and equitable to reach all community members. Look for ways to avoid excluding members of your planned suburb or suburb development project, particularly those who are at-risk or already affected by accessibility issues. For example, a historic urban structure may not have the ramps, elevators, and interior dimensions required for ADA accessibility, so you must incorporate these features into the development process.

Smart-growth community planning solutions must be carefully weighed in light of many different groups. Consider how to create an accessible neighborhood for all individuals of all abilities.

This can include features like wheelchair access to all community spaces and equitable development across income levels. It can also include affordable transportation options for residents who don’t drive. Some developments are inequitable due to unequal amounts of air pollution, so part of the development strategy should be to reduce air pollution in disproportionately affected areas.

6. Participation in Planning
Even a perfectly designed community project won’t succeed unless it’s accepted by those living in the suburb. Don’t move forward with a civil engineering project until you’ve allowed residents to weigh in and participate in planning the development.

Invest heavily in participation from local community members. A beautiful park, stunning apartment complex, or mixed commercial street needs to be designed with a specific community’s goals and vision in mind. Otherwise, it may not be used or may not be the best development opportunity.

7. Incorporate Land Features
Identify unique ecological features early on in your development process. Land features can help promote a community identity on their own or alongside historic structures.

In the past, swampland, woodland, fields, and other land features were quickly removed to make additional space. The result of removing these features was often urban sprawl and limited walkability.

Instead, consider incorporating more biodiversity and natural habitat in your suburb. This includes green spaces, but also rivers, streams, and other water features.

Learn More About Livable Suburbs

A livable and walkable suburb is a nuanced yet worthwhile community planning goal. Contact Engineering Surveys & Services to discuss your goals in providing local residents and stakeholders with livable, walkable solutions for their existing neighborhood or planned development.

Image Credits: UnSplash @Creative Commons

chevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram