Creating Beautiful Communities that Move Us: Thoughts on Ensuring Connection between Land Use Plans and Mobility

PIBC Spring 2016This article was published in Planning West magazine, Volume 58, Number 2 (Spring 2016), and is reprinted here with permission from the Planning Institute of British Columbia (PIBC), all rights reserved.

Since Planning West is a professional planning publication, the article was written with that audience primarily in mind, one planner to another as it were.  However, I still want to underscore that all of us have a role to play in shaping our communities and much thanks to PIBC for enabling me to reprint this here and continue a wider conversation.  I welcome your comments below.

Being a Planner is a great gig.  If you’re interested in learning more about this profession, PIBC provides a great general overview or you can read my thoughts here.

Connected to its downtown, the Kamloops Lansdowne Exchange also offers pedestrian and cyclist amenities, such as on site bike storage.

Connected to its downtown, the Kamloops Lansdowne Exchange also offers pedestrian and cyclist amenities, such as on site bike storage.

Communities are connection.

Whether to other people, or to the natural realm, or to goods, services, jobs, school and all the other aspects of life big and small, at their hearts communities are the end result of all those daily connections layered and intertwined with each other.

And in our own hearts as planners, I think perhaps what intrigues us most and drives us forward each day is the chance that we have to create the containers and conditions that help foster all of that beautiful, somewhat chaotic interaction. Our jobs are described as the trick of turning inanimate objects into animated space: arrange concrete, wood, trees and glass in a way where people will want to live there and meet their neighbours; transform a flat land use map into something that lives and breathes.

The drive to create that space for connection is at the centre of our profession.  However, what I’ve noticed while working with communities all across B.C. in my own evolution as a transportation planner over the past two decades is that it’s all too easy to get focused on the particular rather than the whole.

We might spend our days zoomed in on the individual squares of a zoning map and then forget about how people will travel between them.  Or we might create great corridors for transit (or cycling or walking or cars) but be less clear on how they interrelate to each other or to the development that might be there 20 years from now.

In the spirit of continuing to foster connection within our communities and between our selves as professionals, here are some guiding thoughts that I’ve been trying to use in my own work to ensure better integration between land use and mobility (which should really be two sides of the same coin).  I share these thoughts with you in case you also find them helpful.  And I’m also curious to hear what others you think should be added to the list.

Guiding Thought #1: The right things in the right places.  By now no one will be surprised by the idea that the best way to get a community to move well—and live better by doing it—is to design the land use to make it easy to get around by walking, cycling and transit.  Denser, more compact, mixed use communities promote healthier forms of transportation and cost much less to serve than those that sprawl.

Planning where the action is: BC Transit-led public engagement at Salt Spring Island's main transit exchange in the heart of Ganges.

Planning where the action is: BC Transit-led public engagement at Salt Spring Island’s main transit exchange in the heart of Ganges.

While the effectiveness of land use certainly impacts the cost of walking and cycling infrastructure, it’s especially potent when it comes to transit.  This is because extra time and distance required to serve a spread out place directly turns into additional ongoing operating costs that just keep adding up over days, months and years.

So while what constitutes density in Quesnel or Smithers will look different than what it might in Kelowna or downtown Vancouver, know that whatever you can do to enhance the density of your community and its land use mix will also enhance its mobility.

However, that density needs to be in the right place.  Creating a dense development far away from the main collector road on a long “lollipop-like” no exit street is a nightmare to try serve with transit and usually no fun for people on foot and bike.  Instead, wherever possible create a pedestrian/cycling/road network that connects at more than one place and mass density within 400m of the main roads.*

Similarly, any time you can help encourage an institutional user to build closer to the centre of town and existing uses—rather than at the beguilingly “cheap” edge—your community will save in the long term when it comes to ongoing operating costs and ease of connection.

Guiding Thought #2: Keep asking “And how will people get there?” It’s all too easy to view a new development as a widget unto itself.  A powerful thing we can all do when viewing development proposals is keep asking how people will actually connect to and from the “thing” of the development, especially with a repeated emphasis on the “and:” “And how might people get there and move around on foot?” “And what about by bike and bus?” “And how about by taxi and car share vehicle and other type of car?” “And how does this all connect to existing infrastructure in a safe and beautiful and enjoyable way?”

Keep in mind, too, that certain kinds of development will have very specific transportation needs.  A new hospital or seniors care facility needs all of the above questions and will also need space for handyDART vehicles right by the front door.  It will also ideally have well placed curb cuts and a warm place to sit inside and a sheltered bench outside to wait for arriving vehicles.

Similarly, does that new school have covered bike parking and safe cycling and walking connections to the neighbourhood? If it’s a secondary school, is the transit stop big enough to safely accommodate 50 kids who might all be standing there at 3:05pm?

Guiding Thought #3: One network, many layers.  In keeping with the above repeated mantra of “and,” you can also develop better mobility in your community by considering the idea that we shouldn’t be trying to design multiple networks (pedestrian network, bike network, transit network, car network, etc.) but rather multiple layers within one mobility network.

This may seem like a subtle distinction but I think this mental model actually makes a huge difference in how we approach the process of designing cities.  Thinking of my transit work as a layer of something bigger makes me acknowledge that there are other transportation modes.  It also provokes me to pay closer attention to how they work together.  Like overlaps in a Venn diagram, layers also make it possible to move away from “either/or” thinking and come up with solutions that build off each other specifically because they overlay and intersect.

Building resilient, healthy communities requires us to acknowledge that people aren’t only “pedestrians” “cyclists” “transit passengers” or “car users,” but that they use—or should be able to use—a mix of modes depending on what they are doing that day.  Thinking in layers supports creation of that transportation choice.

To help foster the land use and transportation planning connection, BC Transit planning staff have been facilitating transit planning workshops, here BC Transit's Regional Planning Work Lead Matthew Boyd, MCIP, RPP (standing) with Vancouver Island University Masters of Community Planning students.

To help foster the land use and transportation planning connection, BC Transit planning staff have been facilitating transit planning workshops, here BC Transit’s Regional Planning Work Lead Matthew Boyd, MCIP, RPP (standing) with Vancouver Island University Masters of Community Planning students.

Guiding Thought #4: Involve each other early and often. This one seems simple but can be easy to miss amidst the flurry of a new project start up.  We can all help each other do better jobs if we take time in the beginning to figure out who else needs to be part of our planning processes and bring them along from the start.

Looking for input from transit? If your community is outside of Metro Vancouver and is a part of BC Transit’s partnership, BC Transit’s planning team has staff allocated to your system that can provide sustainable transportation perspective on your community plan or development proposal.  For more information or to submit a referral, contact developmentreferrals AT bctransit DOT com.

Within the Metro Vancouver area, similar inquiries can be directed TransLink’s Partner Consultation team.

Guiding Thought #5: Make it lovely.  When it comes right down to it, we might bring a lot of technical and design chops to our jobs but it always seems like much of our days as planners is actually spent playing “let’s make a deal.”  We are the listeners, facilitators and mediators in communities, and a key role we serve is soaking up many potentially dissonant opinions to try to create a united solution.

As we help navigate our communities through the decision-making groan zone to create land use and mobility recommendations, one powerful thing never to lose sight of is the idea that we’re not just “gettin’ ‘er done” but trying to create lovely places.  Let’s keep asking: “How might we make this space more lovely now and for the future? How about for those who are younger or older?”

Final Thought: Don’t fear your passion. One thing you may have noticed in this article is that I haven’t been shying away from words with emotion: heart, beautiful, healthy, lovely.  It seems to me that if we want to build communities that connect—and demonstrate to citizens and decision-makers that their communities are worthy of that connection—we need to be unafraid to show that we connect with them ourselves at more than just the head level.

Yes, these words may not make it through to the final edit of a plan and may be something that you are less comfortable sharing outside of yourself.  But don’t fear them.  Our communities aren’t machines but beautiful living, evolving entities.  Let’s keep doing our best to make those connections happen.

* If you haven’t seen it yet, TransLink has a great primer on designing walkable transit-oriented communities:

Tania Wegwitz, MCIP, RPP is BC Transit’s Manager of Planning who with her team leads the short and long term planning for all the 75+ transit systems in B.C. outside of Metro Vancouver.  She also writes about planning, transportation and community on her personal blog Twitter: @TaniaWegwitz

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