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June 2012 · Volume 94 · Number 5


Local Governments and Their Sustainable Land Use Policies

by Anna Read

Americans are expressing increasing interest in living in compact, walkable communities where housing is close to businesses, services, and amenities. Americans also want the design of their communities to result in shorter commuting times.

In a 2011 survey conducted for the National Association of Realtors, 47 percent of respondents indicated that they would prefer to live in a neighborhood with a mix of housing types, shops, and businesses, while only 12 percent indicated that they would prefer to live in a suburban neighborhood with houses only.1

When given specific scenarios—one of a traditional sprawling community and one of a smart growth community—56 percent indicated a preference for the smart growth community, which was defined by a mix of housing types, sidewalks, and businesses, with amenities near to housing and transit easy to access.

While 80 percent of Americans still express a preference for living in single-family homes, they also express preferences for shorter commutes to their workplaces, sidewalks for ease of walking, increased transit access, and amenities within walking distance. These preferences are especially true for people under 30, women under 40, and those with a postgraduate education, among several other subgroups.2

In addition, the majority of those surveyed, or 57 percent, indicated that funding for improvements to existing communities should be used to upgrade parks and sidewalks.3

Local Government Policies Promoting Sustainable Land Use

As data from the National Association of Realtors survey indicate, Americans are amenable to changing development patterns so that more compact, walkable, mixed-use communities are the result.

ICMA’s survey, Local Government Sustainability Polices and Programs, provides insight into what local governments are doing to promote sustainable land use practices.

Local governments are addressing sustainable land use by changing zoning ordinances to permit higher density, mixed-use development and on-site energy generation; amending land conservation and transfer of development rights programs; and improving transportation to make communities more accessible by a range of modes of transportation.

More than 35 percent of local governments have residential zoning codes that encourage more mixed-use development, and 19.5 percent permit higher-density development near such public transit nodes as bus transfer stations or light-rail stations. Slightly more than 22 percent permit higher-density development where utility and transportation infrastructure are already in place. Nearly 14 percent of local governments have residential zoning codes that permit higher densities through ancillary dwelling units or apartments.

Although local governments are pursuing density bonuses near transit and where existing infrastructure is in place, far fewer are pursuing tax incentives as a means of promoting sustainable development. Only 2.8 percent of local governments responding reported offering tax incentives for sustainable development, which the survey defined as “energy efficiency, recycling of materials, land preservation, stormwater enhancement, etc.”4

Another way local governments address sustainable land use is through policies and programs that promote on-site energy generation, the reuse of vacant or abandoned lands, or the conservation of natural areas and agricultural and resource lands. Nearly 21 percent of local governments have residential zoning codes to permit solar installations, wind power, or other renewable energy production.

Permitting solar installations, particularly rooftop photovoltaic installations, or small wind turbines in residential areas can allow for on-site energy generation, which can help reduce the need for new energy generation facilities and prevent energy sprawl.

When it comes to putting vacant land back into active use through an active brownfields or vacant property program for revitalizing abandoned or underused residential, commercial, or industrial lands and buildings, 22.4 percent of local governments report having this type of program in place.

A similar percentage of local governments have programs to protect undeveloped land; just over 22 percent of local governments have a land conservation program, with nearly 47 percent in New England reporting land conservation programs.

The most commonly reported land conservation program in the survey is a program for the purchase or transfer of development rights, which 15.5 percent of local governments have implemented.

Localities are also taking steps to create more sustainable and active transportation systems and to make their communities more walkable. In the five years preceding 2010, 34.2 percent reported they expanded dedicated bike lanes, 61.4 percent added biking and walking trails, and 54.4 percent required sidewalks in new developments. When it comes to public transportation, nearly 22 percent have expanded bus routes in the past five years.

Location Matters

What local governments are doing also depends on where they are located. For the most part, local governments in the West are more likely to pursue land use policies that promote higher densities and mixed-use development.

Some 44.2 percent of local governments in the West, for example, have residential zoning codes that promote more mixed-use development, compared with just under 37 percent in the South; 35.8 percent in the West permit higher density development near transit nodes, compared with 17.8 percent in the Northeast.

Local governments in the West are more likely to be investing in transportation improvements. Just more than 60 percent reported that they have expanded dedicated bike lanes on streets in the past five years, compared with just over 30 percent in the South; 73.3 percent reported adding biking and walking trails in the same period, compared with just under 63 percent in North Central.5

When it comes to land conservation programs, local governments in the Northeast report the highest numbers. Just under 35 percent have a land conservation program, in comparison with just under 23 percent in both the South and West; 25 percent report a program for the purchase or transfer of development rights to preserve open space, compared with 22 percent of local governments in the West.

Local governments in the North Central region lead the way in programs that deal with brownfields, vacant property, and revitalizing abandoned or underused residential lands and buildings; 29 percent report having such programs, compared with 21 percent in the Northeast.

In addition to location, community size plays a role in the likelihood that a local government has adopted sustainable land use policies. Communities with larger populations are generally more likely to have adopted these policies.

Nearly 41 percent of communities with populations above 50,000, for example, report permitting higher density near public transit nodes, while just under 15 percent of communities with populations under 50,000 report such permitting allowances.

Similarly, 46.5 percent of local governments with populations over 50,000 report expanding bus routes between 2005 and 2010, while 16.6 percent with populations under 50,000 report having done so.6

Case Study: Fort Collins, Colorado

All these numbers paint a general picture of what local governments are doing related to sustainability, but they don’t illustrate what these policies look like in practice. Fort Collins, Colorado (population 143,986), adopted its sustainability plan, which guides its sustainability efforts, in 2004 with the goal of serving “as a community leader in sustainability by conducting daily operations through balanced stewardship of human, financial, and environmental resources for present and future generations.”7

The city has since emerged as a leader in the field of sustainability, with an impressive array of sustainability initiatives, ranging from extensive recycling programs to a new initiative to promote mixed-use development along transportation corridors.8 The sustainability plan and its guiding principles have been used to guide, in part, the Fort Collins comprehensive plan.

The comprehensive plan addresses, in particular, the land use and sustainability connection discussed more abstractly in this article. To guide growth, Fort Collins has established a growth management area (GMA).

The GMA, which can be amended within established criteria, guides growth outside the city’s established boundaries and “delineate[s] the extent of urban development.” Fort Collins has also prioritized targeted redevelopment and infill, with the goals of revitalizing underused commercial and industrial areas; focusing mixed-use development and high-density housing in areas that are currently or will be served by high-frequency transit use; and creating better access to jobs, housing, and services while reducing the need for vehicle trips.

To promote infill and targeted redevelopment, the city has identified targeted activity centers, including a “community spine” that will receive priority for public investment in infrastructure.9

To recognize the kind of excellent urban design the city sees as key to a sustainable future, Fort Collins held Fort Collins Urban Design Awards in 2006, 2008, and 2011 to recognize excellent local projects and promote the importance of urban design.10 The awards recognized excellent projects in the categories of urban design plan, architecture, urban fragment, civic improvement project, green design, and hall of fame.

On the transportation side, Fort Collins is working to provide a network of transportation choices that allows residents to reduce their vehicle miles traveled. In addition to an extensive bus network, which had more than two million rides in 2011, the city has a bicycling department and a pedestrian plan.

The bicycling department provides information on bicycle safety and on bicycle trails through the city.11 The goal of the pedestrian plan, first adopted in 1996 and updated in 2011, is creating a pedestrian-friendly environment within the city that encourages residents and visitors to choose walking as a mode of transportation.

To do this, the city recognizes it must address such problems as gaps in sidewalks and street crossings that are impediments to pedestrians, and the plan serves as the guiding document for these improvements.12 To further improve transportation efficiency for the cars on the road, lights were timed to increase efficiency and reduce travel time. It has been estimated, on the basis of increased efficiency, that carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 8,800 metric tons.

Linking transportation and land use, Fort Collins is working on the redevelopment of the Mason Corridor—the community spine mentioned earlier—that will link activity centers in the city, including Colorado State University, downtown, and a major retail mall. The corridor will feature Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), expected to be completed in 2014, alongside a bike and pedestrian trail.

The corridor, which is a partnership of the city, the Downtown Development Partnership, Colorado State University, the Colorado Department of Transportation, and the Federal Transit Administration, is seen as “a framework for future economic growth” and is focused on working with developers to create incentives for mixed-use development and redevelopment along the corridor, particularly near BRT stations.13

To showcase sustainability efforts and other related initiatives, Fort Collins staff have put together a series of YouTube videos to show residents the actions being taken to create a more sustainable future and the programs that are available to them.14

Changes Still Needed

As the numbers from the ICMA survey illustrate, local governments are taking action to promote mixed-use development, higher-density development, and land conservation.

But the results are mixed. With the exception of adding bicycle lanes and dedicated biking and walking trails, which nearly three-quarters of local governments report having done between 2005 and 2010, only between one-fifth and one-third of local governments have adopted policies in these areas. Local governments can still make many changes to support sustainable land use practices.

Endnotes and Resources

1 2011 Community Preference Survey, conducted by Belden Russonello & Stewart LLC for the National Association of Realtors, 2011. Between February 15 and February 24, 2011, 2,071 questionnaires were completed. Survey data have a margin of error of 2.2 percent at the 95 percent level of confidence. Full survey results are available at www.realtor.org/government_affairs/smart_growth/survey.
2 Ibid. Other subgroups expressing a clear preference for smart growth communities were people already living in similar communities, those living in the Midwest region, African Americans, renters, singles, those earning less than $25,000 a year, and Democrats.
3 Ibid. The question asked specifically addressed state funding priorities.
4 When asked exactly the same question for density incentives (provide density incentives for "sustainable" development rather than provide tax incentives for "sustainable" development), 9.8 percent of local governments responded affirmatively.
5 These locational trends hold for the 2010 ICMA survey overall. Local governments in the West have the highest rate of adoption in 10 of the 12 sustainability action areas. The two where they do not are recycling and land conservation, where adoption rates are higher in the Northeast. For more information, see James H. Svara, “The Early Stages of Local Government Action to Promote Sustainability,” in The Municipal Yearbook 2011: Local Government Issues, Trends, Facts, and Resources (Washington, D.C.: ICMA, 2011).
6 Larger local governments are the ones more likely to be taking action overall. “The largest size category—cities and counties over 500,000 in population—have an overall adoption rating (39 percent) that is three times that of the smallest category of governments under 10,000 in population (13 percent).” For more information, see Svara, “The Early Stages of Local Government Action to Promote Sustainability.”
7 See City of Fort Collins Action Plan for Sustainability: Policy and Recommended Strategies, September 2004, www.fcgov.com/sustainability/pdf/sustainability-plan.pdf. Fort Collins has also made the conservation of open lands a priority in its city plan, as well as through its Land Conservation and Stewardship Master Plan, 2004, which emphasizes the importance of dedicating sufficient resources to both land conservation and stewardship as well as to habitat restoration. Five of the city's six existing parks are designated Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary sites.
8 In a ranking of the top 240 communities responding the ICMA sustainability survey of local governments across all 12 sustainability activity areas, Fort Collins ranked sixth.
9 For more information on land use planning in Fort Collins, see City Plan: Fort Collins, 2011, www.fcgov.com/planfortcollins/pdf/cityplan.pdf.
10 Fort Collins Urban Design Awards, 2011, www.fcgov.com/advanceplanning/urbandesignawards.php.
11 Bicycling, City of Fort Collins, 2011, www.fcgov.com/bicycling/. The city also has a Bicycle Plan, 1995 (revised 2008); see www.fcgov.com/bicycling/bike-plan.php.
12 Pedestrian Plan, City of Fort Collins, 1996 (2011 update), www.fcgov.com/pedestrianplan.
13 “Mason Corridor,” video, www.fcgov.com/youtube.php?vid=LnSbJbIb9Ow.
14 “Sustain Fort Collins,” video, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mcr4zffR6c0.

Anna Read is project manager, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (aread@icma.org).

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