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A Sense of Place: New city approach calls for more flexible view of land use

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This is the second in a series of articles exploring the 10 main goals of Forward SGF, the city of Springfield’s 20-year comprehensive plan. The plan is now being rolled out in draft form for residents to review before being presented to City Council for possible adoption in the fall.

Once upon a time, almost every U.S. city made the decision to divide its land by intended use: residential, commercial or industrial.

These three main uses were further split. As an example, a residential zone might be for low-, medium- or high-density housing, for single or multiple families. The zones were refined even more over the years, with overlays for airports or urban conservation districts or other defined intentions.

Still, at the heart, the city was divided into areas defined by purpose.

The system, called Euclidean zoning, dates from the 1920s, but a century later, city planners are looking at a new way of doing things.

“Springfield is in a time of transition, along with the rest of the world,” said Randall Whitman, senior city planner. “Technology is changing how we do business, how we shop, how we’re employed – it’s all dynamically different than how it was even 20 years ago.”

A new way of living calls for new ways of configuring the land we occupy. That thinking is woven into Forward SGF.

One of the plan’s key initiatives is to move to a place-based approach for city planning, allowing an emphasis on experiences, rather than functions, to lead the way.

What’s wrong with the old way?
Euclidean zoning dates from a time when space was not an issue. Development happened in the abundant green spaces at the outskirts of town, whether that meant building a subdivision of single-family homes or adding a shopping center or factory, as Whitman explained.

Walkability became less feasible, and sometimes cities quit installing sidewalks altogether.

Current residents, according to Whitman, aren’t always getting in their car to go to work or to buy things. Often, they’re working at the kitchen table on a laptop, and their groceries and other purchases are showing up right at their door.

“The world is changing so dramatically that we can’t just guide new development based on how property is used,” Whitman said.

Even when there is a desire to develop, green space is at a premium; instead, today’s developers look at brownfields – places previously developed, where demolition or remediation may be needed.

And if the COVID-19 pandemic had a lesson, it’s that the future is unpredictable.

“If you’re a real estate developer or investor and you own a traditional retail or strip center, it’s very hard to predict the next tenant – how long it’s going to last, or how to build that space to serve their needs,” Whitman said.

A new way
“Like most cities, Springfield is reacting to say let’s move away from land use and look at how the property interacts with the street and adjacent properties – how it’s integrated into the neighborhood that’s behind it,” added Whitman. “How can we integrate uses that are more flexible to make it more flexible for this dynamic future?”

The land use and development plan outlined in Forward SGF introduces place types, Whitman said.

“We don’t look at a parcel anymore,” he said. “We look at an area, like a neighborhood or district, and ask how does that area function together? What combination of uses are appropriate to go together and be designed together to create a sense of place?”

Whitman said some mixture of uses is typical, even within specified zones. A residential neighborhood obviously contains residential structures, but these may include diverse housing types, plus churches, schools, parks and structures for light commercial use.

“It’s a shift,” Whitman said, “and many uses can be integrated.”

Design considerations might include parking, landscaping, buffer yards and access points, he said.

Whitman said a neighborhood might not be the right place for a high-intensity restaurant or coffee shop, with people driving to the center of the neighborhood to get there. Instead, a smaller restaurant on the edge of a neighborhood might be more in line with what the place could comfortably support, and neighbors could walk and gather there.

“It’s a throwback to the way we used to do things,” he said. “People walked to get their groceries or visit people or go to school.”

A place-based approach will not replace zoning in the city, according to Whitman. Rather, it privileges vision over use type, and zoning will remain one tool, among others, to help create the kind of spaces people will enjoy living and working in.

If Forward SGF is approved, however, it will move the city away from traditional zoning. Whitman noted zoning is a regulatory tool, while a land-use plan like Forward SGF is a visionary document.

“It says this is the kind of community we want to be; these are the characteristics of the community we want Springfield to be 20 years from now,” he said.

15-minute communities
The Forward SGF plan makes reference to 15-minute communities – walkable neighborhoods and districts with key amenities available within a 15-mimute walk, which is approximately a quarter of a mile, Whitman said.

It’s a concept favored by Laurel Bryant, vice president of the Rountree Neighborhood Association and a member of the Forward SGF Advisory Team.

“In a 15-minute neighborhood, everyone would have smaller services closer to home,” she said.

Instead of going to a big retail center outside of town, a lot of what is needed can be readily accessed close by, she said.

“Now, we’re finding quality of life happens when we have this district living instead of all of us jumping in the car and driving to a mega center,” she said.

Although Bryant said she loves living in Rountree, close to the center of the city, she knows it’s not a model that could or even should be replicated everywhere. The Rountree example, with a commercial hub at the intersection of Pickwick Avenue and Cherry Street, is often brought up in conversations about development, but Bryant said each neighborhood is and should be unique.

“When they talk about replicating Rountree, what they’re really talking about is adding more mixed use and walkability to neighborhoods,” she said.

Bryant said a lot of factors make Rountree unique, including its socioeconomic diversity and its diversity in age ranges.

“I hope that as we plan for the future we keep this idea of diversity, because I love that we can be connected and learn from each other,” she said.

Whitman said the goal is to create a place that’s highly livable.

“Zoning and land development is just one part of that,” he said. “You have to tie that into a community that’s based on experiences. Make it a memorable place that’s full of fun and inviting things. It’s got to be attractive and appealing to people in lots of different ways.”

Whitman said Forward SGF is trying to capitalize on the fact that the city is more established than the communities surrounding it.

“Those communities are relatively young. They don’t have as much history, fabric and character as some of Springfield’s neighborhoods,” he said. “We are that metro area. We want to capitalize on that in Springfield.

“Place types are one way to drive that home.”


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