The field of urban, or city planning covers all aspects of a city, including housing, economic development, infrastructure, land use, environmental policy and transportation. And a lot goes into planning a well-functioning city. For example, a simple decision to plant trees along streets can increase property value, decrease air pollution, cool streets and sidewalks and decrease rainwater run-off. Many cities now are finding innovative ways to improve the lives of their citizens.
Eugene, Oregon is a good example of a city that is environmentally focused in its planning. They have a public power grid that draws 80% of its energy from renewable hydroelectric sources. Here, at home in Columbia, we have a number of examples of amenities that were the result of thoughtful city planning. Our parks, playgrounds, pools, splashgrounds, parking structures, farmers’ markets, bike and walking trails such as the Katy Trail (our own former railroad tracks), public art, public transit, several hospitals, the public library, schools and grocery stores were all the result of urban planning.
In New York City, rather than tear down an old set of elevated railroad tracks, the city leaders decided to turn the tracks into a walkable stretch of urban gardening, known as the High Line. You can learn more about it in “Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes,” by Piet Oudolf. It has become a popular oasis in the city, which also boasts Central Park, a fine example of city planning for green space. Central Park offers New Yorkers a place to relax, enjoy nature and get some exercise. To learn more about city planning in America, watch the PBS special, “10 That Changed America,” available on DVD at the library.
Cities with good public transit benefit from less traffic and less pollution. Having a good bus system or light rail can improve the lives of citizens, especially those without other means of transportation. Walkable cities are another solution. If a neighborhood has shops, parks and schools within walking range, it helps people connect as they’re more likely to see their neighbors. In contrast, some neighborhoods are composed mainly of houses in which people enter through their garages and never meet their neighbors. In Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Change America, One Step at a Time,” the author argues that walkability is the key factor to making cities thrive.
In “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” author Eric Klinenberg suggests a way to improve our fractured society through the use of shared spaces, such as libraries, parks, churches and childcare centers. In communal spaces people can form connections and friendships that transcend their differences.
Neighborhoods without grocery stores can be described as “food deserts.” In some cities, community gardens offer residents of food deserts access to fresh, healthy foods. Learn how one city created an urban garden in “The Urban Garden: How One Community Turned Idle Land Into a Community Garden and How You Can, Too,” by Jeremy N. Smith.
Consider improvements you would like to see in your city. Then consider how you can effect change. You can get involved with the city government, vote at a local level, plant a tree in your yard, pick up litter, etc. There are many ways for individuals to have a positive influence on their neighborhoods. For more ideas, see “The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking,” by Jay Walljasper.
Finally, if you’re interested in this topic, you’ll want to read the 1961 classic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, which was described by The New York Times as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning.”
This is a small sampling of books and ideas on the very large topic of city planning. Hopefully, you will be inspired to make a positive change in your community.