Rural Smart Growth to reinforce regional placemaking: Part 1

Regions are the smallest geographic unit of sustainable growth and development. Rural Smart Growth strategies combined with urban Placemaking efforts contribute to a region’s quality of life and sense of place.

Conventional commercial development and design-based commercial development in a rural setting. Courtesy of the Center for Rural Massachusetts.
Conventional commercial development and design-based commercial development in a rural setting. Courtesy of the Center for Rural Massachusetts.

In the face of global and regional economic competition, communities that succeed for the long term (i.e. that are economically, environmentally and socially sustainable) will be those that have the best quality of life. To have the best quality of life, communities must have balanced land uses, and offer a range of choices to meet the full range of people’s needs who may choose to live in the community at any or all stages of their lives.

Most people live their daily lives without consideration of jurisdiction boundaries; they live, work, shop, recreate, are entertained and educated in many different jurisdictions each day. Most people associate more with an economic area, than with a governmental jurisdiction. No single jurisdiction can provide all that is necessary for a high quality of life for people that live in the area. Intergovernmental cooperation and coordination is critical to a high quality of life.

There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child; similarly, it takes a region to create a prosperous economy. That said, Smart Growth and Placemaking principles seem to be more easily applied in urban settings. What about rural places? For rural places within proximity of more urban villages and cities, consider the following strategies to reinforce place for greater prosperity throughout the region:

  1. Avoid zoning that creates parcels that are too small to farm or manage for forest benefits, but are too big to mow. Generally, this includes lot sizes that are between two acres and 20 acres in size (in some areas, the range may extend to 40 acres). Housing density that results is not dense enough for cost-effective provision of services and too dense to maintain economical agriculture or forestry operations.
  2. For conventional, single-family residential developments, offer options that incentivize land conservation through conservation design approaches. Well-designed conservation subdivisions are density and revenue neutral (if not revenue enhancing). What is more, conservation design preserves parts of the landscape that are the most important for green infrastructure functions and open space protection, both of which are important amenities for placemaking.
  3. Apply conservation design options in the right areas of the community; used in the wrong place it can hamper farming and create sprawl. Conservation design works best in transition areas between towns and true rural areas. With the rural to urban transect in mind, this option should only be available in the rural zone (T2) and suburban zone (T3). Such developments should not be permitted in the natural zone (T1) or in the general urban zone (T4). Similarly, other larger-scale developments, like planned unit developments (PUDs), should be carefully planned in rural, isolated areas. While PUDs offer flexibility in zoning and often include clustering of homes and protection of open space, poorly planned and sited PUDs can erode rural place and even strain local government services and budgets.
  4. Where residential or commercial development (including PUDs) make sense in rural areas, master plans should concentrate such development near existing development to allow for more efficient service provision, retain farms and forests, and minimize vehicle miles traveled. In other words, in rural jurisdictions where it makes sense to designate growth areas, those areas should be planned adjacent to the existing urban areas of neighboring cities and villages. Consistent with increased demand for walkable neighborhoods, any growth areas will be most successful if designed in a manner consistent with principles of New Urbanism.
  5. Rural places can also reinforce their sense of place by protecting sensitive natural areas. Natural areas are not only important for environmental reasons, but also because of the unique character they create for rural places. Such natural or green space amenities are important for population attraction and retention in the New Economy. Rural communities can work with regional planning entities, land conservancies, or the Michigan Natural Features Inventory to assist with identification of key natural areas to protect.

Part 2 of this article by Michigan State University Extension highlights five more rural smart growth strategies for communities to engage in to reinforce a regional sense of place.

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