The 25th Symposium on the Future of the City was held today (Friday, February 25th) at the Knight Center on the A&M campus. If you didn't know about this until now, you're not alone, as publicity for this event was pretty sorry (I didn't really know about it until the day before). The audience consisted of city and planning officials and volunteers from nearly every group involved in sustainability in the Huntsville region, from bicyclists to local food groups.
The reason why I attended though was to listen to the keynote speaker, APA (American Planning Association) president-elect Mitchell Silver, Director of Planning for the city of Raleigh, NC. Raleigh and Huntsville are very similar cities; granted, we are about a third of the size of the Triangle region, but our knowledge-based economies and high quality of life make up the difference in population. Both cities are growing rapidly, but much of the growth has come in the form of low-density, largely uncontrolled sprawl. The difference is that Raleigh eventually realized that sprawl is expensive to maintain if it isn't managed correctly.
A couple of years ago, Raleigh decided to create a comprehensive plan with cooperation from the region. This created a single document that brought together long-range plans for land use, transportation, and greenspace. It was compiled using an interactive public involvement process that allowed everyone to have a say in the future of their city, which in part gave the plan a 96% approval rating among citizens.
And Raleigh wasn't destroyed. People weren't forced out of their homes. Some still moved to the suburbs. But now a balance in growth is being created, with suburban and urban living options (thanks to $3 Billion in private investment downtown in the past five years). Now, Raleigh is tackling another challenge-- rewriting and simplifying their zoning code, accelerating the comprehensive plan's goals.
What can Huntsville take out of this? I think the obvious point is that we have to think regionally. That means regional land-use and transportation planning with muscle-- no more weak committees or "plans for plans" (e.g. the "Tennessee Valley Regional Growth Coordination Plan"). We need an enforceable plan-- one that has been created with the public, agreed upon by the city/county governments, and is strong enough to refer to when making strategic planning decisions.