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Urban planning is an important tool for municipal leaders to achieve sustainable development. It helps to formulate medium- and long-term objectives that reconcile a collective vision, garnered through authentic community engagement, with the rational organization of the resources to achieve it.

Planning makes the most of municipal budgets by informing infrastructure and services investments, and balancing demands for growth with the need to protect the environment and the quality of life of residents.  Through analysis, a municipality and its residents can make rational decisions about priorities and necessary trade-offs. Planning can help distribute economic opportunities within a given area to reach social objectives, and creates a framework for collaboration between local governments, the private sector and the public at large.

Major efforts to enhance quality of life, prosperity and equity can be achieved through intentional design. Such transformational impact is not achieved by being spontaneous. In other words, "Great places don't happen by accident". Thriving cities have a vision and follow it through with a framework to develop in an orderly way. A planned framework is not about top-down control,  but is a tool to anticipate needs, to coordinate efforts and to find a path towards goals that everyone can understand, agree too and work towards together.

Housing, employment, accessibility and safety are key concerns for residents and are strongly correlated to urban form. The correct policies on density, land use, public space and the layout of infrastructure and services can make a difference to the delivery of a good quality of life. 


In short, development should contribute towards the achievement of the community's goals and objectives, not the other way around, and following a meaningful planning process will shift that balance of power back towards the community.

To see a presentation on a planning process we admire, please watch this interview with Dan Bartman, Senior Zoning and Policy planner from Somerville describing their planning work. 

What is Urban Planning?

Urban Planning, is the design and regulation of the uses of space that focus on the physical form, economic functions, and social impacts of the urban environment and on the location of different activities within it. Because urban planning draws upon engineering, architectural and social and political concerns, it is variously a technical profession, an endeavor involving political will and public participation, and an academic discipline. Urban planning concerns itself with both the development of open land and the revitalization of existing parts of the city thereby involving goal setting, data collection and analysis, forecasting, design, strategic thinking, and public consultation.

Planning is an Opportunity to Advance Equity

​A community-driven comprehensive planning process, which is what Brookline by Design is advocating for, offers us a significant opportunity as a community to articulate our goals and vision for the future.  We have modern concerns, such as affordability, equity, sustainability and climate resiliency, which are not contemplated in our current regulations. In Brookline, our current status quo land use and development policies and processes do not address equity in any significant way, other than our attempts at inclusionary zoning, which increase the cost of market rate units by slightly subsidizing a few units in each project.   Many are advocating that we simply increase the allowable building sizes within our current zoning framework.  This may increase density but it would be haphazard with poor results. We need to harness the benefits of employing state of the art planning techniques and new, more nuanced zoning techniques to first build in the kind of regulations we should, such as fair housing standards, developer funded public realm improvements, healthy landscape standards to boost our climate resiliency, and good urban design to create welcoming and exciting places to name a few. We also must first understand the relationship between adding population and maintaining our per capita park and recreation space, school space, infrastructure, libraries, and town services, etc. Every resident’s well-being depends on it. With developer driven building, we are vulnerable to the effects of gentrification and displacement that are triggered by significant redevelopment.  There are plenty of examples in Brookline where we have seen demolition of older, lower-cost existing structures that are replaced with new uber-luxury housing built for very wealthy households.  We have no mechanism to protect residents of these older structures in our current by-laws. We have a lot to learn from the experience of Boston, where newer substantially unplanned areas such as the Seaport have been built with little to no concern for providing the elements that make a neighborhood supportive of family well-being, such as access to parks, recreation, public transportation and meeting a family’s daily needs within walking distance. Additionally, the developer-driven development in the Seaport has resulted in very little cultural or racial diversity.  Watch this video clip of former Councilwoman Lydia Edwards as she remarks on these facts. Boston has recently made an amendment to their Zoning Ordinance to include an innovative approach to manage the equity challenges around new development, which was championed by Councilwoman Edwards, called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.  You can read about it here. Managing the negative impacts of displacement and gentrification are just two of our current land use challenges that could be addressed if we undertook a more inclusive and community-driven planning effort. There are a great deal of innovative tools and techniques we could incorporate into our future land use regulations that could benefit the Town substantially in terms of addressing concerns such as environmental justice (access to nature and mitigating heat island), fair housing practices, equity of access to Town services and facilities and equity of access through transportation policy are just a few. Like most other professions and organizations, the practice of Urban Planning has been working to incorporate equity concerns into the process and policies of comprehensive planning. To begin with, great advances have been made to make the planning process more inclusive through tailored community engagement strategies aimed at dismantling barriers that prohibit meaningful participation.  The interview with Somerville Planner, Dan Bartman highlighted their community process that led to a highly successful plan called Somervsion that represents their future goals. Watch a presentation and interview with Dan Bartman here: Island Press has published a ground breaking book on novel approaches to community engagement called “Dream, Play, Build: Hands on Community Engagement for Enduring Spaces and Places” by James Rojas and John Kamp, where the authors describe how they broke down barriers between the public and planning and design professionals to embrace the vision and creativity residents have about their community, enabling them to offer meaningful suggestions to build a better future.  The potential for Brookline to embrace and benefit from these techniques is great. In their book “The Comprehensive Plan: Sustainable, Resilient and Equitable Communities for the 21st Century” David Rouse, FAICP, ALSA, and Rocky Piro, PhD, FAICP, outline effective new strategies to incorporate planning for the ascendant issues modern communities are grappling with as we plan for tomorrow.  If we are not intentional in our vision, goals and desired outcomes, progress on equity and resiliency will not be made manifest in our built environment. This is why Brookline by Design exists and why we are calling on Brookline to rise to the challenge to come together to harness these tools for the benefit of all and to take back our power to manage our own destiny.

The Value of Planning

A recent Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting included a conversation with retail leasing experts concerning the future of retail and keeping Brookline's commercial areas vibrant. One very important part of the discussion has not been widely shared, namely, the powerful value to the Town of undertaking a town-wide, community based planning process. When asked about neighborhood involvement and acceptance Jesse Baerkahn, founder and president of Graffito SP, a Boston based consulting firm specializing in “Neighborhood Strategy + Retail Development”, pointed to the work the City of Somerville has done, noting that creating a truly participatory planning process and systematically planning for the future will give Somerville a huge advantage in the future. In fact, Jesse made the following observation: “You know, the City of Somerville’s done a really nice job… it’s called SomerVision, which is a very holistic city scale values statement about what they want in their neighborhoods, [they have] gone neighborhood by neighborhood and facilitated conversations around things from zoning to uses to community benefits, and it resulted in a shared vision. With that up front work it made moving forward from there quite a bit easier.” There are benefits for both the Town and developers from doing the up-front work. Jesse went on to say, “there is lots of reliability about what it’s going to take [for a developer] in a given neighborhood, so you can go in knowing what needs a special permit, what’s allowed “as of right”…I think it’s one of the reasons you’re going to see a lot of great retail activity in the next 10 years in Somerville, because they went through that process, it put a stake in the ground and defined, into the City processes, what it is they want in that community. It allows for much more streamlined action so that’s one example of a community that’s done a good job and it’s why they will benefit from it in the coming years.” There is an important lesson here for Brookline, namely by reaching community consensus through grass roots engagement, it becomes possible to implement a community vision and achieve clarity and predictability in development outcomes. If you’re interested in learning more about the planning process Somerville undertook, and the innovative form-based zoning code that was the result of their work, please watch this presentation given at an Advisory Committee meeting by Dan Bartman, Somerville’s Senior Zoning and Policy Planner, Visit Brookline by Design for more information about neighborhood-based planning for Brookline.

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