Maintain rural landscapes and character while accommodating new development.
Traditionally, the most commonly used definitions for rural areas come from the federal government and more specifically, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (see Goal Four for more information on rural landscapes). The Census Bureau defines rural areas as “any housing, population, or territory NOT in urban areas.”See footnote 1 The USDA and OMB build on this base definition by adding factors like population density and county and municipal boundaries in determining what is rural.See footnote 2 At the regional and local levels, other descriptions for urban and rural areas come from Metropolitan Planning Organizations in planning for transportation assets. In general, rural landscapes can be characterized by:
- “[S]parsely settled lands in natural, open or cultivated states [and l]ot sizes are typically large, but may be small if . . . developable land is scarce”See footnote 3;
- Location that’s further away from critical infrastructure, public transportation, and community services and amenities;
- Less population compared to urban areas; and
- Limited in government staffing and capacity and have fewer per capita financial resources based on lower total populations and decreased property tax revenues.
Rural America is not only home to a significant portion of our country’s population and natural resources, but provides the rest of the population with necessities like water, food, and energy.See footnote 4 As of 2020, 59.5 million people — making up 19 percent of the population — live in what the Census Bureau considers rural.See footnote 5 In Louisiana alone, as of 2017, rural communities account for around 80 percent of the state’s landmass, with a population of more than 1.2 million ( around 26 percent of the state’s population).See footnote 6
What makes rural communities especially unique is their characteristics of expansive landscapes and a sense of community. Nationwide, 63 percent of those that call rural communities home have been living there for over eleven years.See footnote 7 Forty percent of those living there have stated that they know most of, if not all of, their neighbors.See footnote 8 Essentially, those living in rural communities have a strong sense of connection between their person and the land on which they have depended — and in many cases, the land that their family has depended upon for generations.
Rural communities will need to develop resiliently in order to address these issues. However, population pressures and new development could potentially threaten the lifestyle, culture, and landscapes that make rural communities across Louisiana and the country unique. Moving forward, it will be important that governments think proactively and take action in concert with communities to find ways to encourage growth and development while also retaining what makes rural communities special.
How to Make Progress on This Objective
Just as is the case with urban areas, no two rural communities are alike — though they are all susceptible to risk from natural hazards, including flooding, hurricanes, and increased temperatures.See footnote 9 Consequently, legal, planning, policy, and project solutions to increase rural resilience should be tailored to each individual community. As such, the legal, planning, and policy options and tools discussed below should be considered on a community-by-community basis, and implemented in combination with each other to “help rural towns get the environmental and economically sustainable growth they want.”See footnote 10 These policy options, while not comprehensive, include:
- Land use, zoning, and other ordinances;
- Acquisitions; and
Objective 1.2 and Objective 1.3 outline similar types of plans and policy tools a community can promulgate or amend to guide project implementation. These same policy tools can be used in a rural context as well.
Planning is an especially important tool to preserve the natural characteristics that inherently define what makes a rural community unique. There are various types of plans that rural governments can use in Louisiana to identify and prioritize green spaces and nature-based projects. To guide or regulate development and land use to better “greaux” new and protect existing green spaces and projects in these areas, local policymakers can consider developing or updating comprehensive plans or other types of relevant plans (e.g., adaptation and resilience plans). For more information on how planning documents can be used to encourage nature-based stormwater management solutions specifically, see Objective 2.2.
In instances where rural communities have the opportunity to create or amend broader, community-wide comprehensive plans, policymakers should work directly with the community to determine which unique aspects of their community residents think are most important to preserve. Because local comprehensive plans help to establish the future of a community, this will help to ensure that any comprehensive plan directly reflects the community’s “choices” about where residents want development to occur.See footnote 11 Policymakers, in collaboration with residents, can “designate areas for town centers” and create a comprehensive plan that incorporates economic development, infrastructure installation, and public transit without risking those rural values.
One example of a relatively smaller suburb creating a comprehensive plan that emphasizes the importance of retaining rural, natural character is the City of Gonzales, Louisiana’s Comprehensive Plan. Among the guidelines that the comprehensive plan is designed around is the idea that land-use strategies must maintain community character. As part of this idea, one of the priorities established by stakeholders and incorporated into the plan was to ensure that new development is balanced with providing a healthy community that minimizes flood risks and protects sensitive, undeveloped areas. Examples like this show that the maintenance of rural character — including the natural, open spaces that make these communities unique — can be included in planning documents that ultimately guide policy decisions and project implementation.
For a further analysis of local comprehensive planning documents generally, see Objective 1.2.
Land Use and Zoning
In addition to designing and implementing planning documents and strategies, local governments can evaluate updating land-use and zoning ordinances to support local nature-based priorities — as well as encourage the expansion and maintenance of open spaces — to build community resilience in a rural context. Ideally, these regulatory amendments will be guided by and aligned with relevant plans, especially local comprehensive plans. In a rural context especially, zoning ordinances, land use maps, and overlay districts are especially important tools, because they are enforceable tools that regulate where development occurs and where open spaces can remain preserved. For example, designating areas under zoning ordinances as “restricted growth” can not only help to preserve rural character, and stabilize property value, but they also have the added benefit of “providing a viable economic outlet for current landowners,” since these properties can essentially serve as part of a land bank.See footnote 12
Overlay districts can further protect rural areas by enforcing more stringent restrictions on development. As established in Objective 1.2, overlay districts are tools that can add additional regulations on already existing zoning prohibitions based on “special characteristics in that zone, such as for natural, historical, or cultural resources protection.”See footnote 13 Because rural areas, in their nature, are composed of significant portions of natural spaces (either cleared or still maintaining their natural character), policymakers can use overlay districts to protect existing open spaces from development.
The Louisiana Land Use Toolkit provides several examples of language that can be used in land-use ordinances to protect open, green spaces from development.
The Rural Corridor Overlay District (-RC) is hereby established in order to protect and preserve the natural, scenic beauty along designated rural corridors. Maintaining the attractiveness of these roadway corridors enhances the economic value of the community by encouraging tourism and trade. This overlay district is also established for the purpose of: A. Protecting the public investment in and lengthening the time during which highways can continue to serve their functions without expansion or relocation by expediting the free flow of traffic and reducing the hazards arising from cluttered roadside development; and B. Reducing the costs of future highway expansions by requiring that buildings and structures be sufficiently set back from the right-of-way to provide adequate storage for vehicles until they can safely enter the highway.See footnote 14
Essentially, establishing land-use and zoning ordinances and overlay districts similar to this not only helps to codify what makes rural communities so unique — the natural, scenic beauty of its open spaces — but protects these areas from development as the community continues to grow and expand into the future.
Another way to protect open spaces from future growth and development and restore previously developed areas is to pass ownership to the government to conserve this land. While acquisition tools will be discussed in Objective 1.5, briefly, these tools include:
The design and implementation of individualized projects can also help to expand or create new open spaces and introduce green infrastructure into a rural community. As established in Objective 1.1, examples and scales can vary from demolishing an existing structure on a parcel of land to creating a pocket park within a community, to restoring acres of land back to their natural state to offer ecosystem services and open space for recreation, as well as mitigate flood impacts.
For example, as highlighted in the small town of Terry, Mississippi, the rural community emphasized the importance of their “small-town charm” and the importance of the trees lining their “Americana” streets. In collaboration with the Mississippi Urban Forest Council, a project to plant trees commenced, where volunteers from the community planted 130 trees, 75 shrubs, and other greenery. Small town projects like this exemplify the ways in which rural community values, like planting trees and open spaces, can lead to projects that help make that community more resilient.
Crosscutting Considerations and Practice Tips
When identifying and promoting ways to maintain rural character while still allowing for resilient development, decisionmakers may consider the following crosscutting considerations and practice tips that apply to each of the above types of tools and actions:
- Lead with data
- Leverage local partnerships
- Plan with an eye toward implementation and maintenance
- Overcome barriers to rural community engagement
These tips are based on priority implementation best practices and considerations most relevant to this specific objective and do not present an exhaustive list for regional and local planners and policymakers. In addition to this objective, decisionmakers should, at a minimum, also refer to Goal Five for crosscutting considerations and practice tips including structuring equitable and inclusive community engagement processes and evaluating opportunities to build public-private-nonprofit-community partnerships.
It is important to acknowledge that every jurisdiction will be starting from a different place and have a unique local context and needs, among other factors. Therefore, these considerations and practice tips could be adopted individually, collectively, or not at all. It will be up to policymakers to work directly with their communities and other key stakeholders and partners to assess and determine potential tools and approaches to implement this goal and objective.
Any project or resulting plan created with expansive community engagement should be considered with these principles and expectations in mind. Throughout the process, policymakers should base their community engagement on listening, being credible, and remaining open.See footnote 15 Engagement should take the form of in person and remote outreach so that the largest base of potential stakeholders can be reached.
- Lead with data: Because rural areas often have fewer resources and staff capacity than their urban counterparts, avoiding wasting limited time and maximizing resilience efforts is vitally important. This means that any decisions made by policymakers relating to planning, policies, property acquisitions, or projects for the sake of maintaining open spaces and implementing green infrastructure solutions should be directly supported by relevant data. Using existing databases and catalogs, as outlined by Objective 5.2 and Objective 5.3, can help rural governments avoid “recreating the wheel,” and streamline any survey and inventory process to better prioritize what projects will maximize benefits within a rural community. However, leading with data must also strike a balance with cultivating stakeholder engagement and buy-in at any project outset.
- Leverage local partnerships: Due in part to the “trust” and “new faces” barriers that sometimes face officials when attempting to regulate or design projects for rural areas, working with and through organizations that are already on the ground in these communities is critical. These organizations and stakeholders will often have better first-hand knowledge of local perspectives and the challenges that residents of rural communities face. Trusted partners can also work to educate rural community members about the benefits surrounding green infrastructure projects and open spaces. Partners can include local officials or decisionmakers that are already involved in the community, and economic and community interest groups — such as sustainably focused agricultural organizations that are working to protect landscape integrity while promoting economic success, academic institutions that already have a presence in the community, and rural planning groups that offer training services and share technical resources.See footnote 16
- Plan with an eye toward implementation and maintenance: Governments should avoid “planning for planning’s sake” or overplanning. This can result in several administrative and social consequences. First, this can lead to wasted time and resources. On the community side, too much planning may confuse or frustrate people trying to understand how different projects can further a government’s overall housing and resilience goals. In addition, governments can risk burning out residents by asking them to contribute their time and expertise again and again. Moreover, planning processes leading to nowhere can erode faith or trust in government with community members that expect and need plans to lead to action. This is especially true in communities that already foster some distrust towards the government in some cases, and new faces in most others. Thus, projects should be designed with the intention that they be implemented in ways that help a community retain its rural character while also making room for resilient growth.
In instances where a green project or open space is protected by some of the tools listed above, a lack of maintenance can also lead to an erosion of faith or trust in the government. Projects that involve actions like the creation of community gardens, planting trees, and conserving wetlands will require continued maintenance from project implementers in order to maintain their benefits to the community. As such, when these plans, policies, and programs are developed, it is important not only to design them with implementation in mind, but to also take into account the cost (both time and monetary) of their maintenance. These costs are especially important to consider in rural contexts, where staff resources and capacity may not be as robust as in urban areas.
Overcome barriers to rural community engagement: Rural communities are unique in that they may lack sufficient or reliable access to services like internet or cell phone/telephone service. Additionally, because of the inherent nature of most rural communities — that they are often spread over large geographic areas — it can take much more time and higher costs to reach and engage with smaller populations. Other barriers to public participation include lack of access to transportation (personal or public) to attend in-person meetings; tensions and mistrust between officials and residents; engagement fatigue, and more. Policymakers should consider tools and strategies to overcome these barriers and other barriers to ensure not only that they reach the most stakeholders they can during outreach processes, but that they do so in a way that overcomes or mitigates these concerns.
The summaries below highlight resources and case studies available in Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Clearinghouse that are relevant to this objective. They illustrate how many of the above benefits, practice tips, and planning, legal, and policy tools were or are being evaluated and used in practice in different jurisdictions. To learn more and navigate to the Adaptation Clearinghouse, click on the “View Resource” buttons.