Connect rural affordable housing developments to safe and resilient transportation options and critical community services and amenities.
In promoting the affordability and availability of diverse types of housing, regional and local governments have to think about more than just the physical location and design for individual homes and subdivisions. To support broader community resilience, policymakers have to consider the distance or proximity of homes to transportation assets like roads and sidewalks, transit, and critical community services (e.g., fire, hospitals, police), and amenities like grocery stores. Depending on the parish or municipality, these all have to be evaluated against the backdrop of threats and stressors, such as flooding and population changes, that will affect where and how new transportation systems and development can be built.
In general, “connectivity” is a technical term in the transportation planning space. According to one illustrative definition:
Connectivity is the relative location of an object [like a home] to the destination centers. There are many different levels of hierarchy to connectivity. For example, subdivisions with many deadend cul-de-sacs may have poor connectivity with surrounding land uses. It may take a long time for a family living at the end of a cul-de-sac to get out of the neighborhood and to the main road right behind their house. The destination might not be that far away by distance, but by travel time it is. Traditional downtowns on the other hand usually have higher connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods. Residential areas designed with streets in a grid format adjacent to the downtown are often well connected with the business district and decrease the travel time and congestion.See footnote 1
Said another way by the U.S. Department of Transportation, “A well-connected transportation network reduces the distances traveled to reach destinations, increases the options for routes of travel, and can facilitate walking and bicycling. . . . Connectivity via transportation networks can also improve health by increasing access to health care, goods and services . . . .”See footnote 2
Credit: Rachelle Sanderson, Region Seven Watershed Coordinator, Capital Region Planning Commission.
Nationally, planners, policymakers, and communities have come up with different planning and land-use strategies to connect homes to transportation and community services and amenities. Notably, Smart Growth is a primarily urban planning and transportation concept that aims to concentrate growth in compact walkable urban centers to avoid sprawl. Although Smart Growth can vary from place to place, “it’s an overall approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and robust community engagement.” See footnote 3
One type of Smart Growth is called transit-oriented development. “Transit-oriented development, or TOD, includes a mix of commercial, residential, office and entertainment centered around or located near a transit station. Dense, walkable, mixed-use development near transit attracts people and adds to vibrant, connected communities.”See footnote 4
One local example of TOD in Region Seven is taking place in East Baton Rouge. Build Baton Rouge, the parish’s redevelopment authority, is the lead government agency for the Imagine Plank Road: Plan for Equitable Development. This plan is based on an equitable TOD framework developed to guide revitalization of the Plank Road corridor, an area in north Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish.
Released in November 2019, the plan is a response to historical disinvestment in the Plank Road corridor and addresses issues of housing, infrastructure decay, jobs and commerce, and health and safety. The plan is anchored by a new bus rapid transit system that will run along the corridor and connect to other parts of Baton Rouge. There are seven new developments including homes proposed along the corridor, each designed to provide quality of life amenities and generate tax revenue while preserving local culture and history.
Despite the ongoing work along the Plank Road corridor, it is more difficult to replicate some types of Smart Growth and especially TOD models in rural communities. In comparison to more urban jurisdictions, the large geographic scale of rural areas combined with the smaller number of people that live there creates a unique set of challenges for increasing the connectivity of housing to other parts of a community. Critical infrastructure may be less readily available or take longer to access in rural areas due to less density. At a high level, the economies of scale do not support the construction and maintenance of expansive road and transit networks in rural areas. In other words, the rural equivalent of TOD is likely and often cost prohibitive.
It is beyond the scope of the Regional Vision to go into depth on housing issues at the intersection of transportation. However, this objective emerged as a priority during the Regional Visioning process. As such, this part is intended to be a starting point to highlight how housing resilience fits into broader planning and land-use processes for investments in transportation assets and critical community services and amenities.
How to Make Progress on This Objective
Compared to the other Goal Four objectives, this one will require more significant innovation to facilitate progress. Each of the objectives in the Regional Vision will necessitate concerted efforts to achieve greater housing and natural resilience for Louisianans. However, as shown above, there are not really any rural analogs for urban planning and land-use concepts like TOD. Further, the costs associated with creating and maintaining transit services and road systems in rural areas are not comparable with urban ones. As such, this is a topic where lessons from urban areas are not as easily applied or replicable in rural communities (compare Objective 4.1 for planning). Despite the journey ahead, there is some room for resilience actions by the state and regional and local governments.
In the state’s first-ever Climate Action Plan, Louisiana explicitly raises the financial challenges associated with rural transit. Under three of the plan’s priorities for Transportation, Development, and the Built Environment, Strategy 11 calls for the state to “Increase urban, rural, and regional public transit service.”See footnote 5 The state goes on to identify an action, Action 11.2, to “Increase financial support for rural transit service including connectivity to urban transit systems.”See footnote 6 Action 11.2 provides the following:
Nearly 750,000 of Louisiana’s 4.6 million residents live in rural areas. Therefore, a necessary measure to reduce passenger vehicles on the road requires expanding access to resources beyond urban centers and greater investment in rural transit service. This action builds on the prior action focused on local transit in urban areas and proposes that [the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development], local governments and rural transit providers take a variety of measures to enable resource access to rural communities including rural bus services, obtaining smaller transit vehicles for more specialized trips, developing an on-demand ridership system, and scheduling planned trips to city centers coordinated and supported by the community. A significant impediment for rural transit is the local match of the cost-share for federal dollars, so with an influx of federal dollars, state allocations and other grants should be utilized and prioritized to support locals in matching federal funds.See footnote 7
Here, the state will aim to work with regional and local governments to evaluate opportunities to support rural transit in ways that align with the unique fiscal and land-use characteristics of these communities. This could involve creative solutions like “obtaining smaller transit vehicles for more specialized trips, developing an on-demand ridership system, and scheduling planned trips to city centers” that balance the cost of these services with the benefits they provide for residents.
While this effort is ongoing, regional and local governments can consider other potential planning and land-use actions. Proactive planning can help to identify preferred growth patterns and future land-use strategies that can co-locate new homes with future investments in transportation and parish and municipal services and amenities. In this way, parishes and municipalities can create plans that comprehensively approach development. Specifically, the goal would be to build more resilient communities that have housing options within close proximity to important infrastructure and civic assets.
In addition, parishes and municipalities can seek to align plans with land-use and zoning updates to implement priority actions. For example, plans may identify priority growth areas for mixed-use developments that require changes for allowable densities and structures to local ordinances. This is further emphasized in the Louisiana Climate Action Plan’s Strategy 12 to “Coordinate land use planning to reduce sprawl and support healthy and resilient communities.”See footnote 8 As stated in the plan, “Reducing sprawl and promoting compact development, a practice where land is used efficiently and intentionally, reduces [greenhouse gas (GHG)] emissions and makes communities more resilient. Compact development promotes risk reduction and open space conservation while encouraging the reuse and retrofit of existing structures, energy efficiency, use of public transit and active modes of transportation like walking and biking, and reduced [Vehicle Miles Traveled].”See footnote 9 Piloting these types of resilient land-use strategies are reminiscent of Smart Growth. In furtherance of the Climate Action Plan, local governments can work with the state to apply and mainstream these concepts in rural localities.
To complement the above ideas and actions, regional and local policymakers should also think beyond cars and buses to holistically enhance housing connectivity. Rural Louisianans are also interested in pedestrian- and bike-friendly sidewalks and trails that serve as connectors between homes and community features like city centers, downtowns, and parks and open spaces. This can allow residents to take full advantage of beautiful rural landscapes, in addition to obtaining mental and physical health benefits. Moreover, fewer cars and buses produce fewer GHG emissions, which contribute to more frequent and intense flooding and extreme weather events.
The City of Donaldsonville, Louisiana is one example of a rural municipality in Region Seven making this type of progress. Through the city’s Strategic Plan for 2020–2025, Strategic Priority 8 on Infrastructure and Development includes 28 objectives that cover projects such as updating transportation infrastructure, increasing general city-wide accessibility, and increasing access to green spaces. In the plan, the city highlights investing in a new road improvement project to identify and repair roadways, shoulders, and culverts, while also developing a walk and bike path to improve community connectivity. The city recommends forming collaborative partnerships with statewide and regional government organizations and joining Metropolitan Planning Organizations for Transportation Planning, like Capital Region Planning Commission, to better provide safe and improved drainage, utility, transportation, and other municipal infrastructure.
In addition, the plan also prioritizes combining green space and community revitalization efforts to leverage opportunities for recreation and fitness with environmental protection and nature-based resilience. Donaldsonville city parks are managed by Ascension Parish. In recent years, several parks, including the Crescent Park, have been renovated for musical and cultural events. The city has also established a river walk and a walking tour. In 2018, the City of Donaldsonville even received a grant from Prevost Memorial Hospital to join the National Fitness Campaign and construct an outdoor fitness court to encourage the use of open spaces and improve resident health.
Regional and local movement on any or all of these ideas can enhance connectivity in rural communities. Notably, potential innovations in Region Seven and Louisiana may also inspire and inform positive changes in other rural areas in the United States that are struggling with similar issues.
Crosscutting Considerations and Practice Tips
When working to enhance the connectivity of rural homes to transportation options and critical community services and amenities, decisionmakers may consider the following crosscutting considerations and practice tips:
- Lead with data
- Develop a preferred growth or future land-use strategy
- Work with Metropolitan Planning Organizations and other regional entities
- Pilot resilient housing and transportation projects
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.
- Lead with data: Regional and local governments will require data on current and future housing needs, population, land use, transportation assets and networks, open spaces and sensitive environmental features, and flooding, among other factors to guide these decisionmaking efforts. While data needs and tools are discussed in more detail in Objective 5.3, decisions are more credible and effective when they are driven by the best available data. Governments should evaluate “hard” quantitative data sources (e.g., floodplain maps, climate models). In addition, residents can provide important qualitative data points based on their local knowledge and lived experiences to identify priority goals and needs. As such, governments should take a comprehensive approach to collecting data.
- Develop a preferred growth or future land-use strategy: Preferred growth or future land-use strategies — whichever is relevant for a jurisdiction — can direct new housing away from high-flood-risk areas and towards lower-flood-risk areas, which should ideally be supported by infrastructure investments and critical services and amenities that can promote community and economic growth. All of this can and should be done in a way that is consistent with rural housing needs and also preserves local character and open space landscapes particularly in vulnerable floodplains and coastal areas. These types of strategies are usually included and adopted as part of a local comprehensive plan update and guide subsequent land-use and zoning decisions including for community connectivity (See Objective 4.1).
- Work with Metropolitan Planning Organizations and other regional entities: Given the cross-jurisdictional nature of road, transit, and trail networks, regional coordination is of particular importance for this objective. As mentioned in the Donaldsonville example above, local governments should pursue avenues to engage with their Metropolitan Planning OrganizationsSee footnote 10 and other regional entities like planning commissions. Through this engagement, local governments may derive several benefits including peer-to-peer idea sharing and networking, access to regional technical assistance and planning support, and opportunities to partner with other jurisdictions on funding and financing proposals.
- Pilot resilient housing and transportation projects: Given the emphasis on innovation underscoring this objective, regional entities and local governments should evaluate opportunities to pilot ideas for how to connect new and existing homes to transportation options and critical community services and amenities. For example, based on the Louisiana Climate Action Plan alone, potential projects could include “obtaining smaller transit vehicles for more specialized trips, developing an on-demand ridership system, and scheduling planned trips to city centers.”See footnote 11 Parishes and municipalities can also engage communities, home developers, and transportation planners to brainstorm how to balance land-use patterns for new development with connectivity while preserving rural character and landscapes.
This work can start small to accumulate potential best practices and lessons learned and then be scaled up. Local governments can also gain a strategic advantage from seeding pilot projects that can later serve as a “proof of concept” for larger funding proposals.
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.