Category Archives: land use

What lessons are to be learned from stakeholder engagement in transportation planning when broad efforts to engage fall short of actual public consultation?

In “Whose Opinion Matters: Lessons from a Stakeholder Engagement Process for Penang, Malaysia” Dr. Minal Pathak conducted an evaluation of the ongoing stakeholder engagement process for the transport master plan in Penang, Malaysia. Proposed funding for the plan’s estimated 11 billion USD cost – involving highways, roadways, LRT, monorail, a BRT network, and electric trams – was through reclamation of three islands along the Penang coast. Concerns about the plan raised by stakeholders range from high costs, environmental impacts, effects on fisheries, and aesthetic and heritage considerations. Key issues with timing, strategy and communication in the engagement process have contributed to various stakeholders’ continued opposition to the project. Dr. Pathak’s evaluation draws out recommendations for a more effective stakeholder engagement process that can be applied both within Malaysia and beyond.


Civic spaces and brownfield redevelopment, a case study of the Social Innovation project in Somerville, MA

art_culture_scribed_imageFormer brownfield sites offer opportunities for economic growth. How can industrial cities dealing with legacy of contained areas promote neighborhood-scale arts-oriented development? Can such sites benefit from policy integration? MCP Allegra Fonda-Bonardi did a yearlong study of the ARTFarm for Social Innovation in Somerville; Massachusetts to better understand how one city tried to find the right balance between environmental clean-up, real estate reinvestment and neighborhood control of the development process. She starts of with the premise that integrating city-wide environmental, social, and economic sustainability is possible, and that civic spaces that aim to meet multiple objectives are more likely to succeed than those that don’t. Allegra also discusses in her thesis the importance of demanding accountability from developers who offer to fund remediation, to ensure that a portion of the remediated land is used to meet neighborhood priorities. Did the ArtFarm create a precedent? You can find the answer to this question and more in Allegra’s thesis, here.

Urban Agriculture Contributes to Sustainable Development of Cities: How do we make it permanent?


In the 21st century cities have increasingly adopted sustainability as a guiding principal, offering a window of opportunity for the incorporation of urban agriculture into city land use planning efforts. In addition, the engagement of commercial urban farms with local economies has allowed urban agriculture to enter the realm of economic development. Despite these advancements, many still frame their understanding of urban agriculture as interim land use while waiting for appropriate real estate development to happen. In his 2014 thesis, Andrew Cook (MCP ’14) argues the sustainable development characteristics of urban agriculture can only be accessed by treating it as permanent rather than a temporary land use.


To illustrate his argument, Andrew draws on a case study of Baltimore City, specifically the temporary use on city-owned land programs: Adopt-A-Lot and Homegrown Baltimore Land Lease Initiative. Andrew traced the historical relationship of urban agriculture to city development, Baltimore’s shrinking population, Baltimore’s policy environment as well as the histories of each program. He found that Baltimore’s view that urban agriculture runs counter to the economic growth objectives of a city, has limited the sustainability, economic, environmental and social benefits of urban agriculture projects. Through his evaluation of several urban commercial farms, community farms and demonstration farms, Andrew provides an alternate view, showing how urban agriculture can drive rather than hindering economic development. He offers a series of recommendations that woucl allow cities to realize the maximum benefit of urban agriculture. To learn more, read Andrew’s full thesis here.

How Small Towns Think About Big Gas

Thanks to technological advances in natural gas exploration, many rural American towns are now confronted by a puzzle with which they have little experience: how to regulate gas drilling in their backyards. The reactions of local jurisdictions to natural gas have varied widely, as officials have considered the tradeoff between economic rewards and environmental risks. What explains the disparity in the approaches that local governments take to gas drilling? How do they decide about local policy?


Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Jessie Agatstein (MCP ’13) takes on this question in her thesis, which looks at local responses to natural gas drilling in three communities—Erie, CO, Washington County, ID, and Dryden, NY—all with populations under 20,000. These localities have adopted markedly different approaches to natural gas exploration. Erie has pursued negotiated agreements with specific developers, Washington County has utilized special use provisions to define where and how drilling may occur, and Dryden has banned the practice all together.

Much of this difference, Jessie notes, can be explained by two things. The first is the delegation of regulatory authority over natural gas exploration in many states to local governments, producing a wide array of policy approaches across countless jurisdictions. The second is what Jessie terms “problem diffusion.” It results from differences in how gas issues are viewed on the ground in different geographic contexts. Instead of copying the policies that other nearby jurisdictions have taken, local officials respond mostly to the problems that their neighbors have encountered and formulate policies that are intended to counteract these difficulties.

Jessie also notes the high level of sophistication with which local officials in the communities she studied with have approached natural gas exploration. Contradicting the stereotype of outmatched and incapable small town governments, officials have deftly navigated many complex issues. In some cases they have charted new policy territory. She cites the wealth of public information available online about natural gas impacts and local regulatory policy as strong contributors to the effectiveness of local officials in dealing with natural gas.

What insights can you share about how communities have reacted to natural gas exploration? Post a comment below, or read more in Jessie’s thesis.

The Problem with Short-Term Thinking: Miami-Dade County’s Experience with Land-Use Management


In 1993, Miami-Dade County was one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to adopt a plan for climate change. A crucial leg of this plan

was to reduce vehicles miles traveled (VMT) through comprehensive land use management and improved mass transit. Evaluating the plan 15 years later, Haley Peckett (MCP 2009) found that a poorly structured system of political incentives had instead led to a substantial increase in VMT, and set out to examine the root causes of this failure.

Haley attributes much of the blame for poor land-use management with the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, a group torn across racial and ethnic lines and accountable only to their individual districts and constituencies. Following through on the county’s ambitious land use management plan would require commissioners to “hold the line” against voters and advocate groups unhappy with some negative effects of land use management and transit expansion, such as tax increases and limited availability of developable land for affordable housing.

However, with nobody in the decision-making process empowered to adopt a comprehensive perspective on what is best for the county as a whole, Haley describes how commissioners have time and again compromised the county’s long-term vision for smart growth in the sake of short-term political wins for their constituents. If Miami-Dade is to successfully implement a land-use management plan, she notes, it will have to adopt a longer view on policy outcomes and allow an independent entity with a broader view on the effects of land use to play a serious role in the policy formation process.


Read more about the battle over land use policy in Miami-Dade County in Haley’s thesis.

Can We Share Middlesex Fells?

Creative Commons license

Creative Commons license

Located 8 miles from downtown Boston, Middlesex Fells provides a rare natural escape from the hustle of urban life. It is a popular retreat for hikers, dog walkers, and mountain bikers. The multiple uses of the Fells has become a source of conflict and reports of off-trail wandering, unfriendly dogs, and unruly bikers have led to animosity among the park-goers.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) set out to address these conflicts and establish a clear set of rules for the park. Andrea Christenson (MCP ’11) was there to document the process. The DCR organized a public forum to discuss the uses that would and wouldn’t be allowed in the Fells, and quickly found itself the subject of an impressive lobbying effort on the part of groups representing the park’s different users. The hostility among groups made it hard to reach agreement, as hikers and mountain bikers traded barbs and op-eds about the destruction that the other group was causing to the park’s trails. Despite this, the DCR made an admirable effort to craft an agreement that worked for the various stakeholder groups invested in the Fells.

The resulting draft Trail System Plan issued by the DCR tried to accommodate the multiple uses of the park and minimize opportunities for conflict among groups. The plan received a mixed welcome, and intentionally left no group fully satisfied. Hikers and their preservationist allies criticized the plan for failing to protect the park from destructive biking uses. Ultimately, DCR bowed to the political pressure that these groups were able to muster and chose not to implement the plan until a larger and more comprehensive Resource Management Plan could be completed.

Andrea’s in-depth narrative offers a close-up view of the challenges that planners face when they try to reconcile the concerns of multiple stakeholder groups. The title of her thesis fittingly describes what so many planners and constituent groups have found to be the truth: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Read more about the planning process at the Middlesex Fells in Andrea’s Thesis here.

Do Planners Have A Role in Wildfire?

Yes! Maybe it’s not strapping on heavy gear and dragging hose, but Molly Mowery (MCP 2008) argues that planners play an important role in shaping policies that reduce catastrophic wildfire incidents. Since writing her DUSP thesis on wildfire and development, Molly has been advocating for stronger links between planning decisions and wildfire risk. You can see her latest thoughts on this topic in this New York Times Room for Debate thread, “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires?”

In Molly’s 2008 thesis, she claims that traditional roles dictate that the wildfire problem is someone else’s responsibility – namely, fire and emergency services. Yet planners and community leaders who sanction development decisions in wildfire-prone areas can and must ensure communities have taken measures to reduce their wildfire risk. With the recent home losses throughout the West, this issue is more timely than ever.

Photo credit: Molly Mowery

If planners DO allow development to occur in wildfire-prone areas (which, by the way, includes over 70,000 communities throughout the United States), they have a toolkit of options. These options reduce the likelihood of damage when a fire does occur, and include: overlay zoning districts that identify high-risk areas, development and design standards, subdivision ordinances, and comprehensive planning policies. Through such tools, planners can require vegetation maintenance surrounding a property, fire-resistant building and construction materials, adequate water supply, and access and driveway clearance. Incorporating standards into the development process before development occurs is more cost effective than retrofits. More importantly, proactive planning makes the job of the firefighter easier, and increases the likelihood that homes, businesses, and lives will be safe during a wildfire event.

Learn more about effective regulations to reduce wildfire risk at and general wildfire risk reduction programs by visiting the Fire Adapted Communities website: