Community planning is an essential part of economic development and establishment of a character unique to the community. Lack of planning leaves all development or lack thereof, up to market forces. In many cases market forces will dominate a communities identity, but they are not always perfectly aligned with the desires and values of community members. A town, city or region, left to develop without the aid of a comprehensive planning strategy may deteriorate or become a “faceless” strip of generic America.
In addition to the loss of character a community may suffer, negative effects may be felt in the economy, the environment, the infrastructure, and most importantly the quality of life experienced by the residing members of the community. O f course, every aspect of a community can not be planned for and controlled, but some effort must be applied. For example, a small fishing community can not plan to develop an economy based on mining. It can however influence the future health of its present economy, and encourage the growth and development of new industries.
It can maintain or change the appearance of the town. It can preserve or improve the quality of life within the community. Most communities are well aware of the importance of planning, when it comes to the economy of an area, but many small towns and cities seem to ignore other aspects of the planning process, which could greatly affect the town. Most people feel that the economy is the single most important aspect to a community’s health and vitality. They overlook some simple things, which could easily be changed, and would improve the looks, functionality, and enjoyability of a town.
A modern trend in urban America is the abandonment of downtown centers. These areas need not be lost. They are extremely important maintaining character, and can actually become a nuisance, if left to decay beyond a certain level. They are often left out of a community’s plan, because they seem to be outdated, and no longer economically viable. Economic development is allowed or encouraged to take place on the fringe of the community, while the historic center is left to fend for itself. This results in unnecessary sprawl, and causes the centers to decay.
In many cases, buildings and building sites located in the center of town are not as economically advantageous as the inexpensive land, on the outskirts of town. This doesn’t mean they are without use. Proactive planning can help insure these sites stay modern and maintained, before it becomes far too expensive to restore or modify a structure for a new use. Many sites, which are appropriate for a certain use, are allowed to stay vacant or housing low rent businesses, which will not generate the kind of money to maintain the buildings properly.
Instead, the activity which could take place downtown is allowed to locate on a new lot, because it saves initial investment capitol. It is often thought that an important part of the planning and business recruitment process is providing economic incentives to new businesses, and this is true. It is not always necessary; however, to allow an economic activity to occupy inexpensive land in the name of providing an economic incentive. Tax relief for businesses which locate in central locations or choose to modify, repair, and remain in their present locations, is also a way to offer economic incentives to business.
Businesses should be honored and rewarded for their efforts to remain downtown. Sensible improvements to the infrastructure in central locations could also help to alleviate some costs for businesses. In contrast to this approach, communities could make it less advantageous for businesses to use undeveloped land in the form of higher tax rates and penalties. At the extreme end of this approach is to not allow businesses to locate in these undeveloped areas, at all. Zoning land can be very effective, in this respect.
Presque Isle, Maine is an excellent example of a small city, which is actively involved in community planning and business recruitment, but has a dying, if not dead, central business district. Presque Isle has experienced significant strip development in the past ten years, or so. It is as if downtown got too old, so everyone just picked up, and moved down the road a + mile. This just is not good planning. No changes have been made to the downtown infrastructure at all, not even as a retroactive response. What remains is an area of decrepit buildings, which house low rent apartments, pawnshops, and vacant storefronts.
To make matters worse, all the traffic signal lights, which were in place to control the busy vehicle and pedestrian traffic are all still in place. The are no longer of any use at all but two intersections. Main Street would be more appropriate as a highway. Almost all of the traffic passing through downtown is on Main Street, and is going, either North or South. The stoplights are just a nuisance. There is no traffic crossing Main Street at most intersections. The economy is good in Presque Isle, and it is improving. The present strength of the economy owes a lot to the planning efforts of town and regional officials.
At the same time; however, some fundamental problems have developed. These problems will be much more difficult to deal with using a retroactive approach. In conclusion, towns which have comprehensive planning in place may be doing great things for the economy, and still not improving the quality of life and character of a community. Without an all-encompassing plan, which deals with many more aspects than economy alone, a towns planning efforts may not meet its potential positive impact. It may even result in the decline of aspects not considered or dealt with, in the planning process.