The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission has just begun a ground-breaking planning effort that intends to develop an integrated, regional plan for transportation, land use and the environment in the Tri-County region. The project will fuse plans created by individual municipalities and counties into a coordinated guide for the region’s assets, with the intention of creating the first plan for our region to grow and develop in ways that are sustainable throughout our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children. As we start the planning process, we face a fundamental decision: how far into the future should we try to look?
It is all too easy to err on either side of that question. If our vision is too short, the plan will not give any guidance on long-term trends that grow gradually over time until they become critical, and often, almost unmanageable. An example would be the degradation of the Illinois River and Peoria Lakes due to sedimentation. Sediment accumulated slowly over many years before it became visible to the thousands of people who have enjoyed the river for decades; by the time it was clear that we needed to do something, the magnitude of the problem was such that solutions were extremely expensive and inconvenient. In other words, a plan that projects only a straight-line continuation of current trends usually ends up far off the mark and unusable because it failed to take into account subtle, but powerful, factors.
On the other hand, it is equally easy to look so far into the future that the resulting plan seems to be so speculative as to be unrealistic, or even downright risky. A plan can be so revolutionary and pie-in-the-sky that people can’t ever really grasp its concepts, and therefore the plan never takes root.
Admittedly, even as a professional planner, I don’t know the best way to find the most useful middle ground between those two extremes. However, I do know that the planning effort must balance the present and the future. Many current trends will inevitably continue to influence the community, but sound planning must also identify and blend in new trends, technologies and market realities that have the potential to significantly influence the way we live, work and play.
For example, I suspect that few people understand that many aspects of our transportation system are increasingly unsustainable. Market, health and environmental pressures are leading people to seek alternative forms of transportation, such as buses, light rail, bicycles and walking, but the infrastructure to support these forms of transportation is sorely lacking. In response to higher gasoline prices, motorists are driving less and industries are moving away from highway freight and towards rail or water traffic. Combined, these trends are helping to decrease motor fuel tax receipts to the point that we are now in the position of having too little funding to maintain our existing infrastructure, let alone build any needed new facilities.
Despite these indications of changing patterns of how people and freight will move around in the future, public policy and planning has not yet fully embraced anything other than a continuation of current transportation patterns. This imbalanced system creates a self-fulfilling cycle that keeps delivering the same unsustainable results. Appropriately anticipating and planning for these subtle and interrelated changes is by no means an easy feat.
Part of the solution to this challenge is to balance interrelated and sometimes competing influences by ensuring the planning process looks at all the factors that affect a community. For example, rather than conducting separate transportation, land use or environmental plans, our regional plan will look at the relationships between transportation, land use and environmental issues.
Logically, this makes sense. The construction of homes, businesses and industries is influenced by access to the transportation network, but at the same time, the new development has a significant impact on congestion and safety in the transportation network. Similarly, there is a dynamic relationship between new development and the environment, and between the environment and our transportation network.
Locally and nationally, we have traditionally pulled functional areas apart into separate plans. Our land use plans place homes and businesses on the landscape, but do not adequately address their impact on our roads, rails and waterways, instead leaving transportation to be dealt with in separate plans which don’t adequately address environmental assets or planned future land uses.
This fragmented planning system creates the foundation for an unsustainable regional community, as decisions on enormous public investments in roads, bridges, water, sewers and stormwater systems are made without hard analysis of which trends will continue or how to best prepare for less obvious changes. Today’s public policy decisions will impact life in our communities decades and centuries down the road. In that light, it is essential that today’s plans make every effort to be sustainable by considering current and emerging trends, and how policies targeted specifically at land use, economic development, transportation and the environment will impact each other and the regional community as a whole.
Fortunately, in this very complex, even audacious planning effort, we take comfort in the fact that we will have help from numerous committees of interested stakeholders from across the region.
Working with individual planning committees in Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties, as well as a regional steering committee, the planning process will analyze and incorporate current and new trends in transportation, land use and the environment with visions from the public, the business community, individual units of government and other organizations. Key planning themes will be developed, representing statements about what this region values most. At the end of the process, in March 2010, this regional plan will be available for adoption as a future land use plan by the many units of government in our region. It is expected to serve as the new transportation plan for the Peoria-Pekin urbanized area.
Many plans have been completed in our region; some have failed to predict the impact new trends have had on the community and some have predicted too much radical change. This regional planning effort aims to strike a sustainable balance between the present and the future by creating a plan for growth and development that offers transportation choices to individuals and businesses; improves safety and congestion through more efficient land use and infrastructure design; protects our air, water and land from degradation; offers a wider variety of housing choices to residents; and creates a foundation for socially, environmentally and economically sustainable communities.
Daniel Burnham, a preeminent 20th-century architect and the visionary planner behind Chicago’s lakefront, was noted as saying “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” This regional planning effort strives for sufficient length and breadth of vision as to stir our region to plan a more sustainable future. There is room for you in the process, and we welcome your input and participation in what promises to be a vision for a sustainable, healthy and vibrant Tri-County region well into the future. iBi