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The key to ensuring your city will thrive? Don't build anything new

A city's growth doesn't depend on what land and buildings it already has, but how its policies allow it to prosper.

Urban renewal is a complex problem, and while many of the proven solutions require large investments in the development of new housing and infrastructure, others demand nothing more than a change in policy; words on paper, and a signature from an elected official.

From A to zoning

Since the early 20th century, zoning policy has guided urban and suburban development, determining what should and could be built - and by extension, who is allowed to occupy cities and towns. The most notorious example of the power of zoning is the process of redlining, which forced many families of color into ghettoized urban centers and locked them into concentrated poverty. This racial wealth disparity is still felt throughout the world.

Thankfully, inclusive zoning policy could be used to help cities and struggling populations recover. One easy change to make is to ban single-family exclusive zoning. This practice limits new developments of detached single houses - the least dense and environmentally friendly type of building - and promotes multi-family apartments which contribute to a more affordable renters' market.

Additionally, mixed-use zoning would make more room for new stores and businesses that generate jobs and grow the city's local economy, forming a rich tapestry of walkable neighborhoods rather than a series of segregated residential and commercial districts.

Controlling cars

Other policy changes cities could make to become more sustainable involve disincentivizing car use. Besides contributing to pollution, cars incur expensive infrastructure maintenance costs, with parking being one of the biggest issues. By reducing the minimum required parking spots per unit and eliminating free on-street parking, cities can replace cars with green spaces and eco-friendly forms of micro-modal transportation.

Another policy that can reduce the reliance on cars is congestion pricing, which requires vehicles to pay a toll to enter overcrowded urban areas. Ideally, this pushes people to use and support cleaner, underutilized and space-saving public transit options. It goes without saying that in order for this type of policy to work, cities need to have the infrastructure already in-place for alternate forms of transportation - otherwise, they risk creating the opposite effect.

Even if a city can't support eliminating cars entirely, simply lowering speed limits can go a long way towards reducing emissions and improving pedestrian safety.

Sustainable spending

Perhaps the policies with the least resistance involve those that influence municipal government behavior. For instance, if it's difficult for a city to pass a ban on plastic bags, it should still be able to commit to procuring paper-products made from recycled materials. Even something as small as an internal paperless policy can do a small part towards preserving the environment and saving taxpayer money.

Like many of society's problems, urban development doesn't fail because of a shortage of solutions, but a lack of will. But if we can convince cities to make small, inexpensive changes first, it may be a step towards persuading them to invest in larger projects. And to gather the data you need to make a convincing argument to your city council or elected representative, use HERE's suite of powerful Infrastructure Solutions.

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