Beyond infrastructure development: Fostering sustainable, urban development in cities across the globe

In a moderated panel discussion, hosted in New Delhi, India, several land use experts brainstormed how governments can advance people-centered communities that include green infrastructure as a central focal point of the community. Additionally, they examined the similarities between developing communities in the Global South and smaller communities in the U.S.

A group of people stand around a poster that says sustainable and inclusive urban development in the global south august 10th through 12th 2023 New Delhi

Good communities don’t just happen, they have to be planned intentionally and collaboratively with all residents of that community (current and future). Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.” This quote applies to land use as well; if something is not planned for in the regulating documents it doesn’t get developed in the built environment. 

Before unpacking the conversation of the panel, we would like to recognize how the diversity of the panel participants was a direct reflection of the diversity needed to ensure that a community’s regulations are inclusive. The diversity in professional backgrounds, age, gender, location, and race can lead to a rich conversation regardless of the topic.  

During the Sustainability and Inclusive Urban Development in the Global South Conference, which took place earlier this year in New Delhi, India, speakers delved into important topics surrounding sustainable development in the context of the global south: Jerry Anthony provided insights on the U.S. and Indian regulatory frameworks; Ahmad Gamal provided an Indonesian perspective on land use; Anjor Bhaskar discussed Bangalore’s experiences and lessons learned in serving as a water service provider versus arbiter; and Mwansa Mwape illuminated the parallels between the Zambian Housing crisis and the American Housing crisis with a focus on equity and inclusivity.  

A roundtable discussion led by Dr. Uma Sarmistha (City of Newberry, FL) and Toccarra Nicole Thomas, AICP, (Smart Growth America) explored how regulations can and should be used to ensure that communities are inclusive, sustainable, and healthy for all. The following themes were explored during the panel: 

  • Greenspace must be considered infrastructure and green infrastructure must be explicitly outlined in the regulations (or its development won’t happen)
  • A truly participatory planning process results in a richer regulatory environment because it actively seeks out the input of all community members, which in turn creates a richer built environment
  • Local governments must serve the dual role of arbiter and service provider, to ensure that equitable and inclusive green infrastructure is developed as the standard and not the exception
  • Similarities between the developing Global South and smaller American municipalities vis a vis inclusivity and sustainability. 

Greenspace is infrastructure

Green and open space is a necessary piece of community infrastructure and not a luxury to only be provided to a few. It is essential to the health of the community. Greenspaces such as parks, tree canopies, native plant landscaping, pervious pavements, stormwater harvesting, rain swales, and other types of greenery are integral to a safe, healthy, vibrant, and climate-resilient community, especially since the built environment directly impacts the mental and physical wellbeing of humans. Greenery must be considered integral infrastructure in the same way that streets, sidewalks, and light poles are considered essential infrastructure in all regulatory documents. However, under Euclidean zoning regimes, green infrastructure is not required and is generally included only as an afterthought and is almost always the first “amenity” that gets cut to save costs. Especially in smaller communities that do not have the staff capacity or budget to deliver green infrastructure; which is why it must be enshrined in regulations. 

Once considered a relic of the 1970s, subdivision regulations are becoming increasingly important as developers are using them to subvert the requirements of Euclidean zoning and develop large tracts of land, which could be a helpful tool to push back against housing scarcity if deployed properly. But there is a risk that as more land gets developed using Subdivision Regulations, communities will become a series of walled-off and disconnected subdivisions with privatized greenspace. This could happen for the very reason developers have opted to use Subdivision Regulations—they are often at odds with the goals of the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance.

True participatory community engagement creates vibrant, climate-resilient, inclusive, and healthy communities

Community engagement must be explicitly and intentionally planned for and nurtured in regulatory documents. Far too often, the standard community engagement process is manipulative and designed to discourage widespread engagement. While some strong and charismatic community leaders can effectively advocate for intentional resident-centered processes, these instances are unfortunate exceptions to the rule. Community participation is an important tool to work against the longstanding impact of systemic racism inherent in exclusionary zoning. Systems-level barriers to equitable development cannot be overcome unless all community members are invited to the conversation and listened to, not just the privileged few. Planning practitioners have a responsibility to directly advocate for diverse, equitable, and inclusive community engagement processes. Planners can do this by asking residents what they want, ensuring that all residents (especially disenfranchised residents) have their voices heard so feedback is incorporated into the plan and not simply captured.

The role of local governments

Should the local government act as a provider of public spaces and amenities or simply a regulator? The panel determined that the local government should perform both roles. When the delivery of these public goods is left up to the Free Market, they may fail to provide the benefits to all, leaving out Black, Brown, and other underinvested communities in the process.

For example, community amenities such as public parks, public pools, and public golf courses were once developed and managed by municipalities as public amenities right up until desegregation, when many communities intentionally decided to shutter these amenities rather than desegregate them. As a result, local municipalities have to overcome this racist history by intentionally reintegrating community infrastructure into the capital improvement plans and budgets. As communities across the nation grapple with how to provide these pieces of integral community infrastructure, governments must serve as service providers and regulators, with a special emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. But, unfortunately, local governments are often hard-pressed to provide this community infrastructure and they often can’t force developers to provide them unless it is a regulatory requirement. Including these items in the regulating documents gives local governments the leverage and ability to regulate the development of these public amenities by developers, while simultaneously developing these amenities. If local governments do not step up and embody this dual role, these amenities will continue to be seen as “nice to haves” and will continually end up on the cutting room floor during negotiations. 

Why equitable development matters

The examples and ideas outlined in this blog post not only apply to communities large and small in the U.S. but also to developing communities in the Global South. As their communities rapidly develop in vehicle-centric, low-density, and inequitable development patterns, community-led initiatives that promote education and skill-building can empower residents to actively participate in decision-making processes and contribute to their own development. While not discussed during the panel, communities should also embrace sustainable practices such as eco-friendly agriculture and renewable energy sources to support long-term resource availability and reduce environmental degradation.  By harnessing local knowledge, ensuring inclusivity in decision-making, and working collectively, these small communities can take significant steps towards achieving equitable development that benefits all residents.

Land Use and Development