Rhode Island is making good on an old plan to grow smarter

RhodeMap RI
Courtesy Rhode Island Division of Planning

Rhode Island is America’s smallest state in terms of land area, so finding the best planning solutions can be a delicate matter that demands a variety of voices. The Ocean State has a mix of cities, small towns, rural areas, and suburbs, and is home to commuters to Boston and other locations out of state.

RhodeMap RI: Building a Better Rhode Island is the state-led effort to create strategies for housing, growth, and economic development in the form of a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development.

Leading the effort is the Rhode Island Division of Planning, in consultation with key stakeholders in the state business community and Rhode Island residents. The project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Rhode Map RI is built on the concept that place matters,” said Jared Rhodes, Chief of Statewide Planning for Rhode Island. “Where development happens is just as important as what development happens.”

This approach has been an evolution for Rhode Island. A 1999 study commissioned by Grow Smart Rhode Island, and featured in Smart Growth America’s recent Building Better Budgets report, took a look at the state’s then-sprawling development patterns. It projected the costs of continuing to allow for sprawl, and the costs of a smart growth alternative. The study found that smart growth development would save the state $242 million, or about 40 percent, on infrastructure over 20 years.

That study was an inspiration for Land Use 2025, a plan drafted in 2006 that illustrated the urgency of directing “growth to areas that are equipped to handle it, based on location and infrastructure” in Rhode Island, and articulated the vision that Rhode Map RI is now working to carry out.

The substantial amount Rhode Island is due to save from smart growth is just one part of the opportunity Rhodes sees in changing the way Rhode Island plans. He identified vacant commercial strip development as a particularly negative effect of Rhode Island’s past sprawl, and sees potential investment in those buildings, made possible by RhodeMap RI, as both an alternative to sprawling development and a key means of emphasizing sense of place in town and city centers.

RhodeMap RI’s first large, regional workshop will be held in just a few weeks, and the Division of Planning in cooperation with the Rhode Island Economic Development Cooperation and others are already reaching out to the state’s business community to frame the planning process. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Key business leaders are expected to serve on the project’s steering committee. Many of them see smart growth as being good for business as well as for the future of Rhode Island communities. “The business community’s interest in Rhode Map RI is evidenced by the time they’ve already devoted to the process,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes already has advice for other states and municipalities putting together a plan for sustainable growth: focus on the community. “It’s critical that we educate the public about the impacts of the sort of development we’re pursuing,” he said. “But there is also a need for planners to educate themselves on the needs of the public, so as to provide a real vehicle for communities to help influence the process.”