Planning for Trends Shaping the Future of New England Cities

By Joanna Nadeau, AICP, and Susan Mara, AICP

Change is a constant, and yet, we plan anyway. Amidst the political and social upheaval of the past decade, planners in New England and elsewhere continue to seek ways to serve the public interest, even as that interest is a moving target.

The American Planning Association (APA)’s 2023 Trends Report for Planners (Trends Report) tries to predict some of the ways the world is changing and how planners can take a role in shaping that future. The report recognizes that planners have begun to shift their attention away from the public health emergency of COVID-19 towards a variety of other pressing social and economic concerns. Issues like equity, accessibility, and the future viability of urban areas were brought to the forefront during the pandemic years. While neither new nor emerging, climate change remains one of the most serious threats to the public and natural environment. Technological advancements in how we communicate and operate have also entered the focus of discussions at local, national, and global scales. With so many issues vying for attention, planners may struggle to prioritize their limited resources and best meet the needs of our communities.

In thinking about the future of cities for the next 50 years, much is uncertain. Where should we focus limited time and energy for planning?

Plan for What, Exactly?

In thinking about the future of cities for the next 50 years, much is uncertain. Where should we focus limited time and energy for planning? At the Fall 2023 Southern New England APA (SNEAPA) conference, we asked Southern New England planners to share their top concerns and predictions for the future. Using the Trends Report, regional insights, and their feedback as guides, this article discusses trends and forecasts for four areas that are top of mind for planners: energy and climate action, climate resilience, historic preservation, and transportation, and the tools planners will need to guide their communities into each aspect of the future.

The Trend: Climate Action on Energy

Photo of Tesla and charging station.

To accommodate more EV cars and charging stations like these, communities are investing in municipal upgrades and retrofits and implementing resiliency code changes

The 2023 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[1] reports that, on an international level, we are making progress toward mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and implementing strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change. In the US, new political emphasis and government investment are advancing climate action and adaptation (e.g., the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA). These investments cover electric vehicle (EV) production and adoption; battery, solar, and wind power; improving transit; and carbon-neutral grid electrification. Federal investments promote job creation and accelerated transition away from fossil fuels, as green manufacturing and industry increases. Critically, federal funding is being directed such that these benefits will be sure to reach low-income, underserved, and underrepresented communities.

At the state and regional level, investments and policy goals are also driving climate action. For example, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have each passed restrictions on natural gas in new buildings, even as policymakers in other states seek to preempt these bans. These same three states have also each set new emissions mandates and NetZero goals. The US EPA's Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program is funding climate action planning at the state level and within major EPA-designated metropolitan statistical areas across the region. Renewable energy policies have also proliferated. These require utilities to supply a percentage of customers with renewable sources.

EV cars and charging stations have increased by 700% nationally since 2016. Communities are investing in municipal upgrades and retrofits and implementing resiliency code changes, while many individuals are making the most of new renewable energy incentives and rebates.

And yet, challenges have emerged as new technologies seek to use an electric grid already in need of upgrades and long overdue maintenance. Constraints on the electric system may limit renewable energy site development and EV charging. Local communities and utilities are grappling with the costs of transitioning the grid alongside regulatory and ownership questions.

Planning Priorities for Energy in New England

When asked about energy and climate action, planners from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut said their top priorities were planning for (1) battery farms/storage, (2) the resilience and extension of infrastructure/energy systems, and (3) renewable sources and equity, funding, and locations of such.

Based on these priorities and anticipated trends, planners may need to consider:

  • engaging with energy-producing utilities in infrastructure planning,
  • drafting zoning and ordinances to accommodate or encourage renewable energy siting along with other land use demands,
  • designing policies and programs that promote renewable energy generation and storage, and
  • ensuring that these efforts consider equity.

The Trend: Climate Resilience

State and federal funding programs are harnessing the power that nature-based solutions hold for resilience, like this bioretention cell.

State and local strategies to adapt to climate change or climate resilience, are advancing, mirroring national and international climate adaptation efforts. The IRA, through programs like the Community Development Block Grant program and Community Change Grants, prioritizes projects that increase community climate resilience and capacity to address climate justice challenges. These funding programs designate a segment of funds for underserved communities, and they are exploring new methods for community engagement in resilience planning. The disproportionate impact of climate change on underserved communities has helped raise awareness about broader environmental justice issues.

Innovations in resilience strategies include using natural systems for capturing flood water or mitigating heat impacts; using community networks to improve individual/household emergency preparedness; as well as advancing solutions that involve redundancy, redesign, and relocation of existing infrastructure to face changing weather patterns and demands.

State and federal funding programs are harnessing the natural environment to improve resilience, making investments in green and natural infrastructure, agriculture resilience, and habitat restoration. In Massachusetts for example, the Municipal

Vulnerability Preparedness Program funds annual grants to help communities address their vulnerability to climate change impacts and build community resilience through nature-based solutions.

These programs are essential tools for communities facing stronger storms and other climate change impacts. Climate change threatens everything from public health and safety and infrastructure to the environment and economy. Power outages from wind damage, food, and housing access concerns, along with degradation of farms, forests, and freshwater ecosystems, are among the impacts communities are experiencing. Catastrophic flooding and violent weather events are also becoming more commonplace.

Planning Priorities for Climate Adaptation in New England

Lower-income neighborhoods are often more profoundly impacted by urban heat and flooding.

When asked about climate resilience and adaptation, planners from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut said their top priorities were planning for (1) water systems, stormwater, and flood management, (2) environmental and climate justice, and (3) sea level rise and managed retreat.

Based on these priorities and ongoing trends, planners may specifically need resources for:

  • designing and implementing green infrastructure,
  • developing equitable resilience strategies, and
  • proactively adapting and relocating homes and infrastructure for sea level rise.

The Trend: The Built Environment and Historic Preservation

In the Trends Report, questions about the future of urban areas envision a variety of possible outcomes. Underutilized urban centers are receiving attention as a potential solution for housing shortages and the record demand for new homes and rentals. Declining downtowns and business districts are being identified for office- or commercial-to-residential conversions and receiving federal funding support.

Building preservation contributes to achieving carbon footprint reductions, since adaptive reuse and retrofits of existing buildings cost less, use fewer materials, and generate fewer emissions than building new. Recent legislation in Rhode Island, for example, hopes to drive broader action on adaptive reuse by making it a “by right” use.

Urban redevelopment efforts need to consider equity or run the risk of displacing or pricing low-income residents out of their neighborhoods. Typically, displaced residents do not realize the benefits of improved economic and infrastructural conditions. Lower-income neighborhoods are also often more profoundly impacted by urban heat, because of limited tree canopy, as well as flooding because these older neighborhoods tend to be in low-lying areas. When a property changes hands, new owners may decide to demolish existing buildings instead of renovating them up to code. There are risks, additional costs, and regulatory challenges that can make renovation less desirable than building new. Funding and other policies that promote preservation can help protect historic structures.

Aside from threats of demolition, historic and cultural resources are under threat from climate change, sea level rise, and fire. These resources need to be considered in climate resilience activities as they may have ripple effects on local economies, health, and transportation.

Urban redevelopment efforts run the risk of displacing or pricing low-income residents out of their neighborhoods.

Planning Priorities for Historic Preservation in New England

When asked about historic preservation, planners from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut said their top priorities were planning for (1) preserving and adapting historic homes and buildings for housing, (2) funding sources for historic preservation, and (3) climate-wise and resilient building reuse and rehabilitation.

Based on these priorities and anticipated trends, planners may need to focus on:

  • developing adaptive reuse regulations and incentives,
  • planning to counteract displacement from redevelopment,
  • promoting funding opportunities for historic preservation, and
  • best practices for building efficiency and floodproofing/resilience improvements.

The Trend: Changes in Transportation

The IRA’s Reconnecting Communities funding seeks to remove and retrofit transportation facilities that restrict access and connectivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic further disrupted a transportation sector already in upheaval. Use of transit plummeted in 2020 as people sought to avoid crowds and many companies shifted to remote work. Many commuters adopted new strategies, like biking, or going to the office less frequently. Transit agencies have responded by changing service hours and routes or reducing rates and staffing levels. Transit planners were already considering how to improve affordability and accessibility while facing needed upgrades.  “Micromobility,” or planning for the last mile before or after the transit stop, is not a new issue but now there are new technologies like rentable e-bikes and scooters that have the potential to expand access to the transit system.

New perspectives on equity and reducing emissions are also driving change in the transportation sector. Recognizing past problems caused by major transportation projects, funding from the IRA’s Reconnecting Communities Program seeks to remove and retrofit transportation facilities that restrict access and connectivity, particularly in communities previously cut off from economic opportunities.

To decarbonize the transportation sector, investments in electric mobility are being made which may shape the built environment and the charging network. Land use patterns will undoubtedly change as gas stations become less widespread because EV drivers need places to fuel cars with electricity for a longer period. More charging stations may pop up in residential, office, and commercial hubs.

All these changes have impacts not only on land use, but also on our safety, equity, and health. How they will unfold will depend heavily on economic factors related to home and work, along with policy decisions. But themes of electrification, technological advancements in how and who operates cars, and access improvements seem certain to continue.

Planning Priorities for Transportation in New England

When asked about transportation, planners from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut said their top priorities were planning for (1) supporting active transportation and non-car modes, (2) improving micro-mobility and connectivity between modes, and (3) accessibility and safety. The term “healing from highways” was a major focus, spurred by federal investment and widespread recognition of how highways have disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities.

Based on their priorities, planners may need funding and technical support to:

  • retrofit streets for multi-modal use,
  • implement micro-mobility technologies, and
  • improve accessibility in transit and pedestrian networks.

Perhaps more than the other areas discussed here, upcoming changes in our transportation system are difficult to predict. Land use dynamics drive transportation patterns, and vice versa, in a complex iterative relationship. Given the major changes happening in the transit system, rethinking vehicle operations, and shifting land uses, goals for increasing multi-modal use, expanding access, and emissions reductions may be challenging to achieve at the local scale in isolation. Regional partnerships and more extensive planning may be necessary in helping communities prepare for – and respond to – the changing mobility patterns in the future.

Planners Need to Lead the Way

We may not be able to envision all the ways that future trends and challenges will shape our communities, but as planners, we need to work to understand shifting dynamics, innovations, and technology and how they might affect our built environment. Keeping up may require new partnerships with utilities, transportation agencies, and state and federal funders. Planners also need to continue to be intentional about understanding the public interest more broadly and equitably as we seek to improve the future while learning from the past. Based on feedback we have received, New England planners are already thinking about these issues and are seeking ways to innovate, educate, and respond to the needs that are emerging.

[1] AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023

Joanna Nadeau, AICP is a Senior Project Planner and Sustainability/Resiliency Specialist who routinely works with government officials, NGOs, resource managers, and the public to develop and implement resiliency and sustainability plans and projects. Susan Mara, AICP, is an Urban and Environmental Planning Project Manager with over 20 years of experience in municipal planning.

Published in Connecticut Planning, Winter 2024.

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