In the summer of 2018 I found myself sitting in a room with a small number of other people, making decisions about how land in Marion County should be used. Iâ€™m a computer person by trade with no background in land use planning. How did I end up here?
The Long-Range Planning group in Indianapolisâ€™ Department of Metropolitan Development had a challenge: Tasked with not only updating the balkanized and aged Marion County Land Use Plan, but in keeping with the vision of Plan 2020, which includes enabling the broader community to bring their expertise and interests to the task, how were they going to both produce a cohesive, modern plan, and find a way for lay people to contribute? Plan 2020 is a partnership between Indianapolis city government and community partners. It stitches many existing individual plans, ideas, and initiatives into a broader, cohesive whole, providing a framework for coordination and collaboration to realize the communityâ€™s collective vision. Rigid, prescriptive plans become out-of-date quickly as society and needs change. The Long-Range Planning group was tasked with creating a new, flexible Marion County Land Use Plan, not in isolation, but with the input of lay people who wouldnâ€™t necessarily know what land use planning is.
Providing the right tools
The first step was to lay the groundwork for success by building a common, thorough, flexible language: The Marion County Land Use Plan Pattern Book. A land use plan describes a vision for how space is used. How much of our city should be residential? How much should be parks? Offices? Industrial? Whatâ€™s allowed to be near what else? Whatâ€™s appropriate near a school? Near a river? While zoning laws specify current uses, a Land Use Plan envisions an ideal future. In order to create and document that vision, they created the Pattern Book to give the staff and community working on the plan a common language to describe various uses of the land without being so prescriptive that the result was too brittle to be effective.
If you envision the buildings in a city or county, how many different types of buildings do you envision? And how many different types of spaces that donâ€™t have any buildings do you envision? The Pattern Book first identifies these various land uses — the different types of buildings or non-building spaces one might envision — then identifies the various typical combinations of these land uses that are found together, calling these combinations Typologies. So, for instance, the land use of detached housing would be found in multiple Typologies, such as the Rural Neighborhood Typology, the Suburban Neighborhood Typology, or the Traditional Neighborhood Typology, but rarely in the City Neighborhood Typology, and practically never in the Heavy Commercial typology. Likewise, a Structured Parking land use makes sense in the Core Mixed-Use Typology or the Regional Commercial Typology, but not in a Suburban Neighborhood Typology. Further, within a Typology, a land use might be recommended with limitations.Â For example, a Structured Parking land use in the Core Mixed-Use Typology is recommended to include retail on the ground floor.
The Pattern Book uses thirty different land uses crossed with fifteen different Typologies to detail what uses are or arenâ€™t recommended in different contexts. These Typologies are grouped into three broad categories: Living Typologies (Rural or Estate Neighborhood, Suburban Neighborhood, Traditional Neighborhood, City Neighborhood), Mixed-Use Typologies (Village Mixed-Use, Urban Mixed-Use, Core Mixed-Use, Institution-Oriented Mixed-Use/Campus), and Working Typologies (Office Commercial, Community Commercial, Regional Commercial, Heavy Commercial, Office/Industrial Mixed-Use, Light Industrial, Heavy Industrial). In addition, the Pattern Book uses seven different types of Overlays, such as Environmentally Sensitive Area or Airport Vicinity, to provide additional recommendations within each Typology.
A land use map based on this Pattern Book, then, divides the map into a layer of adjoining Typologies that could be further categorized by a separate layer of Overlays. A particular area, for instance, might be categorized into the Light Industrial Typology, but also have the Environmentally Sensitive Area Overlay applied. In that case, if a requested variance or rezoning were to take place, whoever is considering whether or not to approve the variance or rezoning would use the recommendations for the Light Industrial Typology and include the recommendations within that Typology for the Environmentally Sensitive Area Overlay that are specific to the Light Industrial Typology. Among these recommendations, for instance, is that while Small-scale Offices, Retailing, and Personal or Professional Services are still allowed as a land use, any development impacting wetlands or high-quality woodlands should include a one-for-one replacement of such features. The Overlays add potential extra guidance for each land use within each Typology.
Power to the People
With the Pattern Book in hand, the Long-Range Planning staff were able to meet their first challenge: Making a draft of a cohesive, modern land use plan for Marion County that uses a comprehensive and readily understood pattern language. The second challenge, though, still remained: How to not just engage the community, but equip community members to effectively bring their interests and local expertise to bear? The answer to the second challenge was the Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy.
The Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy, perhaps uniquely across the United States, endeavored to significantly increase the planning capability of a swath of lay citizens through direct training. A six part curriculum was developed and delivered by a combination of Long-Range Planning staff and a variety of collaborators from within and without Indianapolis government. Topics included the history and purpose of land use planning, the pattern book, how land use planning can support the four building blocks of Plan 2020 (A More Resilient City, A Healthier City, A More Inclusive City, A More Competitive City), and how to use the Land Use Plan Pattern Book. One could attend the six classes in-person, see them broadcast on TV, or view them online.
I was quite new to the process and found the information rich, useful, and sometimes sobering. The Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy was the first place where I learned about the discriminatory practice of redlining, started in 1934, which tilted home mortgage lending heavily towards mostly predominantly white neighborhoods, as well as the even more overt, earlier racism of covenants that restricted who was allowed to own property by race. I was happy to see the training be open about our unpleasant past. We have to know about these things if weâ€™re going to find ways to address inherited inequity. I donâ€™t claim to have answers for how to address that inequity and the Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy, beyond being open about the problems, didnâ€™t explicitly offer solutions, but the Plan 2020 building block â€˜A More Inclusive Cityâ€™ does at least point the planning process in the direction of looking for equity.
The Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy succeeded, providing more than a hundred lay people with the ground work they needed to fully participate in the planning process. With this success the second challenge had been met, enabling people to use their newly gained knowledge to express their ideas and opinions in the language of the Pattern Book, but the work of actually bringing in all of the input from the community still needed to be done. This work would include soliciting opinions from everyone in the county and inviting the graduates of the Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy to join the township-specific Stakeholder Committees who would review the draft plan and finalize the draft before submitting it to a formal hearing.
Making a Final Map
The draft plan was put online so that anyone in the community could provide their opinions, and many presentations and office hours were scheduled around the county to explain the draft Land Use Plan and solicit further opinions. Long-Range Planning staff took these online and in-person opinions and incorporated them into the plan before presenting the draft plan to the Stakeholder Committees, one committee for each township in Marion County. The Stakeholder Committees had voting members appointed by various governmental agencies and non-voting members invited from the Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy. I was a member of the Center Township Stakeholder Committee.
We met three times, once each in June, July, and August. A professional facilitator ran the meetings. We were carefully instructed that these were open meetings, so all discussion of the Land Use Plan by committee members must be done at the committee meetings, where everyone could partake. We were encouraged to reach out as much as possible to the rest of the community to solicit their input. Many of the committee members were active in homeowners associations and other local organizations. In each meeting, Long-Range Planning staff presented the current status of the Center Township portion of the Land Use Map, pointing out changes that had been implemented based on committee and other input. Committee members were invited to review the Land Use maps and bring up any area of the map for further discussion.
Despite the training, the difference between zoning laws and land use planning had to be repeatedly reinforced. Zoning is the laws about what is allowed. Land use planning is about what would be considered ideal. Plans donâ€™t change whatâ€™s built or allowed today. Plans inform future decisions. Plans are policy, not law. Where planning often comes into effect is if thereâ€™s a request for a variance of use to the zoning of a parcel. Planning becomes one of the inputs to whether or not the variance would be allowed. The Metropolitan Development Commission must consider, amongst other inputs, the plan. Note that planning does not have to be considered when thereâ€™s a request for variance of development standards, only for a request for variance of use. Planning would also be considered if rezoning were being considered, either broadly, or for a particular parcel. And for places that donâ€™t yet have zoning, a plan must first be created. So planning doesnâ€™t come into effect until someone is looking to make a change to whatâ€™s allowed.
With these differences in mind, committee members could more easily get past the confusion of what it would mean to recommend a different Typology for an area of the map then how that map was currently used. Discussions about changing the map broadly fell into two categories: The map should be updated to reflect the actual use, or the map should be updated to reflect a hoped-for better use in the future. There were many straightforward changes proposed and easily accepted, as people familiar with an area would point out how the draft Land Use Plan could better align with what they know was already going on or with how they thought an area would or should evolve. In a few cases the discussion involved many people with differing viewpoints and consensus took a lot of back and forth to reach. One that I recall was whether or not an area along east Tenth St. that currently has residential housing should be protected with a Residential Overlay, or should be allowed possibly to evolve into more of a commercial area. Another was discussion about major intersections along East Michigan St. and East New York St. and whether their Typology should be one that allowed a land use that included gas stations or not. The group eventually reached consensus on these issues, but these were not obvious choices.
The Finish Line and the Future
Once the committees reached consensus, the voting members voted to finalize each Township map and then each Township map was, or in some cases will be, submitted to the Metropolitan Development Commission for a hearing. I and a few other committee members attended the hearing and spoke in support of the Center Township Land Use Map, which passed with no dissent. Attending the Peopleâ€™s Planning Academy and participating in the Center Township Stakeholder Committee were rewarding experiences for me. I learned much, enjoyed being involved, and feel like we helped provide a quality Marion County Land Use Map. I will admit to some concern about just how much this Land Use Map will actually affect decisions. As noted, itâ€™s only used when someone is seeking a variance of use or to change or create zoning laws, and even then it is only one of multiple inputs used. I would like to know just how much the Land Use Map gets used and, further, abided by over time. Still, Iâ€™m glad we have it, and Iâ€™m glad I got to be involved.