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Land Use & Community Design
Updated June 2013

Sustainability Best Practice Area

Well-planned communities with a balance of housing, jobs, shopping, schools and recreation give people the option of walking, biking, or using transit rather than driving. This results in lower greenhouse gas emissions and also promotes physical activity, economic development, and more vibrant, healthy and sustainable communities.


Encourage Compact, Efficient and Contiguous Development

  • Develop general plan policies that integrate diverse land uses – including housing, employment and community services – at appropriate densities to help reduce automobile travel and promote walking, bicycling and other opportunities for physical activities.
  • Work with school districts to develop school siting policies that encourage infill locations to take advantage of existing complementary uses, existing housing, and walking and bicycling opportunities, and avoid greenfield locations outside established urban areas.
  • As part of general plan housing element updates, inventory potential infill development sites, and maintain a community-wide database of vacant and underutilized infill sites to monitor the community’s growth and change.
  • Plan, zone and provide incentives for new development and renovation of existing uses in identified infill areas.
  • Streamline the entitlement process for development of high quality residential construction in older and infill areas through updates to the housing element of the general plan or the zoning code, including taking full advantage of opportunities to streamline the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review for infill development.
  • Implement methods (such as urban service boundaries and priority infrastructure investment areas) to limit non-contiguous development patterns and foster more compact urban form.
  • Consider increasing development density in areas that are well-served by transit, including incentives and streamlining for transit-oriented development.
  • Develop policies and incentives (such as minimum conservation requirements, development boundaries, density limitations and support for the Williamson Act) to promote the preservation of farmland, open space and sensitive lands.
  • Establish a policy that increases the available open space (such as parks, greenbelts, hiking trails, etc.) to support different types of uses and the different recreational needs of the community.

Support Alternative Energy and Waste Processing Land Use Options

  • Identify appropriate sites for potential solar or wind generation facilities.
  • Identify appropriate sites and zoning designations for recycling processing facilities and manufacturing that uses recycled materials.
  • Adopt policy or program that mandates or offers incentives (such as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, streamlined permitting or fee waivers) for installation of photovoltaic and/or solar hot water systems on new or existing residential and commercial buildings and energy efficiency retrofits on existing buildings.

Land Use Policies Supporting Green Building

  • As a way to provide more predictability to the development community, include in the general plan and the zoning code policies and regulations that support and encourage green building practices and development patterns that promote sustainable communities through subjects, such as green building ordinances, solar orientation of structures and subdivisions, bicycle and pedestrian access, in-fill development and alternative energy use.
  • Require new housing and mixed use developments to be built to the LEED® for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) standard, Build It Green or equivalent standards.
  • Require bicycle racks, showers and/or other amenities as part of new commercial development projects to promote bicycle use by new employees/residents.
  • Provide expedited application processing for development projects that meet or exceed sustainable land use policies.

Planning for a Variety of Transportation Choices

Bicycle and Pedestrian Opportunities
  • Assess and report to local governing body and the public on pedestrian and bicycle conditions in existing communities and neighborhoods.
  • Develop and adopt a community-wide pedestrian and bicycle plan and capital investment program that maximizes the potential for residents to walk or bicycle within and between neighborhoods.
  • Provide bicycle access to transit services on major transit corridors and other routes that may attract bicyclists, such as routes serving schools and colleges.
  • Incorporate new overpasses and underpasses with bike lanes and pedestrian sidewalks to improve air quality by reducing GHG emissions from vehicle idling while waiting for pedestrians and bicycles crossing.
  • Increase opportunities for walking and bicycling by requiring direct pedestrian and bike paths even when roadways do not connect through new and existing developments.
  • Implement zoning for mixed-use development to encourage walking or biking for short trips rather than using vehicles.
  • Require sidewalks in all new developments and incorporate new trees and tree wells in sidewalk areas.
Transit Opportunities
  • Update the general plan to address multi-modal transit, mass transit, infill development, density and mixed-use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Provide incentives and remove potential barriers to the development of mixed-use and higher intensity development projects at transit nodes and along transit corridors (existing and planned).
  • Require new development at transit nodes and along transit corridors to meet planning and design standards to generate, attract and facilitate transit ridership as a condition of approval; for instance, make the project more attractive to the target population (such as young, single urban individuals).
Parking Opportunities
  • Reduce parking requirements, to the extent feasible, to facilitate higher density development that fosters access to walking, biking and public transit.
  • Integrate park-and-ride lots and car sharing service spaces with mixed-use facilities and transportation hubs/centers.
  • Promote revitalization of transit corridors by improving light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) or other high-service transit facilities and services, and promoting an appropriate mix of housing, retail, and office space.
  • Require new commercial developments to include electric vehicle charging and natural gas fueling stations in parking lots or garages.
Streets and Roads Opportunities
  • Plan and encourage roadways of smaller residential-scaled streets (generally 2 or 4 lanes maximum) with high levels of connectivity and short blocks.
  • Implement design standards that require streets and sidewalks to be designed for multi-modal mobility and access, including walking and bicycling, to ensure that new development is designed, sited and oriented to facilitate pedestrian, bicycle and other mobility and access (also referred to as complete streets).
  • Create residential neighborhood traffic management (traffic calming) plans to improve livability by reducing speeding and traffic volumes and increase safety for walking and bicycling.
  • Cluster freight facilities near ports, airports, and rail terminals to reduce their impact on streets and roadways.

Evaluate Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Plan for Mitigating and
Adapting to Climate Change

  • Adopt a climate action plan or include a greenhouse gas reduction, climate adaptation or climate mitigation plan or policies in the general plan, or include within the general plan a requirement for development and adoption of such plans.
  • Ensure that the adopted climate action plan complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines to help streamline the CEQA review for future development projects that are consistent with the climate action plan.
  • Include within a climate action plan or general plan a procedure to monitor and track greenhouse gas emissions associated with development projects and municipal operations.
  • Review zoning codes and development policies to identify changes that could improve implementation of land use and transportation policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Develop and adopt a preferred land use and transportation scenario for future development to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in alignment with the region’s sustainability strategy, including through computer modeling tools.
  • Work with other jurisdictions within the region to identify and address existing and potential regional sources of greenhouse gas emissions under different development scenarios.
  • Amend local CEQA guidelines to explain how to treat analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, such as including thresholds of significance.
  • Adopt policies in the general plan, climate action plan or other appropriate policy document to address the potential land use and community design effects of climate change (such as sea level rise, heat events, wildfires) especially for providing essential public services (such as police, fire, etc.).

Improve Communication, Collaboration and Inclusion

  • Coordinate planning and project approval procedures to increase collaboration between planning and other agency staff (such as public works, utilities, public safety, etc.), as appropriate.
  • Involve a diverse group of stakeholders in planning processes to ensure the agency’s guiding plans are representative of community’s diverse population and interests.
  • Use non-conventional methods to gather input from diverse community groups, particularly those that do not ordinarily participate in community planning efforts (for example conduct outreach and education through community groups and non-profits prior to public hearings).
  • Collaborate with local, regional and state agencies to share land use and community design-related information, coordinate planning goals and processes, and take advantage of opportunities to combine and leverage scarce resources.
  • Analyze impacts of development projects on safety and involve emergency responders and public safety staff early and consistently in development of growth plans.
  • Develop and implement an approach to planning that identifies and balances economic, environmental and social equity needs.
  • Participate in regional planning efforts, such as processes to develop and implement the regional Sustainable Communities Strategy pursuant to SB 375 and, where appropriate, align local general plans and zoning for consistency with the regional transportation plan.
The Institute gratefully acknowledges the following individuals who reviewed this best practice area and offered their comments:
  • Al Zelinka, Director of Community Development, City of Riverside
  • Betsy Strauss, Attorney at Law
  • Esther Blanco, Management Analyst, City of Fairfield
  • Grieg Asher, Sustainability Program Manager, Southern California Association of Governments
  • Maureen Carson, Director of Community Development, City of Vacaville
  • Pete Parkinson, Director of Permit & Resource Management, County of Sonoma

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