Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Connecting Students and Neighborhood Master Planning


A recent development in urban planning in the US has been a trend to move away from the traditional “zoning” types of development.  That is, as cities have sought to revitalize themselves in order to make their downtowns and neighborhoods more attractive places to inhabit, they have sought to re-conceptualize what good planning should demand.  For decades within the US, urban planners held to a dogma that shopping/retail, offices, industry, and residences should all be strictly zoned as separate entities.  Such design patterns left urban areas in the US highly isolated and segregated.  Moreover, the distances between these entities almost universally demanded some kind of automobile transportation if an individual or family wanted to transport for one specialized zone to another.  However, beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to the present, there has been a movement populated by planners, architects, and academics called The New Urbanism (1).  The New Urbanists, ironically enough, called for a return to pre-World War II planning in the US.  Under that rubric, they advocated mixed-use (a blend of residential, business, and retail), walkable (being about to ambulate on foot to stores, work, school, etc.) neighborhoods.  In essence, New Urbanism operates as a reaction against normative growth patterns in US cities exemplified by suburban sprawl and restrictive residential enclaves.  Beyond that, New Urbanism promotes a return to citizen participation in the planning process.

Closer to home, the planning commission of the City of Grand Rapids in 2002 adopted a new master plan that demonstrated a high level of New Urbanist influences (2).  In fact, under the new master plan for the city, the word “zoning” was removed in favor of “patterning” – in effort to move away from rigidly codified planning that demanded exclusiveness and isolation for more integrated aspects of the city.  A major component of the master plan also allowed for neighborhood organizations to take the lead in thinking about potential future development of their local community.  More and more research indicates the importance residents’ empowerment in the neighborhood design process:  “The past few decades have taught us that planning without community involvement is likely to lead to plans that sit on the shelf (3).”  In essence, the Grand Rapids Master Plan incorporates this knowledge by offering neighborhood leaders and organizations a systematic protocol for future development (called Area Specific Plans).

For our purposes, these neighborhood master planning processes offer a wonderful entree for college students to think more explicitly about place and the liberal arts.   As neighborhoods begin to consider how they might implement elements of the new master plan, college students could be used for a multitude of processes.  In turn, the exposure to neighborhood leadership would allow students to learn more about the city, particular neighborhoods, history, planning theory, and what it might take to craft better places for citizens to inhabit.


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