As part of the $1 million the state dedicated toward planning projects at the end of February, $100,000 is going to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to study village development in Rhode Island. The study builds on continuing efforts to focus development within urban corridors or, in rural area, existing villages. Scott Millar is the administrator of the state’s Sustainable Watersheds Program and took a few minutes to discuss the environmental benefits of village development as well as what he hopes to accomplish with the new study.
PBN: Where did the idea for studying village development come from?
MILLAR: The state land use plan, Land Use 2025, put forward by the R.I. State Planning Council and Statewide Planning Program established a vision for Rhode Island as a “constellation of community centers connected by infrastructure corridors and framed by greenspace”. The plan calls for an urban-rural approach where more intensive development is encouraged within an urban services boundary. Carefully planned village development would be achieved in rural and suburban towns to protect natural resources, maintain quality of life and promote sustainable economic growth. It is envisioned “that farmland and forests will surround centers (villages) that are infused with greenways and greenspace.”
The land area outside of the urban services boundary (USB) is currently sparsely developed with an impervious cover of approximately 4 percent compared to the impervious cover inside the USB of 25 percent. It has been well documented that water quality and aquatic habitat will become adversely impacted above an impervious cover of 10 percent and severely degraded above 25 percent. In addition to supporting healthy watersheds, the area outside of the USB contains Rhode Island’s primary drinking water supplies, working farms, un-fragmented forest, recreational opportunities and important habitat. These invaluable natural resources and the quality of life they support will be irreversibly harmed by continued suburban sprawl and poorly planned growth.
The R.I. Department of Environmental Management has very effective programs to protect water quality and wetlands, but these regulations, by themselves, are not enough to protect these resources from growth. Moreover, there are no state regulations to prevent the development of our working farms, forests or to protect habitat. Therefore, DEM has been working in partnership with the Statewide Planning Program and Rhode Island’s cities and towns to develop more creative land use techniques such as conservation development and low impact development to accommodate growth while avoiding and reducing impacts to natural resources and community character. Village development is a type of growth that has worked well for centuries to concentrate growth in areas that are the most suitable to support it while protecting natural resources and community character. Therefore initiating a project to determine how village growth can be improved in Rhode Island is the logical next step for DEM as well as our State and Federal partners.
PBN: Are there any communities in the state that have already done a good job of focusing development around village centers that you may use as models?
MILLAR: There are several good examples of Rhode Island communities successfully using village development. One of the best examples is Burrillville, where growth was encouraged in the historic mill village of Harrisville. This revitalized Harrisville, cleaned up a contaminated brownfield site, and re-directed growth away from their rural countryside.
PBN: What areas of the State do you see the greatest potential gains from village development?
MILLAR: Village development can be beneficial statewide. It can encourage the re-use of abandoned buildings, provide attractive sites for new businesses, stimulate investment, create jobs, and use our existing infrastructure more efficiently. Compact growth is also easier to serve by mass transportation and reduces the vehicle miles traveled per capita. This helps to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. From DEM’s perspective, the rural and suburban communities will benefit the most by concentrating growth in areas where the impacts to natural resources would be minimized.
PBN: How does Rhode Island compare to the rest of the country in village development planning?
MILLAR: Rhode Island has a very rich history of village development that was stimulated by the industrial revolution with many vibrant mill villages continuing to thrive. The Rhode Island planning community clearly understands the many advantages of village development as evidenced by recent village planning efforts in towns such as Exeter, Richmond, North Kingstown, North Smithfield, and South Kingstown. But there are obstacles that need to be carefully addressed.
PBN: When do you expect the study will be finished and what will the finished products be?
MILLAR: The project will assess what’s been done to implement village growth in rural and suburban towns. Important questions such as: what has worked, what hasn’t and what else needs to be initiated to achieve village growth will be addressed. Moreover, are there State policies, regulations, or programs that need to be revised to encourage village development patterns? The purpose of this project is to thoroughly assess the status of village growth, document lessons learned, recommend incentives to encourage villages, and develop reasonable alternatives to address issues that are currently impeding village development. A guidance manual will be developed to address the following:
Public engagement/education techniques.
Criteria and metrics for selection of new village sites.
Determining appropriate local density.
Benefits of villages including economic, natural resource protection, community character, cultural assets, balanced housing, and inter-modal transportation.
Infrastructure issues including drinking water, waste water, stormwater, and traffic
Model village ordinances: new village, infill, or re-development.
Model village design guidelines.
Techniques to preserve open space as a trade off for allowing density in a village.
The project will be complete in about 18 months. The DEM will partner with the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve Coastal Training Program to design workshops on these topics for local officials and others, helping them to move village development forward in their communities. The project is being supported by the R.I. Statewide Planning Program with funding provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.