City Planning Overview

Cities are divided into neighborhoods. These aren’t official designations; it’s just how ordinary people identify different parts of the city. A neighborhood might have distinct borders, such as a particular street, or it might be a vague area that doesn’t start or end in any particular place. How ordinary people think about neighborhoods may not align with how city planners see the city.

City planners divide the city into specific zones according to what kind of building or activity may be developed there. Some common zones allow only single-family homes, while others might allow for single-family AND multi-family homes (apartments). There are zones for industrial areas, commercial areas, agricultural areas, transit, and so on. Parks are one of the few types of properties that don’t generally require a specific zone. Parks can go anywhere.

There is another way the city gets broken up into certain areas. City planners may also divide the city into “planning districts” that may or may not share any resemblance to the zones. Planning districts are areas that the city has developed, or will be developing, special projects for. Planning districts will have planning documents that help guide what is allowed to be built in that area. These are often called “comprehensive plans.” The comprehensive plan for a planning district that features a lot of retail businesses will look very different than one that contains wetlands and wildlife habitat. The retail district may have planning documents that suggest street improvements, additional parking, wider sidewalks, and transit stations. The wildlife area, on the other hand, may have walking trails, overlooks, and habitat restoration.

Each color in a zoning map represents the kind of development allowed there. Image courtesy: Lockhart, TX

Each color in a zoning map represents the kind of development allowed there. For example, green areas are for agriculture, red is commercial, yellow is low-density residential, and so on.
Image courtesy: Lockhart, TX

If you attend planning meetings, you may hear the term “variance.” A variance is an exception to the zoning regulation. Having a café in an industrial zone would require a variance, for example. Parks, (and skateparks), generally don’t require variances because parks can be developed in most areas regardless of the zone. There are exceptions. You couldn’t put a skatepark in a protected habitat area, for example.

Most government officials will consider a city in yet another way. Council districts represent a part of the city that is represented in City Hall by an elected official. Districts are blocks of constituents that inform local politics. The district representatives are usually called “City Council members” though in some communities they may be known as “Select Board members.” Sometimes these influential people in your community are appointed but usually they are elected by the public.

There are lots of other divisions. There are school districts, police and fire service areas, transportation corridors, and so on. Each of these types of divisions will have different professionals assigned to manage those interests and maintain a growth plan. Any of these groups that your skatepark proposal may influence in some way will be someone you’ll want to talk to and get their support.

The main types of municipal zones are:

Single-family Residential
Multi-family Residential <— Optimal zone for skateparks

Zoning is relevant to skatepark development because it suggests how many people are likely to be in that area at any particular time. Non-retail business and industrial districts have a lot of pedestrian activity on weekdays, but can often become desolate at night and on the weekends. Residential areas will be buzzing with activity in the late afternoon and weekends, but tend to be quiet during weekdays.

You don’t need to be an expert in local government to represent the needs of local skateboarders, but it helps to have a fundamental understanding of how your town is understood by the people you will be dealing with.