Almost five years ago, the City of Huntsville was finalizing its first comprehensive plan in at least four decades. It was the product of years of study, analysis and – most importantly – public engagement, and it represented the shared vision for the future of Huntsville.
Formally adopted in 2018, the plan – known as The BIG Picture – mapped out a series of strategies for growth that would allow our community to bring in new industry, attractions and residents without losing the character that makes Huntsville unique. Once a plan is adopted, however, the real work begins.
There are two very important tasks that must occur if the plan is going to be successful: implementation and assessment. Implementation means that the recommendations made in the plan – policy changes, investments, projects – are actively being carried out. Assessment means the City is on a regular basis reviewing the successes and struggles of those recommendations, and proactively making adjustments and updates. These two elements are vital to the realization of that vision.
When it comes to implementation, the biggest threat is stagnation. Once all the work is completed and compiled, if the document ends up in a three-ring binder, collecting dust on a bookshelf, then there is a risk that all the work that went into the effort, all the time spent, all the community comments, will have been wasted. A successful plan must be continually engaged and referenced often.
To overcome that challenge, the City developed the plan as an exclusively online report. There were many advantages to using an web-based platform. It would be very easy to update, and as policies were adopted or projects came to fruition, the site could be quickly updated without amending hard copies. No user would have to wonder if they were seeing the latest version.
Accessibility was also a key factor. Any stakeholder – including citizens, city officials, developers, business owners, et. al. – could easily find and navigate The BIG Picture online.
Accessibility also refers to the legibility of a plan. A document that consists of page after page of text, or is mired in technical terms, is not “accessible.” A good plan must be presented in a format that will encourage its use, using terms that are clear for the reader. To that end, The BIG Picture broke the plan into four distinct, easy-to-navigate sections – Principles, Policies, Places and Process.
- “Principles” represents the six big goals of the plan, which should guide decision-making.
- “Policies” are additions or updates to how we build and grow.
- “Places” addresses specific areas of town (like the Cove area or Medical District) or Citywide projects, such as the greenway network.
- “Process” is the backstory: the baseline for study, information that informed the plan and how we got to the end product.
By designing and presenting a plan that is easy to access, we can ensure that The BIG Picture continues to be a useful tool for shaping our growth.
The second key consideration is assessment. The well-worn saying is that “no plan survives first contact,” and City planning is no exception. Even the most extensively researched and thoroughly vetted plan is going to need adjustments. The economy might shift, growth rates might accelerate, or a large project might make a particularly big impact in a key area, or – who knows? – there might be a pandemic. In any case, it’s important to conduct regular reviews of a comprehensive plan. A community can take that opportunity to learn from its successes, analyze what hasn’t gone as expected, and make adjustments where necessary.
As The BIG Picture approaches its fifth year, and particularly as the community emerges from COVID, we are taking a look back to see what’s been working and what might need additional attention. Given the strength of the local economy and flurry of growth, there has been a lot to evaluate.
One of the key goals set forth in the plan was how we might modernize our approach to land use. Like many cities that grew rapidly in the ’60s and ’70s, we expanded outward, not upward. While there is still a lot of demand for traditional homes in new subdivisions, the City has also seen monumental growth in redevelopment of the core parts of the community.
City-led projects like the Johnson Legacy Center, Dr. Robert Shurney Legacy Center, Sandra Moon Community Complex, and Butler Green breathed new life into old sites. Developers embraced the trend as well, with projects like Campus No. 805, Stovehouse and MidCity taking aging or obsolete properties and creating new activity centers in their place. Most notably, since the establishment of Downtown Huntsville Inc., the historic center of the City has seen unprecedented growth and reinvestment. And more projects are on the horizon, in almost every corner of Huntsville.
In supporting this new development, it was vital that we ensure our transportation network was keeping up. As mentioned in the plan, there are three aspects of a high-functioning, sustainable transportation network: varied uses, routes and modes.
The varied uses aspect looks at creating those mixed-use developments mentioned above, which can help reduce both the number and distance of trips. The route aspect seeks to create multiple paths among destinations. To that end, the City is not only widening and improving key routes like U.S. 72, the Parkway and I-565, it is also adding new routes such as the Northern Bypass, Arsenal East Connector and Resolute Way interchange. These connections add both capacity and resiliency to our road network.
The modes aspect recognizes that while it’s important to move car traffic through the region, we must also provide the community with other options. Better sidewalks and bicycle infrastructure can connect neighborhoods to desirable destinations like schools, parks and shopping.
Updated and expanded transit can help reduce congestion, increase roadway capacity and provide a more affordable transportation choice for those who might need it. A strong and diverse transportation network is the backbone of an economy, and the City will see close to $1 billion invested in that network over the course of a decade.
Another important goal was the continued economic diversification of the region. Early on, we identified gaps in metro wage growth, particularly in the middle third of the wage scale. In response, Huntsville aggressively pursued industries like Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, Meta/Facebook and Amazon, which could provide good-paying jobs that didn’t necessarily require an advanced degree.
The effort didn’t stop with traditional industries, either. The recreational economy is expanding at a lightning pace. Improvements to John Hunt Park and the addition of the Huntsville Aquatics Center have attracted regional and national tournaments to Huntsville. A renovation to Joe Davis Stadium resulted in landing a professional soccer club. Expansions at Ditto Landing and the advent of the Singing River Trail are engaging the river frontage. All of these combined are developing Huntsville as a true recreation destination.
In addition, some creative thinking resulted in a Music Audit, an initiative designed to support and grow the music sector of the local economy. This focus has seen the opening of major venues like Mars Music Hall and The Orion Amphitheater, as well as the creation of neighborhood events by outside entities like the wildly-popular Porch Fest in the Five Points Historic District.
There is a rich musical history in North Alabama, and an incredible amount of local talent which has a significant (and growing) economic impact. All these efforts are designed to create opportunity; an opportunity for our community members to find a job they love and help them thrive in Huntsville.
We’re happy to celebrate The BIG Picture’s “checked boxes,” but it’s important to look at our challenges. For example, while significant investment has been made in transportation, the rate of growth suggests that the investment must continue. Huntsville can’t, so to speak, take its foot off the gas.
Pandemic-related supply chain issues and shrinking labor pools have been especially difficult for infrastructure development, and in particular for smaller-scale efforts like sidewalk construction and greenway installation. It will be important that, as the City sheds the economic symptoms of COVID, those projects are re-engaged in earnest.
Another concern, on both the national and regional stages, is affordability, specifically in terms of housing. The City continues to support development and redevelopment to help answer that demand, and the Planning Department has reviewed zoning codes to identify ways developers can provide more diverse and accessible housing products.
Finally, when The BIG Picture debuted in 2018, discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion had not yet reached the forefront of the national conversation. Working with the City’s new Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (ODEI) should shape the amendment of existing policies and addition of new ones to ensure The BIG Picture accurately reflects Huntsville’s present while guiding its future.
Want to stay informed? Visit BigPictureHuntsville.com to learn more!