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Environmental Planners


Urban planning in the United States dates to the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when cities such as Annapolis, colonial Williamsburg, and Philadelphia were created. In those days cities were laid out in ways to showcase their wealth and power, with focus on the major streets; prominent homes, buildings, and monuments; and large, lush public parks. In 1791 President George Washington assigned the task of planning a new federal capital city to Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French-born American architect. For the next year L'Enfant created a plan for the 10-mile square of federal territory that would later be known as Washington, D.C. Heavily influenced by the baroque cities of Europe, he created a gridiron street system that featured diagonal and radial avenues, with the capitol as the main focal point. L'Enfant was fired from the job in 1792 due to frequent conflicts with the commissioners who were appointed to oversee his work. U.S. Surveyor Andrew Ellicott completed the project.

Early urban planners placed emphasis on the parts of the city—monuments, buildings, etc.—and not on the city as a whole. Cities that are designed with sole focus on their parts usually suffer when changes occur, and changes in cities occur regularly. The longevity of towns and cities was not taken into account, and thus plans and allowances were not made for such things as population growth and business development. Streets, systems, structures—all were designed to work with life as it was, with the population that existed at the moment designs were created, without much plan for change. Future technologies and systems could not have been foreseen back then, and yet when they developed, cities needed to be renovated or reorganized to best adopt the changes. Automobiles completely altered life and affected the ways in which streets functioned—everything from traffic flow to zoning and land use for storage and parking had to be taken into account and implemented. And cities and towns needed to create and implement plans to effectively bring electricity and telephones to their citizens as well.

Frederick Law Olmsted elevated urban and regional planning to new, professional heights in the 1800s. The designer of many U.S. parks, grounds, and green spaces, including Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Olmsted introduced the concept that cities are organic and constantly evolving, and that they consist of interrelated parts that function together to create the whole. He stressed that planners and designers needed to keep all of this in mind when developing their ideas.

The 1916 zoning law that passed in New York also greatly influenced city planning. The first law of its kind to be passed in America, it was created to limit the height of skyscrapers; it also specified the shapes skyscrapers could and could not be, and at which heights the skyscrapers needed to be "set back," to allow for light and air. The "Regional Survey of New York and Environs" in 1929 further introduced considerations for urban and regional planners, such as legal and social factors, as well as internal transit issues.

The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s raised awareness about using land more efficiently and responsibly, conserving natural resources and reducing and preventing pollution. Many laws were enacted to address these issues, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which had and continues to have a deep impact on planning. Passed in 1969, NEPA requires federal agencies to consider the environmental effects of their proposed actions and come up with reasonable alternatives to those actions. Federal agencies are mandated to prepare an environmental impact statement to verify that their actions are in compliance with NEPA. (The Council on Environmental Quality was also created to ensure that NEPA standards were being met.) After NEPA was enacted, planners started focusing on sustainable development in their work, thinking about the longevity of cities and communities, and factoring in social, ecological, and equity outcomes. The environmental planning field has grown since then. Today, in addition to planning commissions and private sector consultants working in the field, numerous federal, state, and local government agencies are involved in urban and regional environmental planning projects.

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