El Paso Sets the Path to a Sustainable Future

In March 2012 the City Council of El Paso, Texas, voted unanimously to adopt a visionary new comprehensive plan–Plan El Paso. The document is the result of a two year effort led by the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department in partnership with renowned Smart Growth planning firm Dover Kohl & Partners.  The new comprehensive plan builds upon previous planning efforts in the City.  Connecting El Paso , crafted in 2010, also in partnership with Dover Kohl & Partners, focused on fostering Transit Oriented Development around the city’s Bus Rapid Transit stations under development and the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) smelter brownfield site.  Each of the small area plans contained within it was crafted in accordance with the city’s SmartCode (a form-based land development ordinance adopted in 2008) with a focus on creating walkable, pedestrian friendly, mixed-use districts. This set the stage for walkability, transit oriented development, and accessibility throughout the document.

Overall, development of the plan involved extensive public participation, including two 14-day public design charrettes with staff presentations, hands-on design sessions, open houses, surveys, and keypad polling. The city describes the process leading up to the final version of Plan El Paso as being a collaborative effort of thousands of “citizen planners”.

Example of existing mixed use development.

Plan El Paso includes many traditional elements of a comprehensive plan on regional and local land use such as transportation, public facilities, housing, historic preservation and economic development. The plan’s organization consists of a volume dedicated to City Patterns, and another grouped under the tagline of “Community Life”, all of which speak to its intentions of being a community-driven document. What really sets Plan El Paso apart from similar planning efforts, however, is its detailed sections pertaining to sustainability and health included in the Community Life volume. The chapter on sustainability addresses concerns about diversification of energy resources and conservation of natural features. For example, arroyos, or seasonal streams, are given particular attention and valued as sensitive environmental assets. In addition, the document acknowledges the implications of the City’s location at the Mexico and US border, and the presence of one of the largest military complexes of the US Army, Fort Bliss. A series of appendices, including an implementation index, a description of the planning process, economic development reports, community design manual, and the Charter of New Urbanism complete the document.

Rendering of Union Plaza redeveloped with new central green space.

Plan El Paso also uses many of the principles established by the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system. Although it is not a legal instrument itself, the document recommends the use of progressive tools such as green building practices and connectivity standards for parks and green space.  The vision of the plan is to set forth a path for a more sustainable future by harmonizing land-use planning with growth management, and by supporting environmentally sustainable building practices, all while promoting economic revitalization of the downtown area.  The document has already received praise from the Smart Growth community, including a glowing review from the Natural Defense Council’s Kaid Benfield, as well as a 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement from the US EPA.

Content provided by Casey Studhalter and Royce Bassarab. All pictures were downloaded from planelpaso.org.