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Striking the right livability balance as region plans future

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(Editor’s note: This is another in a periodic series written by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission that addresses development, transportation, infrastructure and other issues affecting Lehigh and Northampton counties.)

With its rolling hills, farmland, parks and trails that are close – but not too close – to New York and Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley’s balance of urban, rural and natural landscapes makes it a highly desirable place to live.

As the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission drafts “FutureLV: The Regional Plan,” which will serve as a road map carrying the region to 2045 and beyond, the major challenge lies in preserving that delicate balance while also addressing the needs and achieving the goals of a healthy, vibrant and growing community.

That’s the message that emanates from a community-wide survey, administered by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and taken by nearly 1,200 people. The commission’s first Valley-wide survey since 2014 has mined vital information to use in drafting a new comprehensive plan for the region.

If you own a business, all of this matters because it has a direct effect on how many customers are led to your doorstep, how land use is managed and where future businesses can build and grow.

Additionally, it addresses the quality of life issues that have become a beacon for the likes of Amazon and Google as they search for the right cities to extend their headquarters operations.

PEOPLE WANT TO STAY

Overall, the survey results reveal that respondents are highly engaged in the issues of the region’s development and understand the implications of our future development choices.

Perhaps the most telling response in the survey was that just 6 percent of people said they intend to leave, with 73 percent saying they intended to stay and another 21 percent saying they had no opinion or didn’t know.

What’s keeping them here?

When asked what people like most about living in the Lehigh Valley, 61 percent said it was parks, trails and recreational opportunities, and 59 percent said natural and farm lands. (Respondents were allowed to make more than one choice.)

TRAFFIC, CONGESTION

The third most popular response was accessibility to New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey – a response that was No. 1 when we asked the same question in 2010.

That suggests a growing appreciation for the type of outdoor and agricultural resources that make the region unique. It also appears to be the source of what worries respondents most.

When asked what they liked least about living here, the responses weren’t surprising. Leading a lengthy list were truck traffic, congestion, warehouses and the loss of farmland and natural resources – in that order.

WALKING, BIKING, CAR-POOLING

Respondents were largely split between those who most preferred to see future development in the region’s urban cores and business districts and those who most preferred a more dispersed rural or suburban residential development pattern.

Similarly, when asked about the most effective strategies for addressing the region’s future transportation and mobility needs, respondents emphasized the importance of designing walkable and bikable communities and promoting walking, biking and car-pooling to work.

But respondents also emphasized the importance of road-widening and new road construction projects, perhaps not surprising considering that more than 75 percent of respondents said most of their travel time was spent alone in their vehicle.

CHANGING PREFERENCES

Despite such contrasting and occasionally contradictory responses, it is important to note that these transportation development strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, the exercise provided a glimpse at some of the changing preferences among respondents, as well as a growing understanding of the connections and interrelatedness of these strategies, including how compact development can bolster the region’s pedestrian, biking and transit networks.

Those responses, while telling, certainly didn’t tell the entire story. The survey included 23 questions designed to probe opinions about everything from transportation to housing to education.

GOALS, POLICIES, STRATEGIES

The survey was designed to test and prioritize the information the LVPC gathered from more than 30,000 participants during outreach efforts over the past year. The survey responses will be used to help craft the goals, policies and implementation strategies for FutureLV.

In addition, the LVPC is creating development scenarios based on this feedback.

The scenarios, which will project several different futures for the region based on what priorities are set, will be released this year. FutureLV will be completed in 2019.

As the people who took the survey reminded us, a lot is at stake.

John von Kerczeck is a principal community planner and Teresa Mackey is a senior environmental planner, both at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. They can be reached at jvonkerczek@lvpc.org, tmackey@lvpc.org and 610-262-4544. Full results of the community-wide survey are available at www.lvpc.org.

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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@lvb.com

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