Long Islanders know we’re facing grave challenges. Loss of good jobs, declining wages, sky-high taxes. What makes matters worse is, we’re not planning to do much about them.

We know we need more affordable homes to stem the loss of our young people. Sixty-two percent consider the lack of affordable housing either a very serious or extremely serious problem. That’s far higher than in other New York-area suburbs.

We also know the smart place to put these homes: in downtown areas, so we can take advantage of existing infrastructure, revitalize languishing town centers, and preserve the Island’s cherished single-family neighborhoods.

The land is there: 8,300 acres located near downtowns or rail stations and currently undeveloped or used for parking lots. That’s enough land to provide 90,000 units in a mix of townhouses, condos, and apartments.

To make that possibility a reality, Long Island needs a change of plans. Literally.

A survey of Long Island municipalities, just released by the Long Island Index, reveals that in 50% of towns and cities, comprehensive plans have not been updated in the last 10 years. Among villages, 75% have no comprehensive plan at all.

Besides new plans, we need new ideas about planning. We think of the building review process as essentially preventive: designed to stop building that will harm our communities. That idea may be the legacy of decades during which Long Island built and built: big homes on big lots, in ever more remote areas. In the process, we ate up precious open space, damaged our environment, drove up taxes, and choked our highways.

We called this “overdevelopment,” but that’s not the right word. We didn’t simply build too much; rather, we built too much of the wrong thing in the wrong places. Meanwhile we failed to build the homes we needed for our young people, seniors, and workers with modest incomes. And we failed—dismally in many cases—to maintain the vitality of once-vibrant downtowns.

What we need now is to fashion new plans and zoning codes that prevent unsustainable development, but promote the downtown development we want.

One thing that means is increasing density. People are the lifeblood of towns and villages, patronizing local merchants, stimulating new businesses, and generating the social and cultural energy that makes a region hot. Age-old zoning regulations, rooted in fears about too much development, now block the development we need.

In their place we need plans and zoning codes that promote our vision of what our downtowns could be. A rail station can be the center of a bustling, mixed-use hub, instead of a dreary outpost in a desert of parked cars. Aesthetically designed multi-unit housing can complement and enhance a village’s existing character.

Stunning things are being done in next-generation suburbs across America. We can re-invent our region too. Let’s specify what we want, then get it built.

The time is now. With Long Island’s vital signs getting weaker and weaker, if we want to restore our region’s health, we need to act fast.