Model Urban Design Strategies

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

In general, we don’t tend to find model cities that have good urban design standards embedded throughout their land development code. Mostly what one finds are cities and towns that adopt a very impressive urban design ordinance that are added as an appendage (or overlay) to a portion of the land development code.

In nearly every community, what we find is that the “conventional” land development code contains an overwhelming number of regulations/ordinances that actually work against what is known as “smart growth” or what I would consider to be quality urban design.

In other words, much of the reform that is needed in almost every community is to get the adopted regulations out of the way of those seeking to build desirable developments. To expand the options that the development community has in providing for the full range of housing and commercial choices, instead of just being forced to limit themselves to conventional suburban, car-oriented development.

Sometimes, the marketplace actually seeks smart growth design. That is increasingly true today, as baby boomers, empty nesters and seniors, in growing numbers, are seeking walkable, denser, mixed-use, more vibrant, in-town living arrangements. Yet too often, developers find that the local government, astonishingly, has quite a few regulations that make such smart growth development illegal.

The approach that the more forward-thinking communities are starting to take is to establish a “transect-based” code. Instead of using the conventional approach of only having regulations to provide for a suburban lifestyle, progressive communities with visionary leaders are creating codes that are “context-sensitive.” In other words, the code has 3 to 6 lifestyle zones ranging from walkable urban to farm- and preservation-oriented rural. Each zone contains its own set of appropriate, customized regulations. That is, regulations designed to maximize the quality of the lifestyle intended for that zone.

These communities are moving away from the idea that “one size fits all.”

Note, too, that conventional, one-size-fits-all suburban land development codes (zoning regulations) use a reactive, negative approach to regulating development. The regulations have no vision for what the community seeks. They generally only state what is NOT allowed.

An important problem with the conventional approach is that it provides very little predictability for the community. Neighbors of a project are unable to know what to expect of a nearby development project. This unpredictability is also economically harmful, as businesses, developers and lending institutions are more healthy and comfortable with investing and developing when there is more predictability. Investing and developing is more risky when one cannot predict what a neighbor might develop in the future.

Conventional codes also tend to be “use-based;” striving to segregate land uses from each other, and focused on preventing “too much” residential density (after all, zoning regulations were born in an age when it was very important to separate “dirty” industries from houses, and to prevent overcrowding conditions). Today, such concerns have become rather anachronistic and counter-productive. Segregating land uses and restricting residential densities promotes auto dependence and discourages transit, bicycling and walking. These sorts of regulations also hurt small businesses and promote larger, corporate retailers.

Furthermore, conventional codes are meticulously designed to ensure that each development provides vast quantities of off-street parking. As Donald Shoup points out, such regulations are not at all based on objective, scientific studies about how much parking should be provided. They are adopted because “that is the requirement in other communities” (instead of being based on local studies).

In general, such regulations are a self-fulfilling prophesy because they assume everyone will drive a car to the development. By making that assumption, vast seas of parking are provided, which reduces the ability to travel without a car, which promotes additional car travel. And so on, ad infinitum. (free parking is also an enormous subsidy that strongly encourages travel by car)

Such parking requirements end up striving to provide sufficient parking for the “worst” day of the year (usually a week before Christmas).

Which means that most parking lots are nearly empty for 99% of the year.

“Worst case scenario” planning tends to be extremely costly, disastrous, and wasteful.

Shoup shows how the off-street parking regulations worsen traffic congestion, promote suburban sprawl, encourage car use for nearly every trip, increase air pollution and fuel consumption, reduce the ability to use transit (or walk or bicycle), significantly discourage small businesses which are unable to afford the high cost of providing such parking, and significantly increase the cost of housing (affordable housing is nearly impossible when off-street parking is required).

A newly-emerging example of smart growth regulations that seek to reform these problematic, conventional codes is known as a “form-based” code. A form-based code is ideally embedded within a transect-based land development code. The essential difference between a form-based code and a conventional use-based code is that a form-based code takes the position that the design of buildings is much more important and long-lasting for the community quality of life than the conventional focus on what uses are allowed in the building.

Instead, a form-based code has regulations that explicitly and positively state the community vision for the full range of lifestyles found in the community: urban, suburban and rural. The imperative becomes place-making, community-building, self-sufficiency, sustainability. Cities with well-designed buildings in neighborhoods containing the full range of daily needs — buildings that are integrated with other buildings to form comfortable spaces and energize the public realm, instead of being stand-alone, “look at me,” “object” buildings that deaden and turn their backs to the public realm. Use segregation, residential density maximums, and off-street parking are de-emphasized in a form-based code.

Form-based codes also return us to the tradition of emphasizing the quality and vibrancy of the public realm — the streets, the sidewalks and the buildings.

Given the above, examples of communities that have taken the lead on urban design are:

Sarasota FL

Miami FL

Madison WI

Austin TX

Belmont NC

West Palm Beach FL

Davidson NC

Nashville TN

Boulder CO

Ft Collins CO

Hercules CA

Hillsborough County FL

Huntersville NC

Orlando FL

These cities have not necessarily reformed their entire zoning/land development code. Some may simply have adopted a form-based code that they have appended to their land development code and applied it to a discreet location within the community.

Almost always, progress in urban design regulations is extremely incremental. It usually starts off by establishing “overlay” zoning districts which are overlaid onto the existing, underlying land development regulations. Overlays are a step in the direction of creating a form-based, transect-oriented land development code, but by themselves tend to be rather ad hoc “patches” (particularly when there is a proliferation of them in the underlying Code). Overlays tend to create code inconsistencies, and confusion for both planning staff, developers, and citizens. There is no unifying vision in this form of eclecticism.

Another note: Given the scarcity of communities which have reformed their entire land development code to promote smart growth, nearly all of the impressive urban design occurring in America is being driven not by local government regulations. Instead, smart growth is being created mostly by private sector developers who are building quality urban design (usually large infill projects in a downtown, or a new, traditional neighborhood).

 

An article pertinent to the above comments:

 

Working Toward a New Understanding of Zoning

By Roger K. Lewis Saturday, March 4, 2006; F05. The Washington Post

 

Urban design thinking and practice have greatly advanced over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, conventional zoning, the crude but all-powerful regulatory tool shaping cities, has changed little. Given the need to transform land-use planning and development, why is it so difficult to transform conventional zoning?

Impediments to zoning reform are predominantly political, social and economic, usually having little to do with design. Holistically amending a jurisdiction’s zoning statutes and regulations requires both executive leadership and legislative action. Because strong political sentiment always arises in opposition to proposed changes in land development, most elected officials and their constituents are reluctant to contemplate and push for such changes.

Zoning is potent because once zones are mapped and categories of land use, land-use intensity and building criteria are prescribed, the future character of the physical environment, along with its potential economic value, is substantially determined.

Land zoned for only single-family detached houses, with lots no smaller than 10,000 square feet, is likely to be less valuable than land zoned for attached homes or apartment buildings. If that same land is zoned for commercial use, its value becomes even greater.

Zoning creates vested land-use rights and potential wealth for property owners. In fixing boundaries, uses, densities and building form, zoning also presumably creates stability and predictability.

Thus many oppose zoning changes because they see it as a threat to their neighborhood and property. In many areas, zoning effectively excludes less affluent people from property ownership by generating land scarcity and unaffordable land costs through constraints on use.

Although many have benefited economically from zoning, it has become increasingly ineffective as an instrument of urban design. Zoning’s fundamental flaw is that it operates primarily by setting limits, spelling out what cannot be done, while remaining relatively mute as to what should be done.

Zoning laws often were written by lawyers, not by planners and designers. Regulations adopted decades ago under radically different circumstances are still on the books. Among the most obstructive regulations are these limiting types of use and mixing of uses.

People once believed that proper planning required clearly separated, single-use zones. A further belief was that, within a zone, buildings should be similar in bulk, height and character.

Today, urban designers advocate mixing uses and building types, blurring lines of demarcation between urban and suburban neighborhoods. They strive for connectivity rather than separation, heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. Density is another concern. Over time, new technologies, new architectural design strategies, new transportation modes and new patterns of human behavior make previous assumptions about density obsolete. Allowable densities stipulated 40 or 50 years ago for a city may make little sense today in the face of dramatic changes in demographics, infrastructure, building types and land development costs.

But by far, zoning’s most significant deficiency is its failure to mobilize regulatory power in determining the quality of the public realm — the design of streets, civic spaces and public parks.

Typically, jurisdictions address the public realm, if at all, in broad-brush master plans, but often vaguely and without the kind of exacting constraints imposed by zoning. Rarely do zoning ordinances and master plans set forth adequate design standards for street cross sections, planting, furniture, lighting, sidewalk dimensions and finishes, building porosity at sidewalk level, or graphics. Rarely are plaza geometries or landscaping spelled out. Instead, most jurisdictions fabricate a patchwork quilt of uncoordinated ordinances that deal separately with transportation, public works, utilities, building and public safety codes, and parks and recreation.

Ideally, a new set of principles and rules for urban design and development, superseding zoning, would explicitly and comprehensively address all of these issues: patterns of land use, densities, infrastructure, building form and, equally important, cityscape and landscape. And to be effective, its mapping and design criteria would be fine-grained, ranging in scale from districts and neighborhoods to specific sites.

A new code still would need to prescribe limits where appropriate, but its aim would be higher: to achieve desired aesthetic quality and functionality within the public realm.

Of course, debates about desired aesthetic quality won’t go away. Urban designers share many goals, but competing aesthetic philosophies persist, just as in other design fields, such as architecture, furniture and fashion design.

Boiled down, the debate is between those embracing historical continuity and those advocating innovation. The former generally want to be more prescriptive about both cityscape and architecture, while the latter, fearful that freedom of artistic expression could be stifled, seek to promote design flexibility.

But each community must engage in this debate, a necessary part of the process required to transcend conventional zoning. No matter which aesthetic philosophy a community chooses, residents must remember that cities are at once permanent and organic, durable yet mutable. While laws regulating urban development should not be changed solely in response to rapidly shifting trends in taste, they nevertheless must change from time to time. For zoning, this is one of those times.

 

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

 

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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design, Sprawl and Suburbia, Visioning

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