Last month, I reported on a proposed pedestrian plaza in South Philadelphia that, despite community support and a secured city grant, isn’t going to happen. The plaza would have taken away parking spaces, and city law requires 100 percent support from nearby property owners to change street uses or remove parking. One neighbor objected, and the project was iced.
Puzzling through regulations and legalese, not to mention seeking permissions from multiple overlapping authorities, can be a discouraging and expensive slog. Yet it’s a necessary step in bringing even the smallest projects to life. The upshot? Local regulations are losing a race with the zeitgeist.
“The biggest problem, and the one that makes cities feel the most vulnerable, is the liability culture,” said Andrés Duany, founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the premier organization promoting mixed-use, walkable communities. “They think ‘if we take any risk whatsoever — if there’s any slack in the interpretation of this code — we’ll get sued.’”
Duany is a real estate developer, which means he knows what it’s like to get caught in red tape. Navigating out of it is impossible without a small army of lawyers and expeditors. “You can’t do anything without hiring a professional or a specialist in the regulations and the laws,” he said.
Enter the new Project for Lean Urbanism. Administered by the Center for Applied Transect Studies and funded by a three-year, $600,000-plus grant from the Knight Foundation, PLU will devise tools and strategies designed to help small-time business and development types work through, and around, city regulations to achieve their visions more cheaply, quickly and easily.
“Over time we’ve let regulation get too bloated, and it then becomes too expensive for young adults, young architects, young business people and immigrants to participate in the economy,” said Carol Coletta, vice president of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation. “The idea is to preserve what’s good about regulation — health, safety and respect for neighbors — but balance that with a reduction in unnecessary bloat that adds costs to all of our projects.”
“Lean urbanism” represents a departure from prior strategies. In the past, CNU has worked to win policy changes from federal, state and local governments. Other urbanists have employed the “tactical” approach, or forcing changes through unsanctioned interventions from the ground up. This new method, however, aims to help small developers, entrepreneurs and neighborhood activists achieve what is possible without breaking the law or getting the city sued. The operating idea is that the city’s goal — avoiding liability — can be satisfied through a workaround, rather than outright bans that crowd out small-scale enterprise.
“There’s nothing clean about this initiative,” Duany said. “Wherever we find an impediment, we’ll try to secure a patch or a workaround.”
For an example of how lean urbanism will help cut through red tape, I ask Duany how it would benefit someone like my wife.
My wife is a baker. She makes a mean chocolate pecan pie and has thought about launching an online store. She’d use Etsy to open a hand pie shop, but prefers to use our home kitchen so as not to lose money on rent payments to a commissary kitchen. But in Philadelphia, it’s illegal for her to sell food cooked in our house — even though she’s passed a food safety course for work.
“You could get a half-page contract that the lean urbanism group would provide in a standard format,” Duany explained, “and that goes to the city and says, ‘I will take responsibility for any illness that this causes, and I will carry insurance. This is my responsibility.’ And you take the liability clearly so the city has none.”
“You don’t have the money to hire a good lawyer to write a little contract,” he added, “but we can write that contract and make that freely available.”
The concept is nothing if not timely. On New Years Eve, an Uber driver fatally struck a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco, raising questions of accountability for deregulated hired cars. A 2011 plane crash in Ireland raised similar questions when it turned out the company that sold the tickets was an Internet-based sales outfit that didn’t want the regulatory complexity of a standard airline. Instead, it aimed to serve as a matchmaker bringing customers to plane operators. The arrangement worked fine until the crash, which killed six.
Who was responsible? At a moment when cities, individuals and companies must confront all sorts of new questions about accountability and public safety, the Project for Lean Urbanism could reorient the conversation.
To Duany, the key is establishing safety standards that protect the public while also allowing smaller enterprises to compete. He offered the example of the Light Sport Aircraft regulations passed in the early 1980s, which set up a flourishing market for small planes that didn’t have to meet the same standards as big commercial airlines.
He also envisions designating “pink code” areas within cities. Similar to business improvement districts, these are areas where cities could try out leaner regulations and where business owners and planners could pursue opportunities more freely.
“Anyone who has the success of their city foremost in their mind can understand why clearing out unnecessary bloat and regulation could only be a good thing,” Coletta said. “When you have a district that is thriving and there are more jobs available and the tax revenue is growing, I think most elected officials would celebrate that.”
In its first year, PLU will begin compiling a body of research and reports on opportunities for workarounds in real estate development, business, liability and risk management, infrastructure, and education. The following two years will involve creating tools and strategies based on the findings, as well as field testing them via pilot initiatives and demonstration projects in select cities.
Jonathan Geeting is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia, where he writes about land use and public space politics. His work appears at Next City, This Old City and Keystone Politics.