Dispatches from CNU 21: Getting a Form-Based Code to Stick

The concept of a light regulatory impact on architectural design is increasingly popular with the planner class. But the political culture has been slow to catch up in many areas.

Renderings of what Lee County, Fla. might look like after adopting a Miami 21-inspired form-based code. Image via Transit Miami

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The 21st Congress for the New Urbanism happened last week in Salt Lake City. We had three bloggers on hand to tell you about its highlights.

Frustrated with hyper-prescriptive and amendment-polluted zoning codes that block the intermingling of residential and commercial uses, urbanists in many cities have tried to scrap the whole Euclidean paradigm and regulate form instead of use.

The idea is that instead of regulating what people are allowed to use their properties for, cities should stick to regulating development patterns — factors like the height and massing of buildings and their relationship to the street, to name a few. The goal is to break with traditional zoning’s emphasis on segregating residential uses from commercial uses, which is responsible for so many urban maladies like food deserts and surface parking craters.

Yet while the concept of a light regulatory impact on architectural design is increasingly popular with the planner class, the political culture has been slow to catch up in many areas.

That was the focus of a panel I attended last week at CNU 21, where top planners and academics pondered the tendency of form-based codes to grow longer, more textural and more prescriptive over time, much like their Euclidean brethren. It appears that even under the new paradigm, voters and politicians still find ways to quench their thirst for control of the built environment.

Brenda Case Scheer, outgoing dean of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah, made a helpful conceptual distinction between coding and designing: Code is regulation, and as such is meant to endure over time. Design is constantly evolving, calls for complex decisions related to place and is developed at different levels by many different actors. Summarizing conventional planner wisdom, Scheer implored code writers to adopt an ethic of limitations that avoids coding subjective architectural design preferences into the law, makes room for the natural evolution of cities and neighborhoods over time, and minimizes opportunities for arbitrary political discretion.

The trouble is that in many places, voters and politicians do not share this ethic of limitations. It has proven difficult to protect the integrity of some form-based codes from prescriptive politics. Many codes evolve in ways that muddy the difference between regulating building form and building design, and overregulate the built environment through subzoning, the inclusion of graphics and photographs, and specific architectural design and material prescriptions.

What’s driving this increase in complexity? The most persuasive insight I heard came from an audience member from Flagstaff, Ariz., who speculated that Euclidean zoning has created a perverse land use politics that emphasizes stopping what you don’t want and precluding the worst possible outcomes, rather than envisioning what you do want.

Emily Talen of Arizona State University suggested a way to upend this dysfunctional political economy, as demonstrated by the Miami 21 zoning reform. Miami planners asked architects to draw up examples of developments that could be built under the new code, to help people envision what kinds of changes the new regulations would allow. Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design attested to the effectiveness of a similar approach, which pairs this with images of developments permissible under a community’s existing code, which are often quite horrendous.

The nature of city politics is that there’s never a way to lock in a policy outcome, or even a process, permanently that does not enjoy broad political support. Any policy established by a friendly legislature today can always be undone after the next election if it’s not actively supported by a majority political coalition. However correct the elite opinion against hasty, kludgey revisions to zoning codes maybe be, there’s no stopping politicians from changing them in response to voter demands.

As such, there’s no substitute for the hard work of assembling political coalitions of stakeholders who will defend a form-based zoning code’s integrity. Politicians have to get used to a rule-based system that tells developers what the community wants, rather than what it doesn’t want. That’s a world with less discretion for politicians, and fewer opportunities for election-year bragging about sabotaging unpopular-with-the-neighbors development proposals.

But for that kind of political economy to work, voters have to believe that the new zoning code will in fact produce the types of development they want, and that the result will be better for the community than the status quo.

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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.

Tags: inclusionary zoning

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