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Why we aren't seeing more walkable urbanism in Northeast Ohio

Marc Lefkowitz  |  06/19/13 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Similar to Leonardo Fibonacci decoding the natural world’s pattern language, Form Based Codes are a meta tool that is supposed to derive order and efficiency in a developing metropolis. Architects and urban planners have boiled it down to The Transect—an illustration that expresses the ideal form of a region as it develops outward—from a very dense core all the way to natural area.

Cookie cutter development<br />Would a Form Based Code ensure a green development in suburbs like South Euclid?Going for walkable<br />Twinsburg, OH hired Congress for New Urbanism to redesign their main drag as a walkable town center.The Transect<br />An ideal city form expressed visually. Image: bettercities.net

In between is where the ideal needs the most help. And this is why Form Based Code (FBC) was created—to find the most efficient use of space. In the middle of the Transect—recovering cities and the suburbs—FBCs are supposed to give rise to walkable urbanism, not the drive-thru development we see sprouting up on major commercial corridors.

To its critics and proponents alike, it achieves this hard-to-grasp goal by highly regulating how we build. FBCs can come in the form of an overlay, a Smart Code insert or, in the case of Flagstaff, Arizona and Hamden, Connecticut (and dozens of other cities) by throwing out their often complicated tome of a zoning code and starting over.

At Congress for New Urbanism, cities with FBCs discussed the challenge of getting walkable urbanism to come out the other end.

“Ninety percent of the time, if you don’t have clear regulations, the building won’t look very good because most builders orient toward suburban forms,” admits Emily Talen, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University. “The objective of a form based code is to get a really good public realm.”

A good form based code starts with the street, Talen adds.

“Once you lay down something, it rules forever. If you want to be immortal, design a street.”

Even our ideal of urbanism, Broadway Avenue in New York City’s West Village, was once a cowpath, she says. “More important than height and frontage, having it be highly regulated slows it from being damaged.”

In stories from the frontlines, Mesa, Arizona adopted a form based code to tame the ugliness of its boom growth.

“We grew to 500,000 people fast and cheap,” said an official from Mesa. “We got in the habit of regulating what we didn’t want. Form based codes flip that. Tell people what you want. It can be simpler and quicker in the first place.”

In a strong market like Arlington, Virginia, it may be advantageous to control the pace and quality of development. “It took a while for developers to use (FBCs), even with lots of good incentives," a city official said. "FBCs are an excellent balancer to government corruption, because the average permit takes 2 years.”

In a weak or conservative or markets damaged by car-centric development, FBCs are sometimes dismissed as heavy handed attempts at producing new urbanism. CNU responds with examples of “market-responsive” FBCs, like Richardson, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas that “wants to become more walkable and connected to transit...to remain attractive to employers in coming decades.” The city fast tracks development as long as the form based code is adhered to. Or, Twinsburg, Ohio where the city wants to tame two major state highways and develop a walkable downtown.

Hamden’s planning director thinks “it’s unrealistic to think of FBCs as anything but a political document—because people will try to derail it. Codes get so complicated. Six people who care about chickens can derail it. Focus on the big picture and let the chickens be chickens.”

The lesson is zoning codes are often not effective at producing what a community favors. When shown examples of beautiful, walkable town centers, people across the political spectrum choose that form over the conventional shopping center. Most people are disappointed to learn that their city’s zoning code will not allow for that form of walkable urbanism.

To get there we need a new community standard, says architect John Massengale. “Make a street like you have no earth moving equipment. So it doesn’t drop on the ground like a blanket. Right now it’s all engineering.”

Cities that are laid out on a small grid tend to successfully move traffic and provide pedestrianized space. Where cities have left over areas, they can designate it for public use. We need more traffic commissioners who think like New York City’s Janette Sadik Kahn, he adds, who are turning giant asphalt islands in Times Square in to ped plazas. “She says, ‘I’m not going to design streets for the car.’ In walkable towns, you need to slow speeds.”

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Cedar-Center Photo
9 years ago

Remember when South Euclid had grand plans for Cedar-Center, which included mixed-use residential and commercial development? Now, it's just a car-centric, single-use collection of out-parcels, which is not an improvement over the old Cedar-Center. Try walking over to get a coffee at Starbucks after shopping for groceries at GFS. It's not easy --- or safe.

Interested Citizen
9 years ago

@Land Value Based Design, I'd like to point out that while our greatest cities were developed before zoning, they were also developed before cars were mass-produced and readily available. (Although we might have different ideas about which cities are 'greatest') Once cars became ubiquitous, developments became centered around cars.

Also, I'm not sure what you mean, "Our greatest cities... were built in such a way as to represent underlying land values." What, there was some valuable farmland and thus someone built a large building on it? I don't understand this. How does a FBC just reflect existing land values? What does a FBC have to do with land values? My knowledge was that they just give guidelines regarding the form and placement of buildings.

Nothing wrong with the "professional planner class." Would you hire a professional plumber? A professional lawyer? It's good to have people who specialize in these things. It's good to have professionals who are looking out for the design of our cities. Otherwise you might have a big box store and a steel mill next door tomorrow.

Land Value Based Design
9 years ago

Although I think form based codes are a move in the right direction it often seems like it is just the next thing in the toolbox to further our reliance on the professional planner class and avoid allowing market-based design to flourish. Our greatest cities were developed before zoning, which is to say that they were built in such a way as to represent underlying land values.

Where it gets tricky is that land values end up being determined in large part by infrastructure investments. Back then it was a model of build it (the infrastructure, e.g. a streetcar) and they will come. Now we are plagued by land use restrictions and over-investment in the wrong kinds of infrastructure (e.g. opportunity corridor).

A well designed form based code will simply reflect existing land values and to the extent possible, future changes to said land values. Skip to the chase and just remove the conventional euclidean zoning, start making smart infrastructure investments in line with a community visioning process, and replace the existing property tax with a land value tax so that we aren't creating a disincentive for improving properties.

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