Model Land Development Regulations


By Dom Nozzi

A common question in American communities: “Are there other ‘model’ communities which have ‘model’ land development regulations we can adopt in our own community which will improve our quality of life?”

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 an “ad hoc” overlay) to a portion of the land development code.

 Even in the more “progressive” communities, therefore, the “conventional” land development code (with the exception of these recent appendages) 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 older, conventional, dumb-growth regulations out of the way of those seeking to build desirable developments. To expand the options available to the development community. An expansion that allows developers to provide 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 (a phenomenon that is occurring more frequently as it becomes increasingly obvious that smart growth is more profitable). More frequently because 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 (offices, residential or retail, for example) are allowed in the building.

 Instead, a form-based code has regulations that explicitly and proactively 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. Doing so induces more civic pride. Developers end of more often building developments worthy of our affections.

 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.

In sum, 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 by the private sector, not by local government regulations. That is, 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).

In nearly all cases, the role of the local government is to either adopt a more universally smart-growth-based set of land development regulations. Or to at least get their increasingly anachronistic dumb-growth regulations out of the way. As Rick Cole, city manager for Ventura CA has recently urged (January 2009), in many ways it is time for communities to scrap their entire zoning code if they expect a more pleasant future.


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


 Or email me at: dom[AT]

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Filed under Bicycling, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

2 responses to “Model Land Development Regulations

  1. yason

    Your list of cities brought me to the question that what cities would be good examples of walkable downtowns in the U.S. that haven’t always been one?

    I’m sure there must be small cities in the U.S. that have been unchanged for the last hundred years or so.

    But if I was visiting the U.S. and were looking to find a city where positive changes towards walkability have taken place in a visible, actual manner in the last 10-30 years, what would be the place(s) to check out?

    kind regards,

  2. Thanks for your question. It is a good one, and it is telling that I am stumped by it. The fact that I don’t have a number of cities I can cite is an indication that the US is not doing well in this regard (and no surprise there). One colleague of mine has suggested Sacramento as an example, but I am not familiar enough w/ that city to know for myself.

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