Should We Toss Out Our Regulations for Better Community Design?

By Dom Nozzi

The most wonderful, timeless neighborhoods and communities in the world were built without regulations or zoning codes. The regulations that did exist were less voluminous and less formalized. By contrast, nearly every detail of new development is now regulated, and nearly all of these conventional zoning codes used by most communities today are costly, difficult to understand, time-consuming to use, unwieldy, gargantuan in size, and overly ad hoc. The development regulations these code books contain offer no community vision of how development should be designed. Almost exclusively, the conventional code is a negative code—here are the designs that we don’t want. Here are the things you should not do. The code says little about what we want, and says a great deal of what we don’t want—the things that we fear. Developers, community planners and citizens are left with no predictability of what new development might look like, and no guidance as to what sort of development design is envisioned for various neighborhoods. Because of heavy suburban subsidies for such things as roads, parking and fuel, we find that most conventional land development codes, by default, actually require (indirectly) the design and construction of dismal, unsustainable, suburban, auto-oriented developments which many of us have grown to anticipate with dread. After all, the development nearly always means that an enormous number of cars will clog our streets as they drive to and from the new development. It will undoubtedly also bring noise, ugly buildings and light pollution. Indeed, a great many of us are so horrified by the thought of any newly-proposed developments that there is a “NIMBY (not in my back yard!) epidemic” throughout America. So why don’t we just throw away our community zoning code and return to the age of less regulations, and an age of wonderful developments and neighborhoods? It is certainly true that there are many “timeless” design principles that seem to have been used for a long time without need for them to have been required by law. I envy that time in our history, and hope for its return. But in the 20th Century, a critical change occurred. The car emerged as the dominating form of travel, and at least in America, we engaged in a process of heavily subsidizing car travel (and the car-oriented lifestyle). The subsidies have substantially distorted the market for what citizens/consumers value in terms of goods and services they desire. Unfortunately, car travel is a zero-sum game. Nearly always, when conditions are improved for cars, travel by other means becomes more difficult, unpleasant, and dangerous. In addition, the happier cars become, the more unhappy humans become. A quality habitat for cars is an awful habitat for people. The result is that over time, as we strive to improve conditions for car travel, nearly all of us (regardless of our political persuasion or our special interests) become cheerleaders for cars. Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, and Feminists may argue against each other about a lot of things, but nearly all of them share a desire for lots of free parking and uncongested roads. It becomes a vicious cycle. The more we successfully cheer for cars, the more we are forced to use cars (due to zero-sum). This process continuously recruits larger and larger percentages of us to cheer for cars. The result is that we are a culture strongly wedded to car travel. Instead of being our mistress, cars have become our master. We are trapped. And a car culture, by its nature and the types of citizens it breeds, largely contains citizens who now think and see as motorists. They look out for the needs of their Lexus instead of the needs of Bobby or Suzie. In a car culture, I’m afraid, individuals left to freely build/design/choose will opt for a world in which we have low-density suburban sprawl, a loss of community, and all the other drawbacks to that way of life. That is, they seek a world that will make their cars happy, and unintentionally worsen their own quality of life as humans. Prior to the 20th Century, we had walking cultures. Societies would spontaneously build/design/choose based on the needs of the pedestrian, which is inherently more neighborly and community-building (among other benefits).  More focused on making people happy. Not people in cars. In the walking cultures of the past, there would therefore be little need for individuals to be guided by laws/regulations/zoning. In a walking culture, individuals naturally build/design/choose walkable neighborhoods and lifestyles without being told to do so. Unfortunately, we have become a car culture in contemporary times (due largely to those market distorting subsidies). In my opinion, therefore, it is appropriate that in what is now—hopefully—a brief moment in time, we use the second-best approach. That is, the approach of using laws and regulations adopted by the community to guide individuals in making decisions for the common good. Fortunately, a new community design toolkit is emerging that can perhaps serve us well in this interim period. These new land development tools now being established by a growing number of communities throughout the nation are known as “form-based” codes (in contrast to conventional “use-based” codes). The form-based code takes the position that design is more important than use. That it is more important to specify the height of the building, where it is located on the property, where the sidewalks belong, how the parking is provided and how the building walls, roof and windows are designed. It is less important-from the point of view of community quality of life to know what is happening inside the building (which is the primary focus of use-based codes). Zoning by use is not eliminated, but it is de-emphasized. In part, this de-emphasis on uses inside the building recognizes that non-residential uses often have a brief lifespan, whereas buildings and streets tend to be around for a much longer time. Thus, a growing number of designers and planners believe that the design of “bricks and mortar” is becoming more important to the long term quality of a community than the way uses are laid out geographically (“smart growth” advocates are quick to point out that “use segregation” is also working against community efforts to reduce excessive car dependency and loss of a sense of community—among other problems). Form-based coding acknowledges that while use segregation was quite important 100 years ago (when many uses tended to be much more noisy, ugly, dangerous and smelly), segregation of uses is declining in importance today because most businesses do not cause the same degree of problems for neighbors which were caused 100 years ago with the “dark, satanic mills” of our industrial past. That uses formerly needing strict segregation can increasingly be compatible neighbors. A form-based code moves us away from the problem-filled, unfair “one size fits all” approach, because it acknowledges that people have differing lifestyle preferences. Some of us prefer the walkable urban lifestyle. Some prefer the drivable suburban lifestyle. Some prefer the rural lifestyle. Form-based (combined with “transect-based”) coding establishes a set of 3-6 districts in the community—each of which has its own set of development regulations. The regulations are designed to promote the lifestyle objective of the district. Therefore, regulations from district to district tend to vary necessarily, since different lifestyles need different designs in order to be promoted. (Designs that do not promote the lifestyle sought within the district are known as “transect violations.”) Form-based coding has the potential to effectively correct the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all problem. It allows a community to shrink the size of its land development code because describing a positive vision of what is expected requires a smaller code of ordinances than one that hopelessly seeks to anticipate all the possible negative things that might be done, and regulate against them. Form-based codes make it more feasible for a community to establish a coherent vision. Instead of using confusing legalese and bureaucratic jargon, form-based codes use a large number of illustrations to clearly demonstrate (even to non-planners, non-engineers, non-attorneys and non-developers) what the community or neighborhood expects and desires from the new development. Predictability and local vision are therefore greatly enhanced. Instead of striving to achieve what very well may be the impossible task of establishing a single vision for all of a community, a form-based code using transect districts creates the opportunity to establish an urban vision, a suburban vision, a rural vision and a preservation vision for each of the transect districts. In sum, form-based codes can:

  • Reduce the size of a community land development code.
  • Make the code much easier to understand.
  • Create highly visible, understandable and approved community and neighborhood visions. What we want, not what we DON’T want.
  • Create more fairness by acknowledging that one size does not fit all. That there are a number of lifestyle preferences and that our land development codes should acknowledge and establish customized regulations for promoting.
  • More quickly show what the rules are for development of a property.
  • Reduce NIMBYism and increase trust and respect for local developers and local government.

Nathan Norris recently had this to say about form-based coding: “Economic arguments tend to trump most other arguments in our public discourse these days. Thus, the number one reason for [form-based] codes is economics. Predictability breeds investment. Unpredictability discourages investment. Form-based and transect-based codes breed greater predictability than use-based codes as it relates to what actually gets built. Thus, more developers will invest (and prosper) if provided a competent form-based and transect-based code.” Again, it is my hope that in the future, we will no longer need such heavy-handed, often ineffective guidance of individuals when they desire to develop a property. That we can return to that happy time in which individuals were spontaneously acting in a neighborhood-enhancing way. (In other words, naturally striving for place-making.) That we can throw away our 700-page zoning codes and rely on the cultural wisdom we had in our past—a wisdom informed by an environment in which the car is an option and not a requirement. But in the interim, it would appear that the use of form-based land development codes (instead of conventional use-based codes) is a strong step in the right direction. _________________________________________________ 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. Visit: Or email me at: dom[AT] 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover = My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: My Adventures blog Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog My Town & Transportation Planning website My Plan B blog My Facebook profile My YouTube video library My Picasa Photo library My Author spotlight


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

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