By Dom Nozzi
September 15, 2014
As the debate in Boulder Colorado is fought over development, density, neighborhood compatibility, and future vision, I keep thinking about the important truism in urban design:
One size does not fit all.
In the Sunday, September 14th Daily Camera, Mayor Matt Appelbaum indirectly made this point when he was quoted as saying that “There is not going to be a consensus.”
There will ALWAYS be a large number of folks in Boulder who passionately advocate for and desire to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. There will ALWAYS be a large number of folks who desire more dispersed, drivable suburban neighborhoods. And there will ALWAYS be a large number who want an isolated, rural lifestyle.
How do we meet these three different lifestyle needs?
For over a century, most communities — including Boulder — have unfairly believed that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to community design. And land development regulations too often reflect this unfairness.
No, what is needed is not to find an impossible “consensus” amongst those seeking differing lifestyle paths (a recipe for a dumbed down, lowest common denominator plan). In my opinion, one huge solution is for Boulder to adopt what is called a “Smart Code.” A Smart Code includes an “urban-to-rural transect,” where land development regulations are calibrated so that a quality urban lifestyle is achieved in the areas designated as compact and walkable, where another set of regulations are calibrated to achieve a quality suburban lifestyle, and a third set of regulations is adopted to achieve a quality rural lifestyle.
The transect concept asks this question: What elements are immersive in the habitat we are working in—be it Charleston or the Everglades? For example, the transect instructs that a sidewalk is immersive in Charleston, and a “transect violation” when within the Everglades. Conversely, a 200-acre marsh is immersive in the Everglades and a transect violation in Charleston. In other words, something is immersive if it promotes the quality of the habitat being designed. It is a violation if it harms the quality of the habitat being designed.
And frankly, this is where some of the conflict and impatience comes between those who are currently the loudest: many Better Boulder advocates and many with PLAN-Boulder County. A good number of PLAN-Boulder advocates don’t seem to have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature, larger setbacks, and lower density everywhere—which fails to acknowledge that a 200-acre marsh in the middle of an in-town urban neighborhood harms the quality of a walkable Charleston. Natural features are not always immersive in all locations (it took me a while to realize that, since I came from an environmental academic background).
Conversely, many Better Boulder advocates are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in projects they support. That more density, or taller buildings, or smaller setbacks are always appropriate in all locations. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in their advocacy. Both advocacy positions (urban or suburban) can harm the other if not applied where it belongs.
Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways.
It has been accurately stated many times in Boulder that there is very little coherent “vision” for Boulder’s future in its Comprehensive Plan or its land development regulations. This is certainly true for Boulder’s largely conventional land development regulations, which utterly lack any vision. Instead, the regulations only tell us what we DO NOT want. The result, as we see, is unpredictable, often random, often unloved development — development that is certainly worrisome and opposed by many neighborhood groups.
A Smart Code effectively addresses this lack of vision, as well as the equitable need to provide lifestyle and housing options for the full range of community desires — from compact to rural. It does this by not only adopting a code that varies as it moves from urban to suburban to rural, but also by incorporating a “Form-Based Coding” system, which is in stark contrast to the conventional zoning used in much of Boulder. Instead of the conventional, use-based codes that are found in most all of Boulder — a code that is mostly concerned about what happens inside of buildings, only tells us negatively about what is not allowed, and strives to avoid any mixing of housing with retail, services, or offices — a Smart Code with form-based coding reduces the excessive concern about what is inside a building (by separating uses from each other with such regulations, the use-based conventional zoning makes it much harder for Boulder to achieve crucial transportation objectives).
A form-based Smart Code also provides us with a predictable, neighborhood-supported, positive vision for future development in neighborhoods. And that predictability and neighborhood buy-in is not only a wonderful way to reduce opposition to development, but is also a great way to ensure economic health (predictability is very important for business). Our regulations can show developers the building appearance and location on the property that the community and neighborhood desires in a given part of the “transect,” rather than the conventional use-based zoning, that only tells us what NOT to do.
In my opinion, Boulder should use this highly contentious debate over future development as an opportunity to call for the development of a form-based Smart Code — either in targeted locations such as what has already been done in North Boulder, or citywide. This code should be developed in a “charrette” process (intense, community- or neighborhood-based design workshop facilitated by trained professional urban designers). A charrette is an excellent way to provide community design education to citizens, as well as to achieve a great deal of citizen/neighborhood buy-in (because citizens end up making many of the design decisions).
The North Boulder Sub-Area Plan and the Holiday neighborhood within that location (prepared by Dover-Kohl consultants in the mid-90s) represents an excellent local model for a form-based Smart Code that has delivered popular, quality development. I understand that the plan and regulations remain popular after almost 20 years of adoption of that plan and its Smart Code.