A Placemaking Journal

What’s So Smart About the SmartCode? And Why Do We Need It?

What the world definitely does not need are more complicated rules for doing anything. So why are planners imposing a whole new approach to zoning on communities?

To planning pros, the question seems unfair. New regulatory approaches grow from necessity. The old ones simply don’t work for getting many communities where they want to go. But that doesn’t always fly with citizens, business people, and developers who are asked to welcome what they see as new restrictions on top of old ones they view as confusing, ineffective, or oppressive. Hence the pushback in so many places where staff planners and consulting teams try to introduce new codes.

How to fix that? Well, first accept the reality. Zoning is enacted and enforced by political bodies, which means fiddling with zoning rules is a political process. And political processes must satisfy political constituencies. Elected officials and citizen boards can’t be expected to muster the courage to take on constituents and neighbors whose suspicions, no matter how misplaced, make life uncomfortable for those who serve at citizens’ pleasure.

Simply put, different approaches to zoning produce different outcomes so, first and foremost, such outcomes must be in sync with where the community, collectively, wants to go. For those whose “where” transcends an auto-centric habitat in favor of a more comprehensive human-centric one, form-based coding provides a valuable “how.”

But for those happy with their present results, save your efforts.

Effective community engagement processes leading to results-focused charrettes go a long way toward overcoming suspicion and cynicism. Building trust precedes building a case. Still, it helps at each stage, beginning with planners’ initial contacts with elected officials and citizen board members, to have a context-setting explanation that gets to the heart of what most people want to know: Why are we doing this? And what do we get for going to all the hassle?

Here’s how I explain it:

The Big Why: Why Now?
With all the converging issues likely to shape future planning — climate craziness, energy scarcity, world-wide finance and credit crises, demographic change, etc. — jurisdictions throughout North America have begun to shape visions rooted in economic, social, and environmental sustainability. That is, the ability to keep on keepin’ on. Through initiatives such as a Smart Growth, it has now become widely accepted that to achieve such measure, we must get away from automobile-focused, segregated land use patterns, and return to more time-tested models of walkable, mixed use, compact neighborhoods. Most of the requests for proposals that now come from municipalities looking for consulting help reference these types of resilience-based principles. So new goals are coming into clearer focus.

The Big Disconnect:
Two Patterns,
Two Regulations.

The trouble is goals and strategies for achieving them don’t match up. While municipalities are increasingly asserting visions based on Smart Growth, sustainability and active living, they are also starting to realize that regulations they have in place are based on automobile-focused planning practices from the last century. These practices not only flunk the sustainability test, they embed into law approaches that prevent sustainability options. By segregating neighborhoods according to building uses, they force commuting by car and inhibit street connectivity, pedestrian-friendly public space, and mixed-use development patterns. Something has to give.

The Solution: Form-Based Codes
To connect Smart Growth visions with policy-making, municipalities are increasingly turning to codes based on form, rather than conventional use-based regulatory approaches. Simply put, a form-based code is a regulatory mechanism that aims to achieve a specific physical outcome, a place-shaping goal, with less emphasis on uses and more on general character.

There are number of ways that a form-based code can achieve this. Early codes typically focused on street types, building types, and sometimes frontage types. These highly graphic codes, another hallmark of a form-based code, set out prescriptive requirements, often resulting in very exact, highly customized regulations.

Street type codes would define specific streetscapes, including the relationships between all the elements between curb and building façade. Building type codes would prescribe rules for each possible building type and for their location on a plan. Frontage type codes would focus on how buildings relate with the public realm. While all of these components are important considerations, form-based codes are evolving to become more comprehensive and more flexible.

The Transect
Current best practices still consider typologies of streets, buildings, and frontages, but organize them on a scale of development intensity or degree of urbanism. In its simplest form, the scale could be “center, general, and edge.” To reflect the fuller rural-to-urban range, however, planners, led by Andres Duany and his DPZ firm, borrowed from ecological studies the idea of a landscape cross-section, the Transect.

For land use planning purposes, the Transect is conceived as containing a continuum of six zones from the most natural, uninhabited “edge” to the most intensely developed urban “center.” The zones provide six distinct human environments and six different degrees of relative urbanism. Each of the six environments can be used as a form-based zoning district, with each regulating building types, building uses, heights, setbacks, frontages, and appropriate street types — all keyed to the character of their place on the Transect. For instance: There are bigger setbacks and lower buildings on the less urban end of the continuum, smaller setbacks and bigger buildings on the more urban end. The result is that everyone, from city mouse to suburb mouse to country mouse, can find a place that suits their style.

State-of-the-art form-based codes now use the Transect to demarcate zones, accommodating almost all of the complex sub-sections of conventional zoning in six, easy-to-grasp categories of human settlement.

From Form-Based Coding to the Transect to the SmartCode
Each application of a code is unique. In many instances, form-based codes have been used solely as an alternative to zoning, applied directly to Smart Growth-based master plans, to downtowns, and to other urban areas seeking revitalization. Where urbanism is evident — where, for instance, connected streets form urban blocks — a simple form-based code may suffice. But in many places — including greenfield, brownfield, and car-focused suburban sites — the familiar components of urbanism and neighborhood structure are not established. What then?

And how about the other end of the spectrum, where there is sparse development now but a threat of unregulated growth to come? A basic form-based code built to operate in a narrow range of relative urbanism would struggle to accommodate growth-guiding goals in such areas.

The tool that’s evolved to address the full range of coding challenges is the SmartCode, also developed by DPZ and administered as an “open source” template. It is a model “unified development ordinance” that enables Smart Growth at all scales and across all disciplines, integrating the region, neighborhood, block, and building — as well as transportation, land use, and many other disciplines.

At the core of the SmartCode is an advanced form-based code with a basis in the rural-to-urban Transect. This core code, found in Article 5: Building Scale Plans, incorporates all the necessary considerations for coding at the scale of the lot and building, including parameters for building height, building types, frontage types, setbacks, and others. Used alone, Article 5 (with appropriate enacting passages from Article 1: General to all Plans, and appropriate street types) would satisfy the need for a simple zoning replacement by a form based code. In many ways it represents the best practices of generic form based codes.

But while the SmartCode has a form based code imbedded, it also expands the scope to include: Regional design (Article 2: Regional Scale Plans); new neighborhood design (Article 3: New Community Scale Plans); and infill and redevelopment plans (Article 4: Infill Community Scale Plans). Of particular concern for those seeking a basic form based code is the Community scale. Again, for places that already have good connected streets and block structure, Article 5 alone may suffice. But if you need to design new blocks or retrofit a suburban development with urbanism, it will be necessary to accompany your form based code with instructions for how to create walkable neighborhoods — whether through the SmartCode Article 4 and 5, or by another means such as subdivision standards tied to the basic form based code.

What the SmartCode offers is a flexible, reality-tested base to build on. Using the Transect and the model code as the operating system, municipalities have access to a growing number of regulatory modules — “apps,” if you will — covering a wide range of concerns, from storm water management to aging in place. But again, you can also start slowly and simply, slimming the SmartCode down to a very competent form based code.

So regardless of whether you are considering the SmartCode with all its bells and whistles, or just a simple SmartCode that delivers the essentials of form-based coding, you have a tool to match your needs. The first task, of course, is to define your range of needs. If in doubt, turn to the SmartCode’s Article 3 and test it against the places you are looking to code: If your place matches, a FBC may suffice. If it doesn’t, you may need to consider a more comprehensive code.

To get more background info and to download the latest versions of the model SmartCode, go here. To buy the manual, go here.

Give us a little feedback about whether or not this kind of explanation advances the discussion in your community or your practice.

Geoff Dyer

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