A Placemaking Journal

Extreme Makeover: Zoning Edition

Want to get some sleep tonight? How about snuggling up with your local Development Code? Read any section, such as Sign Violations and Enforcement Procedures, and I’m willing to bet you’ll be out before you get past the Statement of Purpose.

That’s a problem, because such volumes don’t exist to cure insomnia. They exist to engage us in the collaborative project of creating our shared surroundings. That means something and, while I understand that Comprehensive Plans, Zoning, and Subdivision Ordinances, by virtue of their lofty stature, might make for poor everyday reading, we all suffer when they end up so… tedious.

“Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.” – Thoreau

A little context: When reforming development codes, the intent always begins with the idea of crafting a simpler, more explicit, and graphically compelling set of development regulations. But the final code doesn’t always end up that way. Many hands may make for light work, but they also make for greater complexity. More perspectives, after all, often translates to more detail. And more content.

Which means that, with each contribution, a code can often move further and further away from its core reason for being: communicating fundamental rules to regular people.

I’ve been witness before as code reform efforts began veering off the rails. Trust me when I say it’s not something you can easily wrangle back under control. The preferred alternative, always, is to remain on track and, to that end, I offer my own thoughts on making simplification work.

  1. Balancing Graphics and Text. What begins as a ‘simple’ diagram often turns into a great test of artistic restraint — both personally and professionally. The attorney says to never use photographs, as something within the frame, unrelated to the point you’re making, may subvert its meaning. Or the architect on the team wants to design everything and the simplest diagram becomes a four-page graphic design thesis. I say keep it simple, diagraming text that describes three-dimensional prototypes, such as building types, street types, street and building frontages, civic spaces, parking lots, and submittal requirements necessitating metrics (such as setbacks, encroachments, and access). Like this (click for larger view):
  2. Formatting the Document. The most beautifully graphic illustration can be easily lost when practical application at the local level involves it being reprinted hundreds of times on a black and white copy machine, then stuffed into an 8 1/2” x 11” binder. Start by examining how the documents will be used by consulting with (revolutionary thought here) the users! Simplicity includes not introducing revised processes where they’re not needed.
  3. Administration Tools. Just as you’re reforming a code to be more user-friendly to a variety of users, administration documents should be reformed for the same reason. Design administration checklists, forms, and calculation handouts that make comprehensible the submittal requirement and decision-making process to an average applicant. Too often, the development application processes are convoluted and this is usually the first interface of citizen and government planning. Making the process easy to understand goes a long way to ensuring the citizen applicant can see the value in charging for these important services. For example (click for larger view):
  4. State what Matters Upfront! Most importantly, I believe the Purpose and Intent sections are of great importance to decision-makers, administrative reviewers, staff processors and citizens. Yet, too often, these end up being ignored as they are either too convoluted or too succinct in their intended statements. I believe Hemingway would have been a great code writer. Finding a way to clearly state a regulation’s significance is an art. Not a science.

Consider this:

“High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants, remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

This development standard is inscribed on a centuries-old stone tablet in the small Japanese hamlet of Aneyoshi. According to news reports after a tsunami destroyed the country’s northeastern coastline, this stone marker, and several more like it, some more than 600 years old, “dot the coastline” of Japan to warn future land use decision-makers of catastrophic development decisions. These zoning statements, if you will, ultimately protect the Health, Welfare and Safety of Japanese citizens.

The wisdom of Aneyoshi’s ancestors saved the homes and the lives of this tiny village’s inhabitants as their town was entirely located above the regulatory marker. Other markers translated to more general warnings and lasting reminders of  risk that might only occur every fourth or fifth generation. One example, the stone marker in Kesennuma, warned, “Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables.” Another, in the coastal city of Natori, advised simply, “If an earthquake comes, beware of tsunamis.

For those that have survived tsunamis, the timeless clarity of such directives cannot be overstated. The importance of coding explicitly and simply for resilient, lovable, sustainable, walkable, and memorable places is more than just an administrative task. It’s an exercise in effective communications — in bridging who we are with what we want to be. Its enduring value should not be lost on municipalities and coding professionals.

Now sleep tight.

Howard Blackson

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