A Placemaking Journal

Lean Code Tool

We believe form-based codes are the most efficient, predictable, and elegant way to assure high levels of walkability and urbanism – even in more rural environments. However, the political and staff capacity of many local governments is not prepared for a full zoning reform effort. CNU is developing an agenda of incremental code reform that blends perfectly with the Lean Urbanism initiative funded by the Knight Foundation and led by the Center for Applied Transect Studies.

Along with a number of other tools to implement Lean Urbanism, a Lean Code Tool is under development, and will be unveiled at CNU 24 in Detroit. A plenary on Saturday morning will introduce the tools, an Open Source session on Saturday afternoon will delve into the particulars, and a 202 day-long workshop on Wednesday will test the strategies.

LU-Lean_Codes_Tool.inddThe tool’s intent is to provide strategies for code reform based on the local government’s capacity, so it’s structured in a S, M, L, XL format. The strategies easiest to implement politically and administratively are S(mall), those requiring more staff expertise or political will are progressively M(edium), L(arge), and XL(arge).

Besides devising strategies responsive to local capacity, the tool also is organized by three constructs: increase walkability, reduce financial burden, and decrease regulatory burdens within the existing coding framework. It develops ways in which local government can incrementally try code reform solutions to fit the context. The goal is that these reforms could be implemented by staff without the aid of a consultant – the ultimate in lean. There are various chapters within the tool dealing with process, procedures, urban form, site constraints, parking, use, signage, and transportation.

What are the minimum zoning edits we need to make for livable places to flourish? Like College Street in Oberlin, Ohio, pictured here. Image credit: Hazel Borys.

What are the minimum zoning edits we need to make for livable places to flourish? Like College Street in Oberlin, Ohio, pictured here. Image credit: Hazel Borys.

If you’re going to Detroit in June for the CNU, the Congress is hosting a Lean Code Workshop to test-drive the tool, both for the Detroit context and the participants’ hometowns. Hazel Borys, Jennifer Hurley, Marina Khoury, Matt Lambert, and I will be the instructors for the day, which starts with an overview of the tool and insights from a local developer on barriers to development within the Detroit zoning framework. Short lectures regarding the tool will help people think through incremental code reform, from edits to existing use-based codes to more form-based interventions.

We take those ideas to the street in a walking tour from downtown to midtown, identifying the S, M, L, XL urban triage. We’ll set up studio at the University of Michigan to apply the tool ideas that emerge along the walking tour route to consider:

  • What are the most critical frontage problems and what are the Lean coding solutions?
  • How do we prioritize pedestrian routes, and what are methods to improve them?
  • How do we incentivize redevelopment with the fewest barriers to entry?
  • At the end of the day, each group will present studio work to the faculty for critique. In advance of the CNU, watch for a webinar from Jennifer Hurley and Ben Brown on a Capacity Assessment Survey to help local governments place themselves on the continuum from no capacity to infinite capacity for these sorts of zoning reform efforts.

    As we celebrate the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs this week, who tops Planetizen’s poll as the greatest urban thinker of all time, we are reminded of her words in a Harvard lecture that led to her writing the Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Respect, in the deepest sense, strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.” As the Lean Code Tool seeks to lighten regulations in many cases, we hope to take a step toward honoring that “weird wisdom” of place.

    Susan Henderson

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