Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Getting In The Zone With The UDC

Although well-intended when they were first introduced into city governments, zoning codes became an instrument for sprawl and unsustainable growth.

They up-ended walkable neighborhoods, increased greenhouse gas emissions, contributed to unhealthy lifestyles and driven up government spending. Often, it seemed that our communities might have grown better if there had been no zoning codes at all.

That’s certainly true here. We have created a community with the worst economic segregation among the top 50 metros. We have urban neighborhoods whose survival was undermined by the codes themselves.

Just think about it: list the cities that you enjoy visiting – New York to San Francisco, Provincetown to Savannah – and the downtowns that you like best – Seattle to Chicago, Charleston to Portland. They’re the ones that have the mixed uses that zoning codes prohibited in cities across the U.S.

Zoned Out

When the codes were put in place, it was for the best of intentions: to solve the “enormous losses in human happiness and in money which have resulted from lack of city plans which take into account the conditions of modern life,” in the words of then Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover.

The notion that people shouldn’t be living next door to a factory belching out black smoke inspired the idea of setting up “zones” in cities where specific kinds of functions could be isolated – residential here, commercial there, industrial way over there.

Unfortunately, zoning codes proliferated just as cars came to dominate the American landscape, and once crowded neighborhood sidewalks gave way to enclosed shopping malls and office parks, ushering us into an age where politicians seeking political contributions and developers seeking greenfields converged to give us the sprawl that brings no net benefit to our community – its economy, its social ties, its civic life and its environmental impact.

And yet, anyone who questioned the futility of the zoning codes was treated like he was caught poisoning the mayor’s dog.

Code Red

As a leading smart growth advocate put it, “if zoning is the DNA of sprawl – the coding that endlessly replicates the bleak landscape of autotopia – then what is the DNA of a livable communities?”

It’s a fundamental question that Memphis and Shelby County needs to answer, because in the past 25 years, zoning codes have given us a community that we cannot afford and cannot sustain.

That’s why the proposed form-based code making its way through city and county governments is so crucial, and as Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has said, best of all, it is a beginning and not an end.

Hopefully, in the future, its emphasis on smart growth principles, New Urbanist sensibilities and public engagement will be expanded and strengthened, but for now, the new Unified Development Code (UDC) is light years from the previous code that allowed a proliferation of Planning Developments (PDs) that neutered any semblance of planning for a quality urban fabric.

Good Form

Here’s hoping that the proposed forms-based code – which will emphasize the form of buildings rather than the use of buildings – will change all that. At its heart, the lack of interest in a smart code until now fundamentally mirrors our civic lack of self-worth and the pervasive attitude that we simply don’t deserve the best – in our downtown, in our neighborhoods and in our urban design.

It is the antithesis of the UDC’s attention on forms, because if anything, too much of our community, particularly its suburbs, is formless. So, the question is what do we really want our city to be and what principles should we follow?

Here’s the beginning of our list (and we invite you to send yours):

Build great places – recognize the importance of the public realm and set out to make it exceptional. For those who say that our people don’t “get” this, keep in mind that when the opinions of 125 people who developed the Sustainable Shelby were combined with the public polling, creation of high-quality public realm was the #1 priority. This requires us to take the quality of the public realm out of the hands of the city engineering department because we need to re-establish streets as the primary public space for the city.

Principled Planning

Walkability – put simply, we have to care more about people than cars. We need to develop neighborhoods with mixed uses so people can walk to the store, to the park or to the school.

Traditional Neighborhood Structure – neighborhoods need to be connected to the rest of the city by streets, sidewalks, greenways and complete streets. We have to get serious about walk-bike issues.

– we need to concentrate on streetscape that is human scaled, we need to surround big box retail with liner buildings and we need to locate parking to the side or rear of stores.

Design – we need to care about urban design and use the soon-to-be-adopted Unified Development Code as the smart code to guild development and to design a city where the best architecture is not just pursued but expected.

High Drama

As we’ve said repeatedly, Memphis has no margin for error because we are dangerously near the tipping point from which we cannot return. We need dramatic action, and approval of the UDC is one of those changes.

To survive in today’s economic climate, local government needs a new way of thinking, flexibility, a new business model and an injection of optimism. That’s why we strongly support consolidation of city and county governments after year’s of antipathy.

Simply put, it’s time to shake things up, to do things differently and to send a message that we are unwilling to accept business as usual any longer, particularly in our public sector. Those who think that we should work on city government first and then pursue consolidated government just don’t realize how close we are to disaster and how little time we have to waste.

We have no more time to lose. We begin by adopting the UDC. We continue by starting over and creating local government that we are proud of.


Jupiter said...

"Those who think that we should work on city government first and then pursue consolidated government just don’t realize how close we are to disaster and how little time we have to waste."

What disaster do you see us being close to?

toltecs said...

Jupiter said:

"What disaster do you see us being close to?"

The point of no return. How many more upper- and middle-class citizens do you think Memphis can stand to lose? At some point, the proportion of poor citizens will reach a breaking point. Then, there will never be enough tax income for the city to dig out of the current hole or change anything.

toltecs said...

Great post. I have heard about the UDC for quite a while. What is the status? What has taken so long? Is it ready for a vote?

Anonymous said...

Go to core of the city of St. Louis and you can see what the point of no return looks like. It's a black hole of decay surrounded by booming suburbs. Sad.

Anonymous said...

It's a black hole of decay surrounded by booming suburbs.

Should appear on Wikipedia when you query "memphis".

The Undelivered Developers Credo or whatever is NOT applicable to the surrounding municipalites or counties-only Mfka and its doomed annexation reserve area-more hoops to jump through for those intrepid or stupid enough to build anything in those wastelands.

Zippy the giver said...

When you don't have the money for schools, you are already past the point of no return, let the shell games begin!

Smart City Consulting said...


The disaster is Memphis' slide into distress, uncompetitiveness and abandonment. The economic indicators and the demographic trends are at a crisis level, and we have to do an awful lot right to turn things around.

Smart City Consulting said...


We'll check and let you know about the timetable.

Zippy the giver said...

Sorry, I meant, " begin rearranging the deck chairs, we are sinking".
Could we plug the hole?
Yeah, but our politicians are more comfortable stopping al progress than delivering even the slightest hint of a scintilla of a whisper of an essence of a specter of a wisp of progress and can't back up any with a real result or a stat backing up that any progress occurred. Working with any sense of urgency is totally lost on them, those words don't make sense or mean anything to them, it's like gibberish to their brains.

Jupiter said...

I understand the concept, but has any major city passed this theoretical "point of no return"? What major city is fundamentally, irretrievably more screwed than we are?
I think we might be "it". I think it might have already happened, and it's here, Memphis TN, and what we need is a recovery effort.

Zippy the giver said...

BraddocC Pennsyvania.
The second "C" used to be a "K", it was changed by the new mayor because of his "Crip" affiliation.
It's a gang town now with almost nobody left living in it.

Smart City Consulting said...


Cities that have passed the tipping point: Detroit, Newark, Camden, possibly Cleveland. There are lots of small sized cities that were once heavy industrial that won't ever find a way back.

Zippy the giver said...

St. Paul MN., houses for sale for $1
Wellington FL. foreclosed

Zippy the giver said...

It isn't just Memphis, many places that had a steel industry banking on "auto grade" steel (including us) are doomed, we have steel industry going into government receivership already, places that overbuilt on the bubble and left their inner cities behind.
The next bubble to pop id the medical insurance bubble. Once it pops this will be a great country to live in, but, if it's protected, this will become one of the worst. I think rising unemployment will pop it when premiums don't get payed. Of course, doctors and hospitals won't get payed either, making "hospital towns" go broker than they were and then their will be a NEED for nationalized healthcare.
Unfortunately there will be a medical cataclysm before that happens.
The bulk of our country has become as complacent on oversight of government as Memphis.
Ghaddafi is moving to Englwood NJ, how stupid does it have to get?

Healthcare doesn't have to be bad, it could be good.

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