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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Connectivity – 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.
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.