Upgrading the city code

I’ll freely admit that I’m a nerd. I still do a marching band-like activity in my free time, I participate in marathon trivia contests, and I write horrible rough drafts of novels that will never be published in a span of 30 days, just for the hell of it. Oh, and I’ve become a fiend when it comes to news about development and urbanism, especially when it’s about or applicable to my own locality. And that’s where I came across the Smart Code, a new way to organize our cities and regions in a time when such drastic changes are financially necessary.

The Smart Code is, in short, a starter draft of zoning laws for use by any city or region that does away with the current, common way of zoning altogether. In my own town (and most other places), the city is zoned first by purpose. Hopkins has a current zoning map available online, and it basically divides the city up into different purposes: Houses of one type go here, houses of another go there, businesses can only be built in this area, and what you get is a patchwork quilt of neat little boxes of this or that and nothing can be built “out of place” without a lengthy rezoning process. While it’s not too much of a problem in my compact city (being only 4 square miles, the patches are small and differing zones aren’t all that far apart), such regulations could create huge problems for residents of neighboring Minnetonka should gas ever hit European-level prices. A peek at their map shows huge swaths of low-density, single-family homes and any commercial uses scrunched into little “pens” at various places in the city. There’s no hope for the vast majority of those residents should they ever feel the need to walk to the corner store for a gallon of milk. Corner stores are strictly prohibited.

So what’s the big change with the Smart Code? Put simply, it eliminates all purpose-related zones entirely. In their place, it creates zones called “transects” that, instead of controlling what is built, it controls what the building’s presence is within its surroundings. Gone are the labels “Residential”, “Commercial”, and “Industrial”, and instead the first consideration of what gets built is determined by categories like “Rural”, “Sub-Urban”, “General Urban”, and “Urban Center”. Each has a set of codes for buildings to follow that dictate simply how they should relate to their surroundings (i.e., how far or close to the lot line and how big those lots are) and what size and shape the building is expected to be (giving minimum and maximum sizes per transect). In a “General Urban” transect, as an example, one could build a two-story house with an apartment in the basement and a coffee shop in the front half of the main level, but as long as it is still of the same scale as the rest of the neighborhood then no special variances or adjustments to the zone is needed. (Of course, some purpose-driven codes are in there to keep you from living next door from the likes of a factory or large, popular night club, but it’s hardly needed since neither would fit within the footprint of a typical two-story home.)

The other half of this code is the way that streets and roads are designed. It dictates that in the less dense transects, like “Rural” and “Sub-Urban”, all road design is done with priority given to the automobile. In the more dense transects, it is codified in law that road design prioritizes pedestrians. Within the setting of a city, the Smart Code says that it’s human beings that we should design around, not automobiles. This is why the elimination of purpose-centric zones is so important. If we are to prioritize foot traffic and thus assume that more and more people will be walking, then it is by necessity that businesses and residents must intermingle more on our city blocks. It provides the setting for a small, local mom-and-pop place to just open up anywhere there is a need and thrive instead of settling in to, say, a strip mall and hoping that customers drive up. This, to me, is mind-blowingly awesome.

And why is this so cool to me? (Allow me to borrow heavily from Strong Towns for this next bit.) It’s because the way we’ve build our cities since World War II, this sprawling, suburban landscape of wide yards, wide streets, and strip malls with huge parking lots, is an experiment that’s going very, very wrong. When the suburban experiment and purpose-defined zoning started, our grandparents took their savings and built all these roads and infrastructure to spread themselves out. It was good and prosperous and there were jobs for everyone building these homes and roads and the cars to drive on them. And then… The savings ran out. And things needed to be fixed. Roads need repaving, water mains need replacing, and someone had to pay for it. There was a two-fold solution: One was to whip out the credit card, and the other was to encourage developers to build more. If we build more homes, annex more of the countryside, then the taxes being collected from the new residents can be used to fix all of the old stuff. This only works for so long. Eventually, the credit card gets maxed out, and every time you turn around to fix something you find that you had twice as much to fix as the time before and need twice as much growth to get enough of an influx of cash. This pretty much fits the definition of a Ponzi Scheme (click through for a much better description than I’ve given). Something needs to be done to fix this mess that we’ve gotten into, and the Smart Code, a new set of rules that allows us a way out of the suburban experiment, seems like a good start.

Ultimately, the Smart Code is a modernization of the way humans have built cities for thousands of years. Denser urban areas have worked for so long for a reason: A person can only walk so far, can only carry so much in a shopping bag. Cities were built so that people could go about their business upon the most cost-effective mode of transportation we have: our own two legs. We humans did just fine building cities big and small, all without having to define and segregate and compartmentalize each section of the city. And then the automobile came around. Now we need wider streets and big, flat parking lots so we have a place to store our big, metal freedom-boxes on wheels while we go about the same business humans have always been doing. Sure, it’s nice if everyone has their own half-acre lot to surround their castle. And, gee, it’s swell that we can go to that one, big-box store and buy everything we need in one fell swoop and drive it home. But this has all come with a cost (financially, environmentally, and socially), and it’s looking more and more like we can’t pay for it.

The Smart Code is something I think would fit well in my city. Sure, it’ll be a hard thing to implement. According to the modern American dream, houses are supposed to be in a tranquil setting well away from work and shopping. But, according to the modern American collective budget, we can’t really afford the luxury of space as a society. The City of Hopkins already has an understanding of the necessity of rethinking the way we build and maintain our place because we’ve got nowhere to grow, we can’t participate in the Ponzi Scheme because the outskirts of the city is other cities. The city already has a “Downtown Overlay District” that dictates the form of the buildings, so there is a familiarity with the concepts laid out in the Smart Code. Maybe the city council could start off with just the area around Mainstreet and set up an “Urban Center” transect with a “General Urban” one around it. Or they could potentially experiment with a Smart Code around the Shady Oak Light Rail Station since what is currently there will be bulldozed to make way for a transit-oriented development.

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