Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Urbanism (and smart growth) as a pejorative

Pierre Charles L'Enfant Plan of the City 1791I am not a big fan of hyper-relativistic thinking, but I guess a lot of people are, at least when it comes to planning in DC, and the desire to ignore the city's time of origin during the Walking City era and the city's planning history.

This history started with Pierre L'Enfant, the original city's planner, who laid out the design of the city's core in 1790-1791; followed by the McMillan Plan in 1901, which updated the city's planning regime using "City Beautiful" precepts.

Smart growth isn't racist.  It's pro-city.

Urbanism isn't anti-city.  It's pro-city.

In a blog entry a couple months ago, Capitol Hill Corner denigrated pro-city planning practices as "new urbanism" ("Zoning Regulations Revision Proposes Major Parking Changes for Capitol Hill – City Proposes Shifting Parking Costs From Developers to Residents"):

The proposed revisions would have the effect of increasing density near Metro and bus stops and reducing parking in an attempt to further the currently in-vogue city planning concept of creating a livable, walkable city under the rubric of “new urbanism.”

I countered somewhere that this is incredibly ironic because a livable, walkable city in a city like Washington is anything but "new urbanism", it's quintessential "urbanism" or maybe "old urbanism." There's nothing new about it.

All my various entries tagged touch on various elements of city-appropriate urbanism.

-- Urban Design Compendium

2. Similarly, in a press release, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the city's oldest planning advocacy group, has criticized the updating of the city's Zoning Regulations as being the result of a "smart growth" agenda, as if that is a bad thing. From the release:

The Comprehensive Plan, often quoted by OP, states that "the Zoning Regulations themselves need substantial reorganization, ranging from new definitions to updated development and design standards, and even new zones." Critics of OP's proposals say that the agency has selectively used Comprehensive Plan policies to advance a "smart growth" agenda that is in conflict with DC's goal of an inclusive city and fails to respect neighborhood differences.

"The time has come for DC residents to make their views known to the Zoning Commission," says Nancy MacWood, chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a 90 year-old citizens group that promotes responsible land use and planning. "It's your city, your neighborhood and way of life that's at stake."

Creating a Vibrant City Center by Cy PaumierI find this almost unfathomable, considering that DC is the leading example in the U.S. of a "planned city" and that smart growth is merely urbanism considered at the metropolitan scale.

For a center city, "smart growth" ought to be the basic DNA undergirding a locality's land use, economic development, and transportation planning practice.

I am disappointed that C100 paints the "smart growth" concept in racial overtones, stating that smart growth is anti- "inclusive," which is code for "racist" power relations in which African-Americans are subjugated.

Given that the city's population is 50% African-Americans, and there has long been the tension between "social justice" and "urban form" as the city's dominant agenda (see the arguments in Between Justice and Beauty by Howard Gillette), this is a clear appeal to get African-Americans to join in to scuttle the zoning rewrite, not unlike how the NAACP was one of the organizations that came out against the transportation tax referenda in Georgia (see "Failure of the transit-roads sales tax measure in Metro Atlanta").

Also, neighborhoods are more alike than they are different.  I argue that while every place is unique, few places are exceptional and can't be compared and contrasted and analyzed.

Structurally, neighborhoods function similarly to other neighborhoods.  Differences occur depending on their respective characteristics: mobility network; access to transit; urban form; building and population density; demographics including socioeconomic status, etc.

• The biggest failure of this process is the attempt to ward off the future.  Most people aren't even thinking about today, but about yesterday, and fail to consider what should the city be in order to be resilient, robust, sustainable, and a great place to live in the context of the 21st century.  

• While it's fair to say that I am pretty critical of how the Office of Planning has handled the zoning update process, I believe fervently in the need for an update, to ensure that the city has zoning regulations that promote urbanism and optimal mobility, rather than suburbanism.

• The problem with master plans is that they can be read in many different ways, depending on your own understandings of what planning is and should be.  I read the plan and see support for urbanism.  Others read it and see support for automobility.

• What planning departments have to do (the problem isn't just in DC) is recognize that shifting the planning paradigm from suburbanism to urbanism requires "campaigning" and providing alternate (and "better") explanations and the tools to understand the need to shift.

The Office of Planning mostly relied on the creation of the Comprehensive Plan document as the means to do it.  After the finalization of the document, they didn't campaign, they didn't educate, they didn't do a massive "road show" to explain to people what the document says and what it means for the city.  They just took it for granted that everyone is committed to what the most enlightened planners and urbanists believe comprises urbanism.

Clearly, a significant number of people in the city don't agree.  That stands to reason because they moved to the city from suburbs and only the core of the city is decidedly urban.

Nashville Community Character Manual: T4Diagram outlining the different character zones within the "T4" category from the Nashville Community Character Manual.

•  One thing that planning departments need to provide are translation tools, so that people can understand the difference between "smart growth," "dumb growth," "stagnation," and "failure."

In "DC as a suburban agenda dominated city" I argued that DC is a lot more suburban in outlook than people realize.

In "DC and the zoning rewrite and the approach not taken" I lament that in the zoning revision process, the framework from the Nashville Community Character Manual wasn't adopted and adapted for use in DC, to better shape the understanding of urbanism and change going forward.

Illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette (resized)
This illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette is a good conceptual rendering of the transect concept.

• I do believe that using the NCCM's "transect-based" approach, which for the three major transect zones appropriate for DC then breaks down the character zones into 21 sub-zones, would have made it easier for people to understand planning practice at the neighborhood level.

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At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Sandy Sorlien said...

Unfortunately the Nashville CCM uses the Transect framework in a way that makes it impossible to apply the freeware Transect-based tools developed over the past decade by New Urbanists. It makes it impossible for the different placemaking professionals who have already learned the common language of the Transect Zones, like engineers, architects, ecologists, etc., to coordinate with each other. The Nashville usage of Transect Zones as large planning areas with smaller zones should not be emulated by other cities; Transect Zones should be applied at the smallest increment shown on the Nashville chart you posted, not the largest. Just look at any New Urbanist regulating plan, and you'll see their fine grain. Remember, neighborhoods contain several Transect Zones, not the other way around. That way, different "habitats" can occur within walking distance of each other, just as your city of DC and my city of Philadelphia evolved before the car. If T-zones are applied too large, you can end up with sprawl, monocultures, or chaos.
You are right that neighborhoods are "more alike than they are different." That's exactly why model codes like the Transect-based SmartCode and its many Modules are useful. Let's not undermine that utility. All Nashville has to do is call their large planning areas something else and remove the widely accepted Transect diagram; in the meantime, their model does not serve Transect-based planning well.
- Sandy Sorlien, Transect Codes & Images

At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Sue H. said...

re racial undertones -- I think you're barking up the wrong tree.

First, the people who feel marginalized by some of the zoning proposals tend to see themselves as representing demographic groups that aren't racially defined (e.g. families, seniors, the disabled, and/or long-term residents). Their perception is that such groups are being told "You can be replaced -- go live in the suburbs if you aren't down with this plan. Young, single/childless newcomers are the future of this city."

Secondly, the language of an inclusive city is taken from the Comp Plan itself. Its title was "Growing an Inclusive City" and it articulated a very different vision than the one being pursued through the zoning regs revision process. The Comp Plan (which, as you know, I thought was not ready for prime time when it was passed) saw DC as a city of diverse neighborhoods -- something for everybody. By contrast, OP espoused a kind of urban orthodoxy. I think that this ideologically-driven "one right way" to be urban, coupled with the demographic narrow-casting previously mentioned is why inclusion gets invoked as the issue.

At 1:02 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Of course I remember the way that the Comp. Plan was positioned. In fact, on this blog, I link to the "Growing an Inclusive City" webpage through

For many years the papers have no longer been available via the OP webpage.

We probably disagree on the nature of "the Comp. Plan" vs. "the Office of Planning" and how it has handled marketing, educating, and engaging vis-a-vis the plan and the process.

I also think that the Comp. Plan "educational material" has big conceptual holes in terms of explaining how the city works and how it needs to work going forward.

In short, I don't think there is one right way to be urban. But mostly being urban is a very specific way. It isn't auto-centric but it should be inclusive, and it should be mixed use, even down to the grain of housing types, which most neighborhoods are not.

The problem with the Comp. Plan and the opposition to it is that all the platitudes in the world don't matter when it comes to "the market."

You can't grow an inclusive city in a hyper-strong real estate market and multiple hyper-strong real estate submarkets without taking extranormal steps to support inclusivity.

That's what the many proposals in the zoning rewrite do, even if the implications and results will take decades to play out and have effect.

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Sandy -- I know we've had this discussion before. I know I need more education on the smart code and related frameworks.

But I still think of the transect's main defining characteristic as being density, not use.

That's why the NCCM makes very good sense to me.

At 1:12 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

The next listing after the Comp Plan position statement on growing an inclusive city linked in the right sidebar is a link, again thorugh, to the Comp. Plan vision papers.

I read most of them. And I was impressed by the original discussion.

Again, in the reality of capitalism, platitudes run into the buzz saw of income and wealth.

You can't "grow an inclusive city" without expanding transit and without expanding housing options, including accessory dwelling units.

And growing the city via automobility increases congestion and reduces quality of life in ways that militate against inclusivity (also see the work by Appleyard on the impact of increases in traffic on the links and interactions between neighbors).

At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am surprised that the opponent of the Zoning Rewrite feels that the plan is telling her, and her compatriots that they should not feel welcome in the city. Her (their) read of the zoning proposal is clearly very different than OP or the overwhelming majority of people who support the plan.

As Richard notes, the zoning rewrite is better organizing the materials to lay-people are able to find the information they will need when trying to find out what zone they are in and what is allowed by the code.

Are there attempts to focus future development in transit corridors? Sure, but doesn't that make sense? I mean, if the city/region is investing billions of dollars in metro and streetcars, then it make sense to focus future development in those areas where people can use it more conveniently. At the same time, that will help maintain the rich diversity of the existing neighborhoods.

The changes proposed are so minor, given the context of a 900 page document, that it is amazing that it comes down to a small handfull of issues with incredibly small implications.

Yet, despite OP having watered down the most controversial of the proposals (ADUs, Transit Zones and corner stores), the opponents are still making a big deal out of the zoning rewrite.

It is too bad because, while I would rather not make this a generational dividing line, it is pretty clear that age is the clear separator here.

The baby-boomers and lost generation were raised on the American dream of 2.3 kids, a white picket fence and greater freedom through a car (or cars). The younger X'ers and Millenials have a very different outlook that is based on walking and biking. I would think the older set would appreciate that there is more car parking and road space available to them because of these differences in mobility.

After all, the arguments around the zoning rewrite basically boil down to parking. ADUs will cause more density in my neighborhood so I won't be able to park my car on my street in front of my house. Parking Minimums are bad because more people moving in will park their cars on my street, or worse, they will make it harder for me to be able to park on THEIR street.

Really, the parking thing needs to be left for DDOT. It ought not be central to the debate about zoning.

At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Sue H. said...

Parking is what the media will cover.

There are a host of other issues (e.g. the commercialization of residential property, public input, the expansion of downtown)including some glaring omissions (e.g. failure to address affordable housing and uneven development, or to implement any of the neighborhood protections the Comp Plan envisioned).

Personally, I don't think it's a generational issue. The main divide is between people who have read the text closely (vs read the press releases) and who know the Comp Plan well and thus are attuned to what hasn't been done and how selectively it's been mined. One of the tip-offs re who has read the text is claims of user-friendliness.

There's certainly an age and stage component as well, which is different than a generational one -- it's experiential and relates to seeing how needs, desires, constraints, and circumstances change over time.

Finally, there's dividing line between smart growth advocates and people who, based on watching what's happened here and elsewhere, see SG as an approach that has consistently failed to advance the goals professes/achieve the results it predicts.

At 8:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sue, you have your opinion. I and others wholly disagree.

If you go back to the testimony of your compatriots before the Council earlier this month and year and before the zoning commission on a number of occasions, parking is THE central issue. You may go beyond it on your writing, but ultimately, that is the issue that is central to Julie Six, Marilyn Simon and Judy Chesser of your neighborhood associations; of Alma Gates and Nancy MacWood, and George Clark.

You are closely aligned with them (despite your admonitions that you aren't). These are all Ward 3 residents who are generally over the age of 65. I don't see too much diversity there.

Richard is calling it like it is. The media covers parking (as you claim) because that is coming theme of the folks opposed to the zoning rewrite.

Maybe if they got out of their Ward 3 bubble and saw how the rest of the city has evolved over the past 25 years, they might have a different view.

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The opponent will deny all the clear dividing lines other have pointed out, well, just because. It is beyond me where the desire to keep new folks out of Ward 3 comes from, but it does come from someplace.

The opponent is best positioned to comment on what younger families want because she is older and has the best perspective on what they will want having lived that life already. She is best able to tell them what they want from the zoning rewrite, and if they would only have read it, they would agree.

The opponent never owned a car, until she did, and doesn't bike or take the bus, so she is the best to comment on what is good for those who live a mutli-modal lifestyle.

The opponent is best positioned to comment on how apartment dwellers want to live, because as a single family homeowner, she has the best perspective.

The opponent is best positioned to comment on the failings of the DCPS, because as someone whose child goes to a private school, she has the best perspective.

The opponent is best positioned to comment on expanding our housing base for lower income because as a higher income person, as are the members of the Committee of the 100, she has the best perspective.

At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 944AM - you left off an important one:

The opponent is best positioned to comment on the text in the zoning re-write because she of course is the only one to have read it. Or if others have read it the opponent is naturally the only one smart enough to understand and explain it to the masses.

Thank god for the opponents who sit around alone in their homes all day lonely and angry at the world and distrusting an evolving city that scares them and threatens their tenuous and illusory grip on power and relevance.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

FWIW, you can't deal with the production of affordable housing through zoning, except for incentives.

2. Of course, I agree somewhat with the issue of "neighborhood protections" being inadequately addressed.

In part that is a failure of the planning regime in the city and the failure to do either neighborhood or sector plans (sector plans would be the plan equivalent of the Comp. Plan's area elements).

"Small area plans" are not comprehensive neighborhood plans. They are what I think of as build out opportunity analysis and management plans. Many things that ought to be in a complete neighborhood plan are not in SAPs.

3. relatedly, I do believe that if DC had adopted as a framework the one from the Nashville Community Character Manual, maybe with some tweaking, that the kinds of neighborhood protections people seem to want could be incorporated.

4. But of course the basic neighborhood protections I'd want: allowing adus, probably allowing accessory apartments and adus depending on the building and lot size, corner stores (although as I have written many times, economically corner stores are unlikely to be created because values for alternative property use are higher), and especially design review including dealing with teardowns, tear ups, and additions [popups especially] whether or not an area is designated are probably not the "neighborhood protections" that the opponents are agitating about.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... with a proviso. Allowing accessory dwelling units and accessory apartments by zoning does produce affordable housing for both renters and purchasers.

At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Sandy Sorlien said...

<< But I still think of the transect's main defining characteristic as being density, not use.
That's why the NCCM makes very good sense to me.>>

The issue is scale. It's not that complicated: a neighborhood, village, or downtown contains Transect Zones, not the other way around. If you try to apply them at the scale Nashville does, there is no way you can use the existing Transect tools for urban design without disastrous results. Please don't spread this to DC without knowing what the problems are. Read the material on the CATS site and in the SmartCode itself.


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