The Code of the City: Standards and the Hidden Language of Place Making By Eran Ben-Joseph MIT Press, 2005, 256 pp., paperback $24.
Critics of smart growth and New Urbanism love to point out that sprawl is not limited to the US or North America; it occurs across the globe. The implication is that all the world, or at least the portion that can afford it, likes living and working in single-use, often pedestrian-hostile settings.
Now comes Eran Ben-Joseph to show us that it’s not so simple. One of the reasons development patterns in other countries resemble those of the US, the MIT professor says, is that many of those nations have copied America’s ill-thought-out zoning codes. Some of the photos in The Code of the City are devastating: Rows of detached houses in the Brazilian rain forest arranged just like those in postwar Levittown. A suburb in Vietnam that looks imported from the American Sunbelt. Monotonously repeated blocks of houses in Trinidad and Tobago.
A private community in ShenZhen, China, “based,” in Ben-Joseph’s description, “on US planning and design standards.” These and other cases convey an important message: If other nations are sprawling, it’s not necessarily because individual consumers and families longed for that result. Much of the pattern may have been imposed by government regulations. Ben-Joseph, who has worked as a landscape architect and urban planner in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the US, examines the history of regulation of development and finds that what’s been built in the US in the past several decades reflects a triumph of rigidity.
The Institute of Transportation Engineers’ recommendations for subdivision streets, for example, professed an interest in “variety, experimentation, and improvements in residential design” while in fact aiming for “efficient vehicular movement” — which they mandated through what Ben-Joseph calls “a set of rigid standards.” The author says many problems that communities face “have arisen because standards intended for health and safety have become disconnected from the original rationale for their existence.” Engineering and public works departments, he writes, have demonstrated “limited (if any) concern for practical accessibility and livability.” learning from failure But conditions are starting to change.
Ben-Joseph believes “the long historical trend of regulating city building has reached a critical juncture;” increasingly prominent alternatives such as New Urbanism indicate that society is learning from “the variety of failures associated with conventional standards.” Both professionals and ordinary people are beginning to understand that the prevailing standards drive up housing costs, abuse nature, and make most of the places we build less satisfying than they need be.
He praises environmental innovations such as Seattle’s pilot Street Edge Alternatives program, which narrows streets, eliminates curbs and gutters, introduces vegetative swales, adds trees, and generally creates a much lusher residential landscape. (It’s hard to tell, from the set of two small “before” and “after” photos, whether the changes do as much to improve pedestrian comfort as new urbanists would advocate.) He finds hope in techniques such as computerized visualization, which enable people to see the spatial consequences of planning and development pro-posals.
He advocates a practice that new urbanist planning consultants recommend: including plenty of illustrations in codes and standards, so that the public can grasp ideas and rules that otherwise tend to be set forth only in legalistic prose. The Code of the City is not error-free, but it is remarkably comprehensive, considering that the main text is less than 200 pages. It does a commendable job of combining environmental consciousness, a general awareness of New Urbanism’s principles, and a detailed knowledge of how conventional approaches to development and regulation have failed, not only in the US but worldwide. “Standards must be place-based,” Ben-Joseph rightly declares. “And to evolve standards we must allow for experimentation and discretion.”