Walkability, but hold the red tape
Urbanists must adopt less bureaucratic approaches so that the next generation can build and grow the economy, Andres Duany says. Hence the proliferation of “lean” codes that emphasize only the essentials of shaping community.
The new millennium is newer than you think. The 21st Century began in 2008 with the financial collapse just as the 20th Century truly began with the first World War, Andres Duany declared in a stirring plenary session at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Salt Lake City.
Three crises of the new century -- the dearth of capital, the slow-motion calamity of climate change, and the ongoing high costs of petroleum -- have changed the prospects of the next generation of urbanists, he says.
Town centers will be built successionally, starting with single-story buildings. High-tech environmentalism will fail and low-tech “original green” sustainability will flourish. Flex buildings designed to change uses and interim buildings that fill needs while waiting for a permanent replacements will be key, he says. Tactical Urbanism, the next generation’s mantra, is all about retrofitting streets and public spaces with grass roots energy and limited resources.
Finally, Duany touted “code pink,” or a highly simplified new urban code. Other code experts are developing similar “pocket codes,” or “minicodes” that boil form-based standards down to bare essentials that are easy to understand and facilitate quicker, cheaper, more pain-free approvals.
New urban codes began as very basic documents, Duany explains, — like the four-page code for Seaside, Florida, that governs urban design, materials, and architecture.
“We have been complicit in allowing codes to get fatter and fatter and they are virtually indistinguishable from conventional codes,” he says. “We need to come up with a new generation of codes that can be called pink codes — reference to light red tape.” In reference to the unusual name, he says, “I like terms that are not self-explanatory. They ask you what you mean. You tell them your version of the story.”
The new urbanists can turn the pall of today’s crises into virtues, he says. “The the virtue of opening a window, or a beautiful sweater, or a front porch, or walking to things, or localized agriculture,” he says.
At a recent nine-day series of design sessions in High Point, North Carolina, Duany unveiled the idea of “code pink.” The next generation is drowning in bureaucracy, he says.
“Just starting a business at all is so difficult that it has driven half the kids to be artists, because they can’t cook anything without a permit. Because they can’t sell anything they cook without a permit. Because they can’t repair a damn thing without a permit,” he says.
In the three decades and a half since Duany started his practice, he told High Point residents, “I have seen a very efficient country become a very inefficient one. And it drives me crazy.” Of all of the ideas presented in the charrette, the reduction in bureaucratic process got the most enthusiastic reception.
A city of 104,000 in the North Carolina piedmont, High Point is internationally known for its furniture industry, which is in a slow decline. In the five years since the housing crash, residential construction in the city has taken a nose dive.
The city is working on a new zoning code, but Duany held up just the preamble — a thick document. Then he held up the code out of the charrette, about eight times thinner.
“Just pass it,” he said, to applause from the audience. “Don’t discuss it. You can actually understand it. The other one you can’t. Also, there are about 300 of these (form-based codes) in the United States working perfectly well. ... You can test it. If you need to adjust it, fine. Use it for the two years it would take to get you that (new) big one. Maybe by that time you decide you don’t need it.”
The City Project, a city-funded nonprofit organization, raised most of the $410,000 fee for the team, headed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), but also including transportation and civil engineers, and economic experts.
While the design session was underway it already bore some fruit. The city changed plans for a downtown traffic intersection, adding on-street parking and designing a roundabout to slow traffic.
The High Point workshop series ended in mid-May, and now efforts are underway to move the ideas forward. “The city is forming a committee to develop a master plan based on the team’s suggestions and plan to have it in place by September,” the High Point Enterprise reported.
But Duany suggested that appealing to 242,000 college graduates annually within an hour drive of the city is a way forward. “We need to enable the unemployed young people just to act. They are dying to do things and we are preventing them,” he said.
Building with ‘sea cans’
Many of the DPZ plans for High Point involved the use of “sea cans” or shipping containers. These 40-foot cargo holders can be finished as residential units or retail spaces and can hide vast parking lots downtown. They cost about $5,000 each, and finishing them is more expensive — nevertheless they are a cheap and quick alternative to balloon-frame or masonry construction. Young people can take these containers and fit them out as places of business or living quarters.
Shipping containers are designed to be bolted together up to eight high, Duany explains, and can hold enormous weight. The team designed a full-size event hall for the community using, cleverly, sea cans as structural walls “as thick as the cathedrals of Europe.” In between the sea cans, windows are designed with deep shadow lines — but there would be no exterior indication that the building is made with shipping containers. Some of the containers could be finished as bathrooms, storage rooms, and offices off of hallways.
Sea cans fitted out as retail and residential space, activating a street, above. The exterior of the proposed High Point Auditorium, with walls built of shipping containers, below.
The new urbanist team focused on walkability throughout the planning areas. Themes included how to fill parking areas with other uses, slow traffic to make the city more walkable, create more appealing public spaces and use landscaping to give comfort to pedestrians.
One plan showed how to turn a vast downtown parking lot into a major public space while not sacrificing parking spaces.
Sandy Sorlien, one of the authors of the SmartCode, recently released what she called the “Pocket Code,” which is six pages long. The purpose is to provide “the essentials according to your neighborhood Transect,” it says. “Where walkability matters, the human scale matters; thus maximums are more important than minimums. The Pocket Code reduces many of the usual minimums to zero.” The code has no minimum parking requirements, for example. For street standards, the Pocket code references a SmartCode module.
The Pocket Code provides basic standards for building types, signs, and frontages in each of the Transect zones that are found in a settlement. It is downloadable at smartcodelocal.com.
Urban designer and developer Andrew Burleson of Houston — a city that is known for lax land-use regulations -- has created what he calls the Adaptive Code, a concept that focuses on the street network as the most essential element. A Transect of street types is established, and building scale and disposition are regulated for each street type.
According to Burleson, The Adaptive Code avoids micromanagement while focusing on a vibrant public realm. “It seeks to return freedom to the marketplace, making the traditional American building pattern legal again. Second, it seeks to put motorists and non-motorists on equal footing, to create freedom of transportation choice. Lastly, it seeks to reconcile the tension between liberty and justice, to prevent any party from externalizing negative impacts on any other with simple, predictable, and fair rules.”
Although minicodes are more simple than conventional codes or most form-based codes, they are more detailed than the earliest land-use regulations from the 19th Century that shaped many of the best cities. These codes often included just a building height limit and a right of way dimension for specific streets. Cities and towns at that time were very specific about something that they usually leave to developers now: They specified the layout of the streets — ensuring a human-scale street network.
Duany uses the word “lean” to describe the approach of light codes, successional development, and tactical urbanism. This is similar to the earliest new urban plans, he says. “Code-writing was the least cool of the uncool, but those incredibly lean early new urbanist codes were glamorous.”