Emily Talen’s book City Rules shows how the rules of city building — codes — have been used for good or ill. But let us be clear: Codes are necessary.
Within the last half-century, some thirty million buildings have degraded cities and destroyed landscapes. We have tolerated this comprehensive disaster in exchange for the (perhaps) two thousand masterpieces that rampant architects have produced. This dismal win-loss ratio in architecture should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about American’s cities and towns.
Planners have now been called upon to intervene and have discovered that codes are the most powerful tools available to affect reform. As this book uncovers, a century ago, city planners knew this power and exploited it fully, wisely embedding codes in the political and legal process. Under codes, the profit motive was capable of building the best places we still have.
Codes can assist in the restoration of this standard, as Talen argues. Those who are charged with designing, supervising, and building urbanism might tend to avoid education and exhortation, but they are accustomed to following rules. Bureaucracies have never been (and cannot be) dismantled. They will, however, willingly administer whatever codes are in hand. This has the potential to carry reform farther than education ever can.
Planners can reclaim codes and engage in the most rigorous and intellectually refined practice available to any architect. And, as the book makes clear, results are verifiable. By being projected into the world, codes engage a reality that can lead to resounding defeat of antiurbanistic practice. This is how planners can compensate for deficient professional training, where schools educate architects toward self-expression rather than toward context, toward theory rather than toward practice, toward the individual building rather than toward urbanism.
Designers should not resist this. They should prefer to work within known rules and for the common good rather than be subject to the whimsy of individual boards, politicians, naysayers, and bureaucrats.
The essential elements of urbanism must be coded — frontages, streets, the public realm. This is necessary because the default setting in contemporary design is mediocrity and kitsch. Codes can assure a minimum level of competence, even if in so doing they must constrain certain possibilities.
Codes allow the various professions that affect urbanism to act with the unity of a purpose. Without integrated codes, architects design buildings that ignore the streets of the civil engineer, and landscape architects ignore both the roads and the buildings. There is no cooperation toward the creation of a spatially defined public realm. The demands of parking, no less than the arbitrary singularity of architects, tend to create vague, sociofugal places. Add to this the idiosyncratic desires of fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, the accessibility police, materials suppliers, and liability attorneys. Without codes, there is nothing but the unassembled collection of urban potential.
Codes provide the means to distribute building design to others. Authentic urbanism requires the sequential intervention of many. Those who want to design all the buildings in a place produce on architectural projects — monocultures of design — not urbanism. With codes, private buildings achieve a modicum of formal control; otherwise there would be no urban fabric. And by using codes, we protect the prerogative of civic buildings to express the aspirations of the institutions they accommodate, the aspirations of the wider community — and, as well, the inspiration of architects and designers. This is the dialectic of urbanism.
Unguided towns and cities tend not to vitality but to socioeconomic monocultures. The wealthy gather in their enclaves and the middle class in their neighborhoods; the poor get the residue. Shops and restaurants cluster around certain price points, offices find their prestigious addresses and sweatshops their squalid ones. Artists pioneer gentrification en masse while vast tracts of once-mixed places self-segregate and decay. This process occurs ineluctably in traditional cities, no less than in new suburban sprawl. Codes can secure that measure of diversity without which good urbanism withers and dies.
Without codes urban municipalities tend to suffer from disinvestment because the market seeks stable investment environments. Codes level the playing field for the inevitable competition. Without codes, the competing private codes of the homeowners associations, the guidelines of office parks, and the rules of shopping centers create predictable outcomes that lure investment away from older cities and towns.
As codes provide predictability, they also protect the diversity of urbanism. Without them, wary neighbors tend to reject difference in proximity to their dwellings. Codes protect the character of a locale against the universalizing tendencies of modern real estate development. They apply general principles to specific places.
If applied intelligently, codes can assure that urban places are truly urban and that rural places remain truly rural, and that there is a specific transect in between. Otherwise, misconceived environmentalism tends toward the partial greening of all places. The result being neither one nor the other, but the monstrous garden city of sprawl. The location of the urban and the rural is of a fundamental importance that cannot be left to the vicissitudes of ownership. Codes require the preparation of maps that address the “where” no less than the “what.”
Codes can insure that buildings incorporate a higher degree of environmental response than is otherwise called for by economic analysis. Buildings can be built to be both durable and mutable in proper measure. These are things that are critical to the longevity required for urbanism.
Codes defy an architectural culture that incapacitates architects by presenting only the extremes of unfettered genius and servility to the zeitgeist. But there are positions between. We must reject the limits set by being subject to the realities of our time — we know that it is possible to affect those realities. There is no need for relativism. There are urbanisms that allow for a self-defined pursuit of happiness (the stated rights of Americans), and there are other urbanisms that tend to undermine that pursuit.
Andres Duany is principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami, Florida, an author of the SmartCode, Suburban Nation, and The Smart Growth Manual, and lead designer of hundreds of towns and neighborhoods. This article is the foreword of City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, by professor Emily Talen of Arizona State University, published in 2012 by Island Press of Washington, DC. Reproduced by permission.