On beyond infill

Charles Marohn, New Urban Network

The operating system of our development pattern — standard zoning — is not compatible with the direction that our cities need to take to remain financially viable. To rectify the massive financial imbalances suburban-style development has created for our cities, we need to make dramatically better use of the infrastructure investments we have already made. This goes far beyond the concept of infill, something standard zoning handles poorly. To prosper in the New Economy, cities need to throw out their zoning codes and replace them with a form-based alternative.

Members of the planning profession that want to be considered "enlightened" by other members of the planning profession are obligated to give support to the concept of infill. Infill is the idea that we should identify gaps in the development pattern — the places passed by — and fully develop those prior to expanding out into undeveloped, or lightly developed, lands. To say that you support infill as a planner is to indicate that you believe these gaps should be filled first.

One reason why support for infill is a mandatory belief in the profession is because infill is thought to be the opposite of greenfield development. And greenfield development — the expansion of the development pattern into undeveloped or lightly developed areas — is held to be very bad. It is bad for the environment, it causes sprawl, creates auto-dependency, hurts cute little animals, yada yada yada ...

The planning profession largely pays obligatory homage to the notion of infill in plans and reports, but in practice, the concept is largely discarded. There are many reasons for this that can be summarized by the observation that infill is currently difficult to implement. There is a reason why most of those gaps in the development pattern were passed by, from difficult terrain to difficult ownership and everything in between. Greenfield development is so much easier, especially politically.

With greenfield development, typically the current owner of the site — often a longtime resident who is simply looking to "cash out" — lines up with the development team in a combination that is difficult for local government officials to resist. Conversely, with infill, the neighbors, who have grown accustomed to their neighborhood just the way it is, line up in logical opposition. I say "logical" because, if we're honest with ourselves, most infill projects are a variation on the obnoxious theme shown in the attached photo.

I'll suggest that there isn't anyone reading this post who, if they were the occupant with a 30-year mortgage on the single-family residence pictured, would support the construction of the neighboring poverty-experiment. Infill is so logical in theory, but in practice it is anything but. That must change, and change quickly, because we need to go far beyond infill in order to make our cities financially viable.

The only analogy that comes to my mind to describe what needs to happen is theological, but since it is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I'll proffer it. Moses brought us the Ten Commandments, number seven of which instructs us to not commit adultery. Jesus took it further and framed this commandment for his followers, showing them how to not only to read the commandment but to ingest it into their very souls, when he said in Matthew:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

For a married person, committing adultery is the end of a journey that begins with having feelings for someone other than your spouse. As an instruction to his disciples, Jesus was saying that, if you want to follow the seventh commandment, don't even start on that journey. If you truly want to reach your spiritual destination, each step on your path should bring you closer to — not further from — your ideal.

When it comes to greenfield development, the planning profession lives in a world akin to Moses', where there is a commandment — Thou shall not develop greenfields — but an operating environment that surrounds us with every type of debauchery and enticement possible to get us to vary from this rule. Not only do we have all of the federal and state subsidies, all of the transportation spending, all of the banking, insurance, underwriting and real estate systems, and not only do we have a Ponzi-scheme, local finance system that depends on new growth, but the planning profession has one very specific tool that makes compliance with the greenfield commandment impossible.

That tool is zoning.

Our modern system of zoning, which separates everything into pods of different micro-uses and then connects each pod with a hierarchy of transportation, handles greenfield development brilliantly. That is, it is handled in a very predictable, efficient manner. On the other hand, modern zoning is brutal to infill. Small infill projects not only have to withstand neighborhood opposition, but the bureaucratic encrustation of paperwork, hearings, plan reviews and minutiae that don't scale down well, especially on sites that tend to be more challenging (the reason they are gaps in the first place).

The difficulty that standard zoning creates for infill needs to be appreciated, because infill is just the start. We need to get far beyond the concept of infill. What we need is a system of development that allows neighborhoods to establish, grow and mature over time. Single-family homes need to evolve into duplexes. Duplexes need to mature into row houses. Row houses need to grow into low rise, mixed-use flats. The operating system of our cities needs to allow places to mature in this way. It needs to be easy, intuitive and — most of all — desired by everyone involved.

In other words, it is not enough to simply say, "Thou shall not develop greenfields," but then continue to operate in a system where greenfield development is the natural conclusion of nearly every journey. If we agree that greenfield development is bad, then we need a radically different mode of operation. We need a new operating system, and that begins with a national book burning to rid ourselves of our destructive zoning codes. (Politically speaking, I strongly suspect that such an event would be a bi-partisan affair.)

Now, do we at Strong Towns suggest there should be neighborhood anarchy? Of course not. We need an operating system for the future of our neighborhoods. The best place to start would be the SmartCode or similar form-based alternative. In a form-based code, we see regulations that are permissive (state what they want) and not restrictive (state what they oppose), address primarily the form the property takes and not the use, create a predictable development pattern that is compatible with existing neighborhoods and streamline the bureaucracy to make approvals quick and easy.

The key insight about form-based codes, however, is how they create a pattern of development where neighborhood growth is positive for the people already living there. Since all form-based growth builds on the existing pattern of the neighborhood, new development is not a threat to the current order but instead, by definition, enhances it. As our neighborhoods mature in a form-based operating system, gaps are filled in, then places are connected, then destinations are naturally created and, over time, expanded and enhanced. There is no step backwards in a form-based system, just forward.

If we don't want greenfield development — and at Strong Towns we agree that it has little redeeming value, especially as society is starting to comprehend the financial impact of two generations of horizontal growth — we need something more than a commandment that few follow. We actually need a different path to follow, an entirely different operating system that will continuously make our cities stronger. That is what it means to build Strong Towns.

Some additional reading and information:

Understanding Downtown (October 5, 2009)
The Cost to Cities of Auto-centricity (May 12, 2010)
SmartCode Central
Center for Applied Transect Studies
Form-Based Codes Institute
Placeshakers (experts in Form-Based Coding)

An unrelated comment to share with you in passing today. My wife and I have two daughters, ages 6 and 3, and felt it was important to talk to them about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My oldest was singing a song they learned in school about MLK, which she taught to the other daughter, and that prompted our discussion. We don't live in the most multi-racial place here in the middle of Minnesota, but it is far more diverse than when I grew up. As we had this discussion, the two girls had blank, puzzled expressions. It took a while to dawn on us that they had no clue what we were talking about. They did not comprehend a reason why someone with a different color of skin is in any meaningful way "different". We didn't even broach the fact that at one point in history we had different water fountains and seating arrangements — that would have been as absurd to them as burning "witches" in medieval times is to us today. Why would anyone who is not crazy do that? The conversation made me very hopeful, not just about my kids, but about King's dream and the ability of humanity to engage in collective self-improvement. Someday we'll make sure our kids know the history we need to understand and remember, but my hope is they will absorb it through the truly colorblind lens they each currently posses.

Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization founded in 2009 that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth.

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