Planning in local government: New Urbanism’s blind spot

Part Five of a series on New Urbanism discusses the movement’s failure to address the processes and practices employed by America’s 88,000 municipalities.

  • Public process

    Public process

    Local government planners frequently seek consultant support for projects that involve extensive public outreach. Photo courtesy of Gianni Longo.


  • Miami 21

    Miami 21

    The recently adopted Miami 21 plan shows that state-of-the-art New Urban regulatory practices can work in the context of a major municipal planning agency. Courtesy of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

  • Seaside


    Seaside, located in a then-rural part of Walton County, FL, faced fewer regulatory hurdles when it was approved thirty years ago than would a similar project today.


  • Agenda 21

    Agenda 21

    Headlines linking local planning initiatives to a “globalist effort to control citizenry” play to fears of a United Nations conspiracy.


Peter Katz, Better! Cities & Towns

Editor's note: Parts One, Two, and Three of this series were published a year ago, just prior to CNU 20 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Parts Four, Five, and Six are being published leading into CNU 21, (May 29-June 1) in Salt Lake City, Utah. The first Congress for the New Urbanism took place in Alexandria, Virginia, 20 years ago (September, 1993). At this milestone, Peter Katz, who has been a part of the New Urbanism since the beginning, offers his views on the movement.

Although it’s easy to criticize local government staffers for the sprawling patterns that continue to predominate in the suburbs, as I did in the prior installment, and have in earlier writings—there’s plenty of blame to go around. If one is looking for a villain, I might point also to the leadership of the New Urbanism movement for its failure (with some notable recent exceptions) to engage local government on its own terms.

In past conversations with the founders, I have heard nearly all of them, at one time or another, admit to a lack of patience with government processes and regulations, either in terms of fully understanding them, or being willing to work within their dictates. But such a mindset, in and of itself, is not the problem; Indeed, I share a similar view of local government. 

The problematic part is when one shrugs their shoulders and says, while walking away to take on other work, usually for private-sector clients: "Oh well, the system is broken, and the dysfunction is too vast and pervasive to fix." Although this sentiment is certainly understandable, the situation in local government remains highly problematic and it's not going to get better on its own. Unfortunately, most municipalities' lack of a suitable framework for understanding and processing New Urbanism plans will continue to degrade our best efforts until the issue is addressed by the best minds, both within and outside of local government. 

Let’s begin from the outside perspective by looking at the new urbanists and the blind spot that many of our number seem to have in relation to local government. Unfortunately, it’s a blind spot that’s every bit as pernicious as the one I described in the prior installment that exists among local government planners. It may even be more so, because as new urbanists, we possess the understanding and skills to address, and possibly solve, many of the chronic planning problems that local governments struggle with on a daily basis.

New urban consultants and community engagement
It’s important, to consider as I have (because I’ve worn both hats during the past six years), the complex interweaving of roles, goals and motivations that exists between the new urbanist consultant and his or her counterpart in local government. As staff, we would seek the services of a prominent new urban design consultant once or twice every few years to help us lead a high profile, site-specific master plan or long-range planning study. These were important projects for us. Our selection process typically involved the issuance of an RFP (request for proposal), and a series of review steps to find the most suitable consultant. The budget for such projects would be, before the recession, fairly generous.

Typically the level of community engagement would also be high. With so much in the way of fees and political capital at stake, neither staff nor consultant wanted to risk anything less than a successful outcome! It’s important to mention that the matter of public outreach—which can either make or break a planning initiative— would often be staff’s primary reason for seeking outside project leadership. Early in my government career, I assumed this was because of a widely held perception that outside consultants generally have a greater command of interactive public processes than did staff. Later on I came to realize that staff’s motivation in this case was less about skills and abilities than it was about career risks to those working for the municipality.

Indeed, during my tenure in government, I met only a few colleagues who actually wanted to take on the risks associated with heavy-duty conflict management. Most avoided such situations like the plague. This is not a criticism, it’s actually a wise survival strategy: It’s just way too easy for such professional challenges to blow up in one’s face, often through no fault of one’s own, creating a situation where one’s name becomes associated with “a problem.”

Without the promise of significant rewards for taking on such risks,1 most staffers are simply not willing to assertively manage conflict-laden situations. When budgets don’t enable the consultant option, it’s far easier to follow the path of avoidance, sweeping the conflict under the rug (sometimes taking the viability of the proposed plan with it) and letting another colleague, or a consultant, deal with the matter in a future planning process.

Consultants, on the other hand, are expected to manage such conflicts to a successful conclusion, pushing the envelope on occasion (often at the request of staff) and even “take a few bullets (metaphorically speaking)” when the situation demands it. Although it sounds a little abusive, this working relationship between staff and consultant can actually be quite a productive partnership, particularly on high-profile projects with suitable budgets.

It's important to note that the consultant may have somewhat different goals from that of their client. From what I’ve seen in my time on that side of the fence, consultants want to achieve a “clean approval” that fully supports their urban design vision, with minimal changes requested by their client or other stakeholders, and be able to complete the work within a fairly rapid time frame. These are the projects that, when completed, show well on one’s website, and elicit great testimonials from clients local leaders.

A less successful outcome typically results from the slow, painful tweaking process that many municipalities administer, often at the behest of cranky citizens’ groups, over months and years, to bring the new plan into compliance with an existing, highly structured policy/regulatory framework. When a plan is birthed over such an extended time frame, it often takes a significant toll on people—both staff (in terms of fatigue and frustration) and consultants (their enthusiasm, and their profits, especially if the assignment was contracted on a fixed-fee basis). It’s been my experience that the quality of the plan and the development regulations generally do not improve with time; indeed the work product usually tends to deteriorate over a long and contentious review process.

Death of a thousand cuts
It’s important to mention that up to now we’ve been discussing only the higher-profile long-range planning projects that attract the greatest attention from new urbanist consultants. Although such projects are important, they are not the only battleground where local government is losing the war.

I’m referring here to the hundreds and thousands of administrative approvals and the routine granting of site plan approvals and favorable interpretations that move through local government planning departments on a daily basis, typically in full compliance with existing ordinances. Because such actions do not trigger public hearings, and thus tend to fly beneath the radar, they go mostly unnoticed by citizens. But on a cumulative basis such transactions, in my opinion, do the greatest harm to our communities both because of their sheer number and because they're evaluated within a framework of older use-based zoning regulations that, by their very nature, tend to induce sprawl.

So how does one address this problem? Given the current weak state of municipal finances, and the moribund state of development in most regions, it’s unlikely that local planners and elected officials will budget the funds required to retool mountains of existing statute to achieve greater consistency with emerging community development preferences. And while such preferences, among planners at least, have clearly shifted from low-density single-use suburban “pod” planning just a few decades ago, to more fine-grained, mixed-use approaches, citizens and their elected leaders in most places have not yet come into full alignment with such preferences.

The problem of outdated local plans is certainly one that’s been on the new urbanist’s radar screen for years. One of the most notable early efforts to address such issues was Dan Solomon’s 1988 City of Gardens Ordinance for Pasadena, showcased at CNU 20. That rewrite effectively stopped the destructive conversion of Pasadena's gracious single-family homes and bungalow courts into “six-packs,” an ungainly multi-family configuration that benefitted from loopholes in the prior ordinance.

Since their emergence in the early 1990s, form-based codes2 have come to be regarded as the regulatory "tool-of-choice" for neighborhood-scaled New Urbanism and Smart Growth. More recently Miami 21, and Denver’s new citywide form-based code showed that the practice could be used to shape better urbanism at the metropolitan scale. The SmartCode, an attempt to achieve wider implementation of New Urbanism in a range of community sizes and types has also been quite successful in many parts of the country.

Such ordinances, at the cutting edge of planning practice, have achieved impressive results, where they've been employed to implement plans, but to date they’ve been used in only a tiny fraction of America’s communities. Much more needs to happen, from both a policy and a regulatory standpoint, if New Urbanism is to become the default setting for planning at the local level.

Plan versus process
In the early years of the movement, the leaders of the New Urbanism spoke of a return to “physical planning.” They shunned the typical municipal planners’ obsessive focus on policy, lengthy regulations stated primarily in text (rather than diagrams) and endless listings of permitted and prohibited zoning categories that most citizens found to be overly abstract, and too vague to define a clear, compelling vision of the future. By contrast, early place-based new urbanist initiatives were guided by the assumption that all that one needed to create a great place was a well-crafted plan, compelling images to represent the proposed build out of the plan, and a free pass to get around the administrative red tape that their designers believed was mostly gumming up the planning process at the local level.

It’s important to note that many early New Urbanism projects such as Seaside, Kentlands and Celebration were launched, almost as experiments, in regulatory contexts that would not be the norm in most municipalities today: Seaside’s plan was first adopted in the relatively loose rural policy framework of Walton County in the early 1980s. When the county’s population reached a key threshold, developer Robert Davis was forced to retroactively submit his master plan to state officials in Tallahassee for approval.

Rick Hall, an ex-FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) transportation engineer and member of Davis’ consultant team, recalls his initial surprise at seeing Seaside’s network of narrow streets and blocks, instead the wide curving streets and culs-de-sac more typical of the era: “It was a total shock seeing 12 intersections in a half-mile of arterial road. I was preparing to tell Robert Davis to change the plan to follow the state’s standards for access management.” Hall remembers that moment as critical in his conversion to New Urbanism: “After speaking to Davis, and his planner, Andres Duany, I became convinced that the approach they were taking with Seaside—consciously creating a walkable community ‘by design’—was the paradigm shift that was needed to enable other similar places to flourish.”

Kentlands in the Washington DC region, processed as a special mixed-use variant of a planned-unit development, was actually a redesign of an earlier, more conventional suburban plan. Supportive local regulators allowed many new and innovative features, but insisted that the overall unit count and mix remain the same along with two major arterials within the development and a number of high-speed roads around the development’s edges.

Celebration, in Orlando, was built in the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a quasi-municipal entity set up by Disney decades earlier, mostly for the implementation of their legendary theme parks and supporting uses. Presumably the autonomy that Disney enjoyed within this district enabled a wider range of development options, and an easier approval path to implement such options, than would exist in a more conventionally governed municipality.

These signature greenfield projects have reached full build out and for the most part look and function well. In those early years there was much curiosity about what Time magazine referred to as “Oldfangled New Towns” in the article that it ran in the spring of 1991, before the term New Urbanism came into being. The idea of a demonstration project or two consisting of charming houses and townhouses, a few corner stores and a town square, just to test the concept, seemed innocent enough (as long as it was in someone else’s backyard).

Today, with Tea Party supporters slamming Smart Growth advocates as undercover agents shilling for the United Nation’s Agenda 21, it may be hard to replicate the circumstances that provided fertile ground for those pioneering early projects, especially in the absence of a proper legal mandate for more compact forms of development. Twenty years into this endeavor, I’m coming to realize that New Urbanism (and its cousin Smart Growth) really needs its own policy framework if the larger ambitions of these interrelated movements are to be realized.

It will be tedious and difficult work, but it has to happen if the New Urbanism is to be more than a minor footnote in a mostly sprawl-bound future; It will also require the engagement of people with both the knowledge of the current local government system (and its 88,000 different municipal variants around the nation) and that of current New Urbanism practice.

One can ignore such a need if the goal is only to produce a great plan for publication, or if a strong elected official or constituency is squarely behind a development application. But in the absence of these circumstances, the plans and projects that we most admire will continue to face a challenging future as they struggle to be approved and implemented within a largely incompatible policy and regulatory framework. 

Next– Taking sides: Why planners must rethink the idea of neutrality

Peter Katz played a key role in shaping the New Urbanism movement as founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). He is author of The New Urbanism: Toward an Architecture of Community, published by McGraw-Hill in 1993. He was the founding president of the Form-Based Codes Institute and serves on its board of directors. He has served in staff roles with Oceanside CA, Sarasota County FL, and Arlington, VA (as the County’s planning director). Katz provides consulting services in New Urbanism implementation, urban design, strategic marketing and community development.

Katz currently leads CNU’s New Urbanism in Local Government Initiative. If you’re attending CNU 21, you are invited to attend a meeting of that initiative featuring an interactive panel discussion “Taking Sides: Should Local Government Be Neutral When Facilitating Public Planning Processes,” Friday, May 31, 12:30 to 1:45pm, Grand Ballroom D (bring your lunch!).

  • 1. Rick Hall, quoted elsewhere in this article, has observed that government’s reward system, focused primarily on a pension received at the end of one’s career, has few if any shorter term incentives, such as an annual bonus, for risk taking or breakthrough actions that lead to an optimal project outcome.
  • 2. The regulatory practice preceded the term Form-Based Codes, which was coined in the early 2000s. Previously they were called "Graphic" or "Typological" codes.