OCPG member, and videographer Aurelio Ocampo (Red Sky Productions – www.RedSkyPro.com), recently released this brilliant short video on the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette process. Aurelio clearly and beautifully documents the Charrette event that took place over a 5 day period in January of 2016. Enjoy!
While lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research President Obama said, “we will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, are standards different than strict guidelines? Can guidelines be rigorously enforced? In common usage, the terms “guidelines” and “standards” are frequently used interchangeably. However, within the development regulatory framework, a guideline is a helpful suggestion — you don’t have to follow it, but it is recommended. On the other hand, standards are legal and mandatory requirements.
Guidelines are explanatory and interpretive recommendations that encourage, not require, its use. Administered through appointed design review committee, commission, or advisory board, guidelines are created to fit a wide range of situations, but not all. Guidelines are typically attractive to cities that are not politically ready to enforce design standards. Guidelines are also preferred by designers who have little tolerance for any standard that tends to limit their creative expression. Good judgment is needed in deciding where and how to apply design guidelines.
The problem with design guidelines is that their application is skin deep and fails to breathe life and soul into a place. The diagram (to the right) illustrates the differences between conventional zoning, design guidelines, and form-based codes. The building block (top image) complies with typical zoning controls such as land use, FAR, and height. This block is not likely to create walkable urbanism. At best, design guidelines (middle image) can recommend articulation and openings to the building’s facade. In contrast, Form-Based Codes (bottom image) conceptualize a public realm by pulling together the individual elements: the diverse street types, variety of public and private open spaces, and contextual building types into a complete, cohesive, and memorable place.
A key barrier to protecting and creating distinctive places is lack of clear and precise place-based standards and a predictable review process. Design guidelines are difficult to apply consistently. They offer too much room for subjective interpretation. Design guidelines are difficult to enforce. A developer can legally refuse to comply putting at risk the larger collective investments of neighboring properties. Design Guidelines require oversight by discretionary review bodies, leading to a protracted and politicized planning process that can cost time and money.
Form-Based Codes (FBCs) are clear and precise standards that offers predictability. The FBCs are developed to create a specific place that the citizens desire. Both the vision and FBCs are developed with citizen input. The citizens have a higher comfort level with the end result the standards is likely to produce. City staff gets a streamlined and easy to administer review process. FBCs also create more choices, more opportunities and options for the property owner. Typically, developers borrow money to pursue pre-construction work. For developers, time is money. The biggest incentive that cities can offer is not money, but clear and predictable development standards. Most developers are willing to build to higher standards if the rules are clear and the process is predictable. By offering adjacent predictable environment FBCs reduce risks where banks in this credit-starved economy may be more willing to loan construction money.
Design Guidelines can be added to complement Form-Based standards to address certain discretionary items such as architectural style and historic preservation. The Denver Commons Form-Based Code, recognized with the 2009 Form-Based Codes Institute’s Driehaus Award, includes both standards and guidelines. The mandatory standards address the critical form related aspects that shape the public realm, while the guidelines provide further suggestive recommendations for enhancing the public realm experience by encouraging creativity in a flexible manner.
Louis Kahn called a street “a room by agreement.” The agreement, in the form of binding standards, is an implicit consent between the architects and their buildings to not ignore the street but to bring forth a collective etiquette and a minimum capability to pull together buildings to shape and enhance the public realm.
By itself, the guidelines simply fail to deliver great places. The terms “strict guidelines” fail to inspire compliance. The “abuse and misuse” continues with discretionary review and unpredictable outcome fueling NIMBY sentiments and discouraging economic development. Design guidelines work best only when they are paired with form-based codes.
A very narrow range of variety may at first appear to be very similar to no range of variety because the range is so small, but they are actually polar opposites: great variety is the opposite of no variety, even when (or especially when) the range is narrow. The narrow range is necessary, because it is only by editing things out that you make a place distinctive. Allow anything, and it could be anywhere. Narrow the range, and you have taken the first step towards creating a sense of place.
People judge the vitality of a place by the amount of variety. Create everything out of five standard models, and it will appear dead. Allow things to vary slightly from one building to the next, and the place starts to live. So the narrow range is necessary to define the character of a place, while the wide variety is necessary to make it live. Combine both, and you have a chance of creating what Christopher Alexander calls “the character without a name.” Or put another way, a narrow range without great variety creates mechanical objects; great variety without a narrow range creates disconnected randomness. Combine the two, and you have a chance of creating a living thing.
What’s the difference between these places shown in photos below? Why do millions from around the world visit the second, while the first has never had a single tourist, and never will? The architecture in both places has variety and the urbanism is similar on both streets. But look closely at the architectural variety: one place has precisely the variety within the narrow range that makes it live and be loved for centuries: the same idea created all the bay windows, all the eaves, all the gables, etc., but no two are identical. The other has five standard models that are built out of precisely the same details: the same eaves, the same siding, the same columns, the same foundations, etc. This is fake variety of the worst sort. If there is any doubt as to whether the customers understand this or not, look at the price of real estate in each place.
So how do we go about making living settings with an identity of place? The best method is a vernacular mechanism, in which place-making wisdom is held by everyone in a culture, rather than just the architects, and we trust the people again to make the sequential little decisions that created the “most-loved places.” We’re working toward that, but it won’t happen overnight.
The first step is to build by coding rather than building by designing. In other words, tell many people what to do and let them do it rather than designing it all yourself. One person cannot possibly think of as many variations as many people can, nor will one person consider it efficient to draw a thousand details, whereas a thousand people will naturally create the variety by simply doing what they each naturally do. As the code grows into a living tradition over time, the engines of the vernacular mechanism will rumble back to life.
Place Des Vosges
The best example I have ever seen of a coded place with great variety in a narrow range is the Place Des Vosges in Paris (see photo at the top of the article). As a matter of fact, it could be a Rosetta Stone of sorts, unlocking secrets of living variety for code-makers today. It is Paris’s oldest square, dating from the early years of the 17th Century, and is a bridge between the medieval city and its building methods and the later Renaissance city. The specific code or plan used to create the Place Des Vosges has apparently been lost over time. Popular sources have Baptiste du Cerceau as the likely designer, but not even that is totally certain. So the most useful question to ask isn’t “what did the lost code look like?” but rather “how can we accomplish the same thing?”
Look carefully at the photos below. They represent a few of the 39 houses ringing the Place. Because of the tight quarters inside the fence of the central square, these shots include only the upper bodies of the buildings, although the arcade exhibits a similar variety. At first glance through the desensitized lenses of our post-industrial architectural vision, these buildings might appear to be all the same. They all are four-bay brick structures of exactly the same width and eave line, with hipped & dormered slate roofs of the same slope surmounting a two-story body on a stone arcade. But somehow, it feels right… it feels alive. Nothing like the buildings we extrude today, like toothpaste out of a tube. What’s the difference?
Look closely at one element at a time, such as the outer circular-roofed dormers. Or the balconies and their railings. Or the window heads. Or the central dormers. Each varies slightly, from one house to the next, like leaves on a tree; no two are exactly the same. How did they do this?
It is hard to imagine that Baptiste du Cerceau (or whoever) scenographically designed each elevation with slightly different details. So if not, then how? The simplest rational explanation is that the builders of each pavilion were given verbal instructions, at most accompanied by very simple drawings laying out the important characteristics (eave lines, etc.) of the Place, leaving the minor details to the master builder of each of the houses.
Form-based codes of today can, in theory, do precisely this. But the built products of many current form-based codes either devolve into sterile sameness when the developer decides to “be efficient,” or devolve into chaos when lot-purchasers demand to do “my thing.” In other words, too little variety or too big a range. So what are techniques that might help create great variety in a narrow range with today’s most common building delivery methods?
Custom-designed houses on lots sold directly to homeowners are usually designed in too wide a range. Responsibility for this usually falls at the feet of the architects; few except dedicated new urbanist architects understand the value of coherence in a place. The most effective tool for developments marketed this way is a good pattern book, which is a set of instructions to designers intended to produce coherence. Any bona-fide New Urbanist pattern book is a huge step in the right direction for a custom-built development, but there is an intriguing new type of book that resolves many of the problematic issues of pattern books to date.
A more recent idea in pattern books is principle-based books (as opposed to the earlier style-based books) which code for the best architecture for the regional conditions, climate, and culture rather than for a collection of historical styles. Because they code for low, medium, and high settings of a single architecture rather than for many styles, they can drill down much deeper into the patterns of the architecture. And they explain the rationale for each pattern. Instead of the style-based books’ unspoken premise that “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you…” that produces compliance at best, the new books explain “we do this because…” allowing everyone to think again.
Developments that sell houses rather than lots were once in the minority of new urbanist developments, but today, developments as high-end as Alys Beach primarily sell houses rather than lots. Many house-selling developments (not including Alys Beach) tend to value efficiency, producing many iterations of a stock design, which produces a range that is too small.
One solution might be to do schematic drawings (stock-plan-level detail at most), then allow the small variations that occur between framing crews, trim crews, and masonry crews to naturally occur. The problem here is that the detail departures of today’s subcontractors cannot be trusted because they default to the horrible details that produced American suburbia. Here there is no substitute for direct education of the subcontractors. The core tool is a good set of drawings by an architect familiar with the principles of the New Urbanism, including “let the street have the ‘street appeal’ and allow the buildings to be calmer.” Beginning there, every framer, mason, and trim carpenter should have a copy of a good syntax code that explains the basic Do’s and Don’ts of traditional construction. Beyond that, builders workshops are extremely helpful because when construction workers see proper details built before their eyes, they realize that “I can do that,” and they never get it wrong again. Workers have literally come to builders’ workshops in the morning knowing they would be wood-butchers or brick-throwers the rest of their lives and have left at the end of the workshop realizing that they can be craftspeople, building details correctly in their hometown for the first time in a hundred years.
Partially- or wholly-manufactured buildings (panelized, modular, or manufactured) have their own set of challenges. Assembly lines exist to churn out large numbers of identical items without retooling, in order to get the price and time down. That objective seemed irresolvable with the idea of making each building slightly different. The best you could have is the “five standard options.” Yet it has been discovered recently, and quite by accident, that if you manufacture houses that seem just a bit too simple, but that are easily modifiable, people will make weekend projects out of customizing them to their own preferences. The modifications can be minor: adding capital trim to a square wood post, adding brackets to a porch beam, adding trim around a door, etc. The key is that the buildings are simple enough to encourage owner modification, and that they are built of materials that allow modification — meaning that they can be sawn into and nailed onto, then painted.
This article first appeared in New Urban News, later called Better Cities & Towns. For more on Steve Mouzon’s ideas about variety within a narrow range, watch this video from the City Building Exchange of 2016.
CBE 2015 Geoff Dyer
Click the link above to view.
The Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette was held in Oxnard between January 29th and February 2nd 2016. The Charrette was organized by the City of Oxnard, the Oxnard Community Planning Group (OCPG), and the Congress for the new Urbanism – California Chapter (CNU-CA). The Charrette, lead and created for Oxnard by the CNU-CA, was a resounding success – bringing together many stakeholders from the Oxnard community.
The Administrative Draft report is the culmination of 5 days of community input and dedicated and creative work by the more than 20 distinguished planning professionals of the CNU-CA.
Think about it. In the years prior, the term “placemaking” wasn’t even in common use by developers, designers and planners. Nor were terms such as form-based code, new urbanism, smart growth, transect,charrette, visual preference survey, traditional neighborhood development, transit-oriented development,sprawl repair/suburban retrofit, return on infrastructure investment analysis, tactical urbanism,WalkScore, complete streets, context sensitive thoroughfare design, LEED-ND, light imprint infrastructure,WalkUP, the original green, lean urbanism, the high cost of free parking, etc.
What has not changed over the last 25 years is that decisions regarding the growth and development of our communities are still being made by community leaders who might be experts in politics, but do not have an adequate understanding of placemaking principles.
Uninformed decisions can lead to bad results. You are familiar with the types of poor policy decisions that spring from this uninformed position— all road widenings are “improvements,” all density is bad, the public works department should treat an urban area exactly the same as a suburban area, etc. For those of us who are focused on improving our communities through competent urban design, this is a source of great frustration.
So here are my Top 10 Techniques for Educating Community Leaders about Placemaking. If you find yourself similarly frustrated, consider the following tools for those you believe are open to enhancing their knowledge (not everyone is).
1. Lunch. Lunch is rarely adequately leveraged because it is viewed as nothing more than… lunch. But your placemaking initiatives are essentially political issues, and if you want political support you need to build trust with leaders. Whether it is lunch, breakfast, dinner or drinks, start building the relationship and along the way view it as an opportunity to provide valuable information that will help the leader make more informed decisions. And budget for it.
2. Speaker Series. Establish a formal speaker series that brings compelling practitioners to town to speak about your community’s hot topic issues. If you need to gain a lot of ground in a short amount of time, try to put together a monthly series that lasts one year like Chad Emerson did in Montgomery, Alabama. The value in that program was not simply found in the speakers, but in the periodic gathering of community leaders where placemaking issues were the focus. Also consider finding partner organizations who can sponsor or co-sponsor stand-alone events at least once a year like the annual “Smart Growth Luncheon” series that the Independent publishing group has facilitated for the past eleven years in Lafayette, Louisiana.
3. Private Meetings with Speakers/Consultants. When a speaker or consultant comes to town, do not rely upon public events to connect with community leaders. Rather, schedule private meetings where frank discussions can occur without the fear of media coverage. Try to schedule these meetings over a meal if possible. When I conduct Smart Growth Workshops for a local association of the National Association of Realtors, the private meetings are oftentimes more important than the public workshops themselves.
4. Local or Regional Conferences. The Center for Planning Excellence has hosted the multi-day Louisiana Smart Growth Summit in Baton Rouge for the past ten years. It brings national speakers to town, and this recurring dialogue has dramatically improved the quality of projects in the region and state. The Institute for Quality Communities in Oklahoma is another regional organization that is making a differencewith this tool.
5. National Conferences. While joining a community leader at the annual Congress for New Urbanism, or the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference or the International Downtown Association Conferenceis an outstanding way to enhance the knowledge of that community leader, the truth is that it is very hard to do this because most community leaders are unwilling to take the three or four days away from their busy schedules to attend unless they are already fully on board with your placemaking initiatives.
6. CityBuilding Exchange. The CityBuilding Exchange is designed to overcome the objections to other national conferences by compacting the content into two days, limiting participation to 100 registrants, holding the event in a place filled with placemaking lessons (this March it will be in New Orleans), and focusing the content on the tools and ideas that community leaders need to understand from the nation’s leading practitioners.
7. Field Trips/Walking Tour. A field trip with community leaders to a place that can serve as a model for where you want to go (or where you do not want to go) as a community is a highly effective educational tool because it permits the conversation to get real. After attending a SmartCode Workshop in 2003, Texas Representative Mike Krusee facilitated a field trip of all of the mayors in the Austin region to visit Washington, D.C. so that those leaders could better understand how transit oriented development could improve the quality of life in the Austin region. In 2004 Austin approved its first commuter rail referendum. Note that the field trip also permitted the building of relationships between community leaders that can form the basis of working together in the future. Finally note that a walking tour can be incorporated into a field trip (or be a stand alone event in your community) where an expert in urban design can take community leaders on a walk down a street and talk about the urban design elements that are working as well as those that are not working. Once again, these trips bring to life the concepts in a way that gets beyond the platitudes on placemaking.
8. Personal Emails. National news articles, local news stories or the release of a new study on an important placemaking topic can serve as an opportunity for you to email a community leader with your perspective on an issue. Instead of simply forwarding the information to the community leader, make sure that you clearly and succinctly state how the information relates to making your community better.
9. Webinar/OnLine Video Presentations. Watching webinars (whether new or old) or online video presentations together with community leaders can be a difficult sale, but it is worthy of your consideration — especially if you set it up as a “lunch ’n learn” event or even have end of the day cocktails. This tends to work better with community leaders who are on city staff as opposed to elected politicians.
10. Books, Web Sites, Blogs and eNewsletters. Provide resources to community leaders so that they can learn more on their own. Your efforts should focus on two basic approaches. First, buy a book or series of books that are particularly relevant to your community, then loan or give those books to community leaders. In my community, I use Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City as the introductory primer on placemaking. Second, have a very, very, very short list of resources such as websites, blogs, a LinkedIn Group or e-newsletters that you can recommend as an ongoing source for information.
Quality Information, Patience and Persistence = Success. Regardless of the tools you choose to use, remember that the mission will not be accomplished in a day. But, if you exercise patience and persistence, you will improve your community by arming your community leaders with the information they need to make better decisions.
California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.
I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:
The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density.’ An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.
The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.
These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.
A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.
Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.
It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.
Writing about successful neighborhood planning, my friend and colleague Howard Blackson used the term “placeshaker” as a catch-all for the grass roots engagement efforts that empower, but don’t necessarily define, placemaking.
That got me thinking. Even though our firm is called PlaceMakers and our blog, PlaceShakers, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the distinction between the two. Is there a difference and, if so, is it a meaningful one?
I’ve decided there is. And defining the distinction is an important step in our shared pursuit of stronger, more endearing, more economically and environmentally viable places to live.
Bottom line, you need both.
First and foremost, placemaking is about making places so, by default, it favors certain roles and disciplines: planners, urban designers, code writers, economists, municipal leaders, architects, engineers, artists, engaged citizens, developers, and the construction trades.
That’s the nuts-and-bolts of it, but what is the consistent theme that ties them all together? I think it’s this: At least in north America, placemaking typically doesn’t exist in the absence of political will and all the assets (financial and otherwise), permissions, and community support that come with it.
By definition, placemaking’s a constructive, political effort, bringing change to the landscape. To make it happen, things need to be planned and agreed upon, then built or assembled, and that takes will — in the form of consensus, money and legal authority.
So, my partners and colleagues? Placemakers. City officials embarking on master planning or zoning reform? Placemakers. Artists changing the nature of space through installations or murals? Placemakers. Citizens in a roundtable meeting, exploring opportunities and spelling out how they might be better served by their city? Placemakers. See the photo at the top of this article for an illustration of that concept.
And the advocates, instigators, rabble rousers and the like? Well….
More often than not, political will doesn’t just exist. It emerges. It morphs and grows through some amorphous combination of shoe leather, influence, and persistence. And that means placemaking doesn’t just happen. In political terms, placemaking represents the ends, not the means. It’s the tangible payoff to seemingly endless political skirmishes.
And the way to get there? Placeshaking.
Every time someone puts a “Slow Down” sign in their yard, or throws down some sod and lawn chairs in a city parking space, or rallies to give a downtrodden block a temporary facelift, they’re placeshaking.
Every time a group of neighbors starts hounding their commissioner to improve a park, or cyclists show up en masse at a commission meeting to validate the scope of their support, or a college student circulates an idea on how to leverage abandoned rail corridors for transit, recreation and green space, they’re placeshaking.
Placeshaking is about connecting with networks of shared interest and rattling cages. It’s about phone calls and rallies and blog conversations and demonstration projects. It’s about all the things that need to be done, just so we can begin the hard work of placemaking.
For all the cool stuff coming out of the Tactical Urbanism movement, it tends (at least in our estimation) to appeal primarily to the young. How can we expand the idea to be appealing to more types of people?
Maybe placeshaking is it. Maybe placeshaking is the umbrella under which Tactical Urbanists, Build-a-Better-Blockers, neighborhood activists, cyclists, pedestrian rights advocates, carbon reducers, yarn-bombers, community gardeners, aging-in-placers, and countless others looking to effect meaningful change through concentrated action, can find a sense of shared purpose.
I don’t know, as movements and monikers are a tricky thing to pin down. But I think the distinction between placemaker and placeshaker is coming clear, as is the relevance and role of each. Some may find themselves in one camp, some in the other, and some bouncing back and forth, wearing different hats at different times.
Two sides of the same coin, united in a joint quest for a better place to call home.
What about you? Where do you plug in? And what skill set is presently most needed where you live?
Note: This article was written as part of the Project for Lean Urbanism and edited for Public Square.
Over the past decade, even as there has been a growing fascination with the benefits of charrettes as a tool for planning and public engagement, there has been a constant complaint that charrettes are too expensive. This complaint has become more common and more urgent in recent years, with shrinking budgets and tightening competition among firms for a smaller pool of available work.
The first step in Leaning the charrette process is a matter of shifting the scope and focus of the projects themselves to which the charrette is being applied, and re-configuring the roles played by consultants, planning staff, appointed and elected officials, and citizens. In the context of the Lean Urbanism, the appropriate version of the charrette would indeed be less expensive, but also more readily deployed as a tactical response in a pragmatic setting. We are looking for processes that leverage community capabilities, that can be mobilized with minimal expense, that can be mobilized quickly in timely response to circumstances, and that are oriented to mobilizing social capital in order to get the most impact on the quality of the urbanism with the least investment of either financial or political capital.
A Leaner charrette would be more focused on a specific piece of an incremental process, would be facilitated by a smaller team less focused on the final documentation and more on building community relationships, and would leverage the available social capital more consistently with respect to shared learning, consensus building, and ultimately practical action.
There are five key dimensions of the charrette process that we would want to maintain in the context of a Lean charrette.
1. Multi-disciplinary and integrative approach. Specialized expertise is often useful or even necessary, but can also be an obstacle to arriving at an optimal response to more complex planning and design projects.
2. The benefits of efficiency and continuity associated with the compressed time frame. The scheduling of charrette-related activities should sustain a sense of engagement in a process that moves from big ideas to practical action, that addresses problems systematically but pragmatically, and that respects the time and contributions of all participants. When the process is spread out over a longer period, there is a real danger of losing that sense of continuity and purpose as stakeholders are engaged.
3. Transparency in decision making. Participants in a charrette process have the opportunity to see (and understand) the reasons behind choices that comprise any particular scheme, any particular solution.
4. Constructing a common narrative. The story of a process that is purposeful and continuous allows clear understanding of the transition from values to practical action/the motivations of actors, through a pattern of listening and responding.
5. The hybrid nature of the forum. The charrette process is not dismissive of stakeholders’ concerns or their local knowledge, but gives local knowledge standing in relation to the general knowledge of experts. Considerations that might not otherwise be heard are given the opportunity to make a difference. Professional expertise has tendency to screen information through specialized knowledge— it is, as Kenneth Burke once observed, a way seeing that is also a way of not seeing. Both the multidisciplinary and the hybrid nature of the forum offered by the charrette opens up the process in ways that both allows for more complex and robust solutions, and provides a basis for building consensus.
One way to begin breaking out the functions typically involved in a charrette is to distinguish between the design process and the public engagement process. First, it is a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach that produces complex responses to complex planning challenges. Second, it is about the shared learning necessary to build consensus around those complex responses. Finally, there is the focus on the ability to generate a basis for post-charrette action.
Components of a Lean charrette process
The following is an example of a way the process might be organized in order to be both relatively inexpensive and more capable of being precisely tailored for a Lean Urbanism project.
Step 1: Collaborative project start-up. It is all too often the case that the client and consultant team involved in a charrette tend to feel their way into a charrette through a process of negotiation that does not always involve clear communication. Part of the National Charrette Institute (NCI) approach involves an initial process of team building and project definition that outlines the scope and parameters of the project, enabling project partners to get very clear about the purpose and limits of their collaboration. This approach to project start-up would involve a small team facilitating a process that enables project partners and key stakeholders to establish clear framework for the project. Much of the focus would be on clarifying the precise scope of the project, identifying the resources necessary for the design and planning process (base data, expertise), and establishing the relationship between the design process and stakeholder engagement.
In the case of preparing for a Lean charrette, the most important aspect of this would be setting in motion a process that builds social connections, establishes shared knowledge, and leverages existing community assets to build the foundations for clear decisions and precisely targeted, strategically meaningful action. An example of this kind of process is the Lean Scan, developed by Hank Dittmar and the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building. The Lean Scan “is a new tool for finding latent opportunities in a town, a district or a corridor and leveraging under-used assets in a way that unlocks synergies between built, financial, social and natural resources.” The collaborative project start-up would set in motion this kind of exploration of “latent opportunities” and unrealized capabilities in the community, preparing the ground not just for planning but for a robust implementation strategy.
Step 2: Practical vision workshop. Many times, what people call “charrettes” are essentially just “visioning” exercises. What distinguishes a charrette process, however, is that it moves from the big ideas that might be articulated during such a workshop to the specifics of design and planning proposals. The purpose of this workshop is to establish those common understandings that might enable a community to act outside usual regulatory channels. Often resistance to change is manifested in defense of procedural and technical restrictions — not because they matter in themselves to the defenders, but because they are points of leverage that allow activists to obstruct a project. In a community of sophisticated activists, it can be very hard to move efficiently past bureaucratic regulation for this reason. A vision workshop could be focused, in particular, on establishing the principles and goals of immediate practical action. In a community that is interested in Lean Urbanism, such a workshop might provide a locally grounded manifesto that establishes the framework for a series of Lean projects. This visioning might well be coupled with something like a Tactical Urbanism workshop.
Step 2a: Discovery process. Charrette team leaders facilitate a process that enables stakeholders to participate in gathering relevant information, organizing a process of shared learning, preparing for the design process to come. This process needs to be geared to the specific conditions and assets of a community, but the key is that it is primarily an exercise in community organizing, as well as information gathering. Whereas it might simply be a matter of carrying out some pre-charrette interviews with stakeholders, it would have the greatest impact to the extent that it involves mobilizing social capital, engaging both allies and potential opponents in building the foundation of local knowledge to feed into the design process. This could either be part of the vision workshop or an immediate follow-up to it, as the circumstances might require.
Step 3: Design charrette. Once the foundational conditions have been established by the prior efforts, it is then possible to stage a 3 to 4 day process, involving a small multidisciplinary team working in collaboration with stakeholder representatives who have been prepared for this collaboration by the previous process. The charrette could focus on design and spend less time on the vision and learning process that takes place in conventional charrettes. The precise scope of design, principles, constraints, aspirations would be part of the previously established consensus, making it possible for a smaller multidisciplinary team to work through the iterative process of design in collaboration with organized representation of stakeholder interests. Because much of the shared learning, relationship building, and consensus building would be systematically organized ahead of time, the design charrette can be more focused on the design work, building on the foundations of pre-established understanding.
With an understanding of what it is about the charrette process that gives it the ability both to produce robust, adaptive and integrated solutions to complex problems, and to build support for those solutions, it becomes possible to distribute the functions of the charrette throughout a process that requires less concentrated application of financial resources (although more extensive application of community capacities that can be identified and mobilized through this process). The result is that one can do more with less in the way of financial resources. If one calculates a budget with respect to the number of days and team members required to accomplish the work, it is arguably possible to accomplish the planning and design pieces of the project for a half to a third of the budget that might be required for a fully staffed seven-day charrette. Perhaps most importantly, however, the outcomes of the charrette process would be more consistently oriented to active intervention rather than simply producing a plan or a report.
With particular regard to Lean Urbanism, there are two most significant considerations. First, it is a matter of getting the right people in the room as a way to cut through the structural obstacles set up by bureaucracy and the division of labor. The “right people” (in this case) includes the key decision makers but also key stakeholders who can share ownership of the initiative. To move efficiently, however, requires a certain amount of pre-established agreement with respect to values, goals, and some important limits to be respected. For example, a previous set of discussions and workshops might have established and branded a Lean project, linking it to a diverse set of interest and allies. Whatever the specific project might be at hand, it can be conceived as a manifestation of that initiative and thereby benefit from what is hopefully a diverse collection of allies.
Second, it is a matter of focusing the discussion with respect to scale, time frame, and, in some cases, reversibility. The charrette works because it allows for participation in a detailed “enquiry by design” (to borrow the phrase from the Prince’s Foundation). Tactical Urbanism works because it functions effectively as a kind of inquiry by practice. A Lean charrette would be a way to mobilize strategically meaningful interventions that might have some of that tactical spirit, but be aimed at a cumulative and sustainable outcome, of a sort that might require somewhat more systematic application of expertise.
Since 1981, approximately 600 form-based codes (FBCs) have been prepared for communities across the US, and 362 of them have been adopted. Most of the adoptions have taken place in the past 10 years. But as exciting as that may be, what’s more exciting is that these numbers are miniscule when you think about how many communities exist in the US. If this reform of conventional zoning is increasingly gaining acceptance and being applied to larger areas, why are there still so many misconceptions?
Despite a wide variety of improvements in how form-based codes are strategized, prepared, and used, many of the planners, planning commissioners, elected officials, members of the public, and code practitioners I meet continue to harbor misconceptions or misunderstandings about these codes. Here are the ones I encounter most:
FBC dictates architecture. Some of these codes do prescribe details about architecture, but most do not. Perhaps because many of the early codes were for greenfield projects where strong architectural direction was needed or desired, the perception is that a FBC always regulates architecture. Yet the majority of codes I’ve prepared and reviewed (30 authored or co-authored, 10 peer-reviewed, 9 U.S. states, 2 foreign countries) do not regulate architecture. I’ve prepared codes where regulation of architecture (style) was important for a historic area, but those requirements did not apply anywhere else. The “form” in form-based codes may mean architecture, but not necessarily. Form can refer to physical character at many different scales—the scale of a region, community, neighborhood, corridor, block, or building.
FBC must be applied citywide. To my knowledge, Miami, and Denver are the only US cities that have applied form-based coding to all parcels within their boundaries. In general, FBCs are applied in two ways: to a site to implement a development project or to several areas as part of a zoning code amendment or update. This second category sometimes involves reconfiguration of the zoning code to retain a set of conventional zones for “automobile-oriented suburban” patterns while adding form-based zones for “walkable-urban” patterns. This is called a hybrid code because it merges the conventional zoning and form-based zoning provisions under one cover, in one set of procedures.
FBC is a template that you have to make your community conform to. Untrue. Conventional zoning, with its focus on separation of uses and its prohibition of ostensibly undesirable activities, often conflicted with the very places it was intended to protect. Perhaps what some refer to negatively as a form-based code’s “template” is the kit of parts that repeats from one community to another—the streets, civic spaces, buildings, frontages, signage, and so forth. But a form-based code is guided by how each of those components looks and feels in a particular community. The FBC responds to your community’s character.
FBC is too expensive. FBCs require more effort than conventional zoning—but then, conventional zoning doesn’t ask as many questions. FBCs reveal and thoroughly address topics that conventional zoning doesn’t even attempt. Some communities augment conventional zoning with design guidelines; those guidelines aren’t always included in the cost comparison, and in my experience they don’t fully resolve the issues. A FBC has the virtue of ensuring that your policy work will directly inform the zoning standards. Further, the the upfront cost of properly writing a FBC pales in comparison to the cumulative cost of policy plans that don’t really say anything, zoning changes that require the applicant to point out reality, hearings, and litigation over projects.
FBC is only for historic districts. FBCs can be applied to all kinds of places. Granted, they are uniquely capable of fully addressing the needs of a historic district because of their ability to “see and calibrate” all of the components. Such a FBC works with not instead of local historic procedures and state requirements. This is in contrast to conventional zoning’s focus on process and lack of correspondence with the physical environment it is regulating. While a FBC can be precise enough to regulate a very detailed and complex historic context, that same system can be fitted with fewer dials for other areas.
FBC isn’t zoning and doesn’t address land use. If your FBC doesn’t directly address allowed land uses or clearly rely on other land use regulations, it is an incomplete FBC. Some early FBCs were prepared as CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) because of particular development objectives, and some well-intended early FBCs oversimplified use restrictions. Since then, FBCs have augmented or fully replaced existing zoning, including land use requirements.
FBC results in “by-right” approval and eliminates “helpful thinking by staff.” With so much emphasis on how FBCs simplify the process, it’s understandable that this perception has caused concern. Throughout the FBC process, focus is placed on delegating the various approvals to the approval authority at the lowest level practical. I’ve seen few codes that make everything “by right” over the counter. The choice of how much process each permit requires is up to each community. Through a careful FBC process, staff knowledge and experience does go into the code content through shaping or informing actual standards and procedures.
FBC results in “high-density residential.” FBC does not mandate high-density residential.” Instead, it identifies housing of all types—from single-family houses to quadplexes, courtyards, rowhouses, and lofts over retail—and explains their performance characteristics. Density is one of many such characteristics. Through the FBC process, communities receive more information and decide which kinds of buildings they want and where. FBCs enable higher density housing—where it is desired by the community—to fit into the larger context of the community’s vision.
FBC requires mixed-use in every building regardless of context or viability. Conventional zoning has applied mile upon redundant mile of commercial zoning, resulting in an oversupply of such land and many marginal or vacant sites. By contrast, FBCs identify a palette of mixed-use centers to punctuate corridors and concentrate services within walking distance of residents and for those arriving by other transportation modes. FBCs identify the components; it’s up to the community to choose which components fit best and are most viable in each context.
FBC can’t work with design guidelines, and complicates staff review of projects. Because conventional zoning doesn’t ask a lot of questions, most planners have had to learn what they know about design on the job, and need design guidelines to fill in the gaps left open by the zoning. That’s how I learned. A well-prepared FBC doesn’t need design guidelines because it explicitly addresses the variety of issues through clear illustrations, language, and numerous examples. However, we are not allergic to design guidelines; the key is to make sure that the guidelines clarify what is too complex, variable, or discretionary to state in legally binding standards.
I’m enthusiastic about FBC and regard it as a far better tool than conventional zoning for walkable urban places. However, it’s still zoning, and it needs people to set its priorities and parameters. It needs people to review plans and compare them with its regulations. Having a FBC will require internal adjustments by the planning department and other key departments, such as Public Works.
Form-based coding began in response to the aspirations of a few visionary architects and developers who wanted to build genuine, lasting places, based on the patterns of great local communities. Unresponsive zoning regulations often erected insurmountable barriers to these proposals and made proposals for sprawl the path of least resistance.
From its outset 35 years ago, form-based coding exposed the inabilities of conventional zoning to efficiently address the needs of today’s communities. Today, form-based coding is a necessary zoning reform—one of several important tools that communities need to position themselves as serious candidates for reinvestment.
Many residents express concern over the kind of growth they are experiencing, but few realize that this growth has not occurred in a vacuum. Transportation policies, lending practices, funding priorities, and consumer preferences have all had a profound impact on the shape of our communities. Even more significant, however, are local government zoning and development regulations, which often mandate the very development patterns that many lament, while making anything else illegal.
In order to change the physical design of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, and realize the visions of diverse community-based plans, zoning and development regulations (collectively known as “codes”) must change. However, the ability to implement a new design plan is not the only reason to change existing codes. For one thing, current regulations are often the result of many years of individual text amendments and ordinances, and internal inconsistencies are common in amended regulations. In some communities, codes are even unwritten, but have been applied for so long that nobody questions whether or not they are still valid.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to updating codes. Different communities have different visions, staffing resources, and regulatory priorities. Additionally, different parts of the existing code may work perfectly fine, while others are grossly inadequate. After careful review, one community may benefit from creating minor amendments to existing codes, while others may wish to throw the whole thing out and start from scratch. Not surprisingly, most coding projects fall somewhere in between these two options.
The work begins by reviewing the existing codes and pinpointing how well they do or do not align with the master plan and other public policies. The ability of the governmental staff to administer the codes is always key to this phase. The process leads to a determination of where changes are needed and what they should entail. Typically, these include expanding permitted housing types and uses, addressing the relationship between building facades and the public realm, revising density standards, incorporating streetscape requirements, modernizing parking requirements and much more. The next step is to work closely with local stakeholders to actually write and adopt the necessary code changes.
Once a new code is adopted, some communities transform gradually, while others have dramatic opportunities to redefine themselves. This is the case with the City of Doraville, Georgia—a suburb of Atlanta—where, for decades, much of the commercial and residential development supported the city’s General Motors assembly plant. When the plant was slated to close, city leaders saw the opportunity to create a master plan for a model mixed-use area centered on the city’s public transit station. The plan is designed to improve connections and encourage pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development (see regulating plan and rendering, below).
Doraville’s traditional code primarily supported single-use development and had to be rewritten to allow increased density to support a vibrant community center and ensure multiple transportation options. The new code has been dubbed, “The Livable Community Code,” and it is already attracting developers eager to participate in Doraville’s renaissance.
It doesn’t always take a major event like Doraville experienced to galvanize a community to envision and bring about positive change. Woodstock, Georgia—a more distant Atlanta suburb—is a great example. The railroad town was chartered in 1897, but in recent decades, the surrounding strip shopping centers and malls drew business away from Main Street. By the 1990s, it looked like a town that time had passed by.
After studying what had been accomplished in other communities, city leadership brought in a team to recommend how to best revive the town center without losing its history and character. Numerous community meetings were held to solicit input, and from there, a vision was created using the Atlanta Regional Commission’s LCI (Livable Centers Initiative) program.
Because of the LCI, developers were attracted to the city, and ultimately a team of commercial, retail and residential specialists worked together to shape the town. It quickly became apparent that the new vision could not become a reality under the city’s existing codes, so our firm, TSW, wrote new zoning codes to allow and encourage the higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned by the town’s leadership and citizens. Woodstock’s elected officials also worked with downtown churches to loosen the existing alcohol restrictions to make the town more appealing to restaurants.
The 32-acre area was officially named Woodstock Downtown. Historic buildings were renovated into shops and restaurants and a new five-story residential building with retail on the ground floor was designed to blend into its historic surroundings (see photo at top of article). New homes of various sizes now surround the downtown area. And, throughout the process, the vision and redevelopment stayed true to Woodstock’s roots as a historic railroad town.
These are but two communities where newly-adopted codes have already started to lay the foundation for a better tomorrow. And, best of all, the new codes not only allow the cities and towns to move forward with today’s vision, but they have paved the way for the communities to grow organically over time to meet the future needs of the new generations who will one day live, work and play there.
Will Calle Ocho become a “complete street”? Or remain a highway?
Miami’s 8th Street, also called Calle Ocho, is flanked by stout, boxy buildings on either side: gas stations, pawn shops, ACE hardware stores, supermarkets, and the occasional Cuban bakery with cafecito, croquetas, and pastelitos. The street is home to some significant cultural landmarks—jazz bars like Hoy Como Ayer and Ball and Chain, for example, and Versailles, everyone’s favorite Cuban restaurant. Around 15th Avenue, tourists pour out of buses and peer into Domino Park, hoping to catch elder Cuban exiles cursing out opponents over a game. Nearby stands the beautiful art deco Tower Theater, where Cuban immigrants would go to get their fix of American films back in the day.
While this last stretch has seen some improvements recently, 8th Street as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. The throughway is, essentially, a one-way, three-lane highway connecting Downtown’s Brickell neighborhood to the Western suburbs. It has pinched, dilapidated sidewalks. And crossing the road, locals say, is like playing Frogger.
“It’s not elevated, it’s not sunk; it’s a scar,” says Juan Mullerat, who is a resident of Little Havana and director at Plusurbia, a Miami-based urban design and architecture firm. “It allows for cars to move at high speed through a historic neighborhood.”
But now, the Florida Department of Transportation is kicking off a new study into the revitalization of 8th Street and its westbound sister, 7th Street. “As the study progresses, the vision for the corridor will begin to take shape with the input we receive from the public,” Ivette Ruiz-Paz, the media outreach specialist for FDoT told CityLab via email.
But local urbanists, developers, investors, city officials, and even city Mayor Tomás Regalado aren’t quite sure that FDoT’s vision is in concert with their own. “There will be a before and after for this project,” Mullerat says. “Question is, what is the after? Is it a ‘complete street’? Or does it remain a highway?”
Turning Calle Ocho back to a “main street”
Before launching into the project development and environmental study it’s doing now, FDoT completed a planning study of the corridor from Brickell Avenue in the East to 27th Avenue in the West (the area in the map above). From the report’s summary:
This part of the city has seen significant growth in the last decade, especially within the Brickell area, where current and future major developments are expected to impact the study corridor with increased travel demand.
To be fair, FDoT’s report mentions that the purpose is to create “a pedestrian-friendly corridor with improved safety, overall traffic operations, and mobility for transit, bicycle, pedestrian, and automobile users.” But the focus on improving access to the Brickell area has raised concerns that the rest of the street—especially the parts that run through Little Havana—will be an afterthought.
“What I hope is that the DOT can see Calle Ocho not just as a facilitator for traffic but as a beautiful boulevard,” Mayor Regalado told the Miami Herald.
To represent the interests of their neighborhood, Mullerat and his colleagues at Plusurbia have created an alternative plan for the street. The aim of this pro bono project is to present a vision of Calle Ocho as a “main street,” just like it was before it was refashioned into a high-speed vehicular conduit in the 1950s (pictured above, left).
For one, that means turning the street back to two-way. They also propose narrowing driving lanes, designating lanes for public transportation and bikes, and adding curb extensions or “bulb-outs.” Plusurbia also imagines shady trees and curbside seating lining the street.
Carlos Fausto Miranda, a real-estate broker and local property owner in Little Havana, has long been a proponent of mixed-use, mixed-income, medium-density urban development. Miranda says he’s on board with the suggestions in the plan, which “undeniably, unquestionably fits into the movement of new urbanism.”
He and other urbanists, however, differ on some of the finer details. Miranda, for example, would like 7th and 8th Streets to be considered together. That way, 7th street could be the main commuting throughway with bike and transit lanes, and 8th could have roomy sidewalks “for people to meet and interact.”
Andrew Frey, the executive director of the urban planning nonprofit Townhouse Center, has been fighting to make the city more walkable for a long time. He also likes Plusurbia’s general idea, but feels that bike lanes and parallel parking don’t mix. His other preference would be for the trees and street furniture to be along the curb, so that sidewalk space is clear for walking.
Generally, there’s consensus that Plusurbia’s plan, and the accompanying petition, is an invitation for everyone to participate in a much-needed conversation about the street. “I’m glad Plusurbia and other stakeholders are trying to insert neighborhood voices” into the planning process, Frey says via email. These voices aren’t often audible, he says. And when they are, they’re not always heeded.
The spillover benefits of the plan
Bill Fuller’s grandparents lived in the Shenandoah neighborhood, which isn’t far from where his office in Little Havana is now. Fuller has been investing in the neighborhood since 2001, and taken on a number of restoration and civic-engagement projects there. He recently restored and reopened Ball and Chain, for example, and organizes the Viernes Culturales art festival, which draws both tourists and locals to the neighborhood.
Fuller represents the new generation of Cuban immigrants trying to reclaim a neighborhood that, for many reasons, has been neglected over time. He wants to make sure that Little Havana reflects the past as well as the present of Miami’s Cuban-American, pan-Latin culture: It must be authentic and modern, but not tacky or cookie-cutter. “We’re trying not to create an Epcot version of Cuba,” Fuller says.
But Calle Ocho, in its current form, has been a persistent impediment to achieving that vision. Because it has been developed as a car-reliant throughway, it attracts car-oriented businesses with expansive parking. The businesses that aren’t drive-through don’t really get foot traffic. And because the street is an eastbound one-way, prospective patrons zip by in a hurry to get to work during the morning rush hour instead of stopping. On their return commute, they take 7th Street, and miss these businesses altogether.
If a version of PlusUrbia’s two-way, pedestrian-friendly plan were implemented, commerce in that corridor could really thrive, supporters say. Locals and visitors alike could stroll down the street, window-shop at small businesses, and experience the work of local artists and artisans. The makeover would usher in a better quality of life for the locals and allow the street to become a real destination for tourists.
“The principal street is the draw, [but] it’s going to have a spillover effect for the neighborhood,” Francis Suarez, City Commissioner of District 4 (which includes the area south of Calle Ocho) tells CityLab. And given that Little Havana is the densest neighborhood in the city—and an incredibly diverse one—the per-capita impact of the revitalization would be immense
The push to revitalize Calle Ocho comes as Little Havana experiences changes that locals believe threaten its character. The National Historical Preservation Trust put the area on its list of 11 most endangered sites in 2015 because of its dilapidated architecture. As housing prices elsewhere in the city skyrocket, Little Havana’s aging housing stock makes its residents vulnerable to displacement. Plusurbia’s plan, however, would only foster and conserve economic and cultural diversity, the firm says.
“Everyone benefits by a blend of people,” Steve Wright, president of marketing communications at Plusurbia, tells CityLab via email. “No one benefits from monoculture.”
A small step for Calle Ocho, a giant leap for Miami?
The arguments for a pedestrian-friendly street that Plusurbia is putting forth aren’t new, but they’re certainly novel to Miami, which has made forays intowalkability and high-density, mixed-use development relatively recently. The question now is, will the Calle Ocho redesign take the city forward or backward with respect to urban design? And if it is forward, would that urge city and state officials to consider such updates to other, less visible neighborhoods?
The answers to those questions are coming, but one thing’s for sure: Calle Ocho is long overdue for a change.
“I often use the analogy of neighborhoods in the city being like siblings in a family. You love them all, but none of them are the same,” Mullerat says. “Little Havana is one of the oldest children in the family, who was neglected for a long time. And now it needs to become something more.”
A recently published report by the National Association of City Transportation Officials includes insights from dozens of officials and practitioners across North America.
The Loop Link design project in Chicago. (Nate Roseberry, courtesy of NACTO)
Not all urban planners or city governments agree on what kind of street designs are best. But one thing remains clear: Cities who want to plan for the future must prioritize transit accessibility.
To aid this process, the National Association of City Transportation Officials has devised a Transit Street Design Guide, which contains insights from 18 different transit agencies, as well as officials and practitioners in 45 North American cities.
The guide functions as a one-stop shop for designers, city planners, and all those interested in improving the safety and efficiency of their streets. While it serves as more of a toolbox than a prescriptive rule book, here are some of the main takeaways:
Separate transit from standard traffic. Both downtown streets and major corridors have the challenge of accommodating many different modes of transportation. One way to improve safety and efficiency in these high-density areas is to ensure that public transit remains separate from standard traffic. “Transit is often faced with automobile congestion at exactly the time when it needs to be running at the highest frequency and in the most reliable way,” says Matthew Roe, the director of NACTO’s Designing Cities Initiative. “By giving buses and trains their own space on the street, we can make transit work extremely well at exactly the times when people need it the most.”
To help accomplish this, the guide recommends designating certain lanes as “transit only.” According to Roe, the Bronx’s Webster Avenue, along with many streets in San Francisco, are fitting examples of transit-only lanes that have improved both safety and travel times.
In those areas where buses and trams already share the street with cars, Roe says there are “a number of other treatments” that can reduce interactions between cars and transit, including boarding islands and in-lane stops. In Seattle, one-lane streets in each direction even allow bicycles to travel behind bus stops, thereby improving bus travel times.
Don’t forget about pedestrians. “All across the United States and the world, there are bus systems that run on streets that were not designed to be walkable,” Roe tells CityLab. “It’s critical that, as we strive to increase transit ridership, we examine how these major streets work for pedestrians.” One way to accomplish this, according to the guide, is to increase the number of pedestrian crossings at intersections and shorten the distance between crossings. Along edgefront streets (those that run along waterfronts, parks, or campuses), for instance, there is little to no space for vehicles to cross on one side. This presents an opportunity to install extended transit lanes that separate pedestrians from car traffic, as shown in the image below.
Maximize speed and efficiency. By allowing transit vehicles to pull up within two inches of the platform or side of the street, transit curbs have a huge impact on speed and efficiency. These curbs should be clearly marked, over six inches high, and can be either concave or rectangular (the design standard), according to the guide. If possible, they should also be tapered at the point of entry and exit to minimize boarding time. As an alternative, the guide suggests installing a rubber rail or plastic bumper to allow buses to hug the curb.
Another important measure for improving efficiency is to include contraflow transit lanes in a city’s design plans. These lanes are designed for streets with one-way traffic, and are typically reserved for bicycles or buses. According to the guide, they allow for shorter travel times by reducing encounters with nearby traffic. A 1999 study from San Francisco’s Department of Parking and Traffic confirms these findings by looking at the success of the first contraflow bus lane in downtown San Francisco. After examining four intersections at various times of day for an entire month, the authors found that buses along this lane saved up to 8 minutes in travel time after the lane was installed.
Prioritize design over the mode of transit. Despite controversies surrounding recently built streetcar systems, the guide focuses on creating the right designs rather than installing the right form of transit. “Whether it’s a bus or a streetcar or full-scale light rail, what really matters is that transit gets the time and space it needs,” says Roe, noting that the St. Charles Streetcar—the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar—is an essential part of the New Orleans transit network, and still boasts a hefty ridership.
Don’t just design for downtown. “For a long time, a lot of cities have had transit networks that were designed primarily to give downtown office workers an alternative way to get to work besides taking a car,” Roe says. “[But] when you look at cities like Houston that have redone their bus network to serve all the neighborhoods in the city, sometimes that means doing a grid rather than a hub-and-spoke model focused on downtown. When you do that kind of work and really examine where people are going, you find really large increases in ridership.”
In addition to downtown areas, neighborhood streets face their own set of obstacles. While these streets only suffer from moderate pedestrian or bicycle traffic, their limited width and capacity make it difficult to accommodate a community’s public transit needs. To address this, the guide recommends improving transit stops to include designated spaces for pick-up and drop-off, and installing “boarding bulbs”—or sidewalk extensions—so that buses can stay in their traffic lane without having to pull up to the curb. The guide also highlights the need for reasonably-priced curbside parking.
Make streets accessible for all. Already, the U.S. Access Board outlines various requirements for making streets accessible for wheelchair users. And yet Roe still finds that “there has been a significant gap in detailed guidance on how to make bus boarding wheelchair accessible in new configurations of streets.” In addition to the basic standards developed by the Access Board, the guide outlines its own recommendations for designers and city planners.
“One of the critical things about accessibility is that there a lots of ways to make a bus stop or a rail stop accessible,” Roe says. “When you strive for universal design and make a stop inherently accessible through its design, you can speed up the boarding process for everybody.” A number of cities currently rely on ramps or low-floor or kneeling buses instead of outmoded lifts to provide wheelchair access. These small changes can make all the difference when it comes to speeding up the boarding process.
Emphasize sustainability. Green transitways, or large green areas along or between bus or rail tracks, are a cost-effective way to make an environmental impact, according to the guide. In addition to improving the aesthetics of a neighborhood, these planted areas also help to manage stormwater. One promising example is the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project, which created an “eco-track” to collect stormwater runoff and prevent it from entering the sewer system. Small initiatives like this can make a huge difference for cities today and well into the future.
Models matter. Let’s design more streets like the streets we already love.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when you’re a traffic engineer, it seems, everything looks like a highway.
If traffic engineers did not control the design of so many of our public spaces, this might not be a problem. But they do—and that’s especially true here in the U.S. Even when traffic engineers have the best intentions, too many simply lack the tools to make successful places. In the typical American city, asking a traffic engineer to design a walkable street is like asking a hammer to insert a screw.
In my last article for CityLab, 18 months ago, I wrote about over-wide driving lanes, and how they encourage speeding and make our streets more deadly. That piece, others like it, and the labors of many have helped to bring about a change in the way that U.S. engineers think about lane widths. While the war is by no means won, many transportation departments are beginning to accept narrower standards. The profession had shown itself capable of reform.
This gives me hope, and prompts me to take the conversation to a higher level. What is the next urgent battle to be fought in the name of more walkable, livable streets and communities? So many things come to mind: the value of trees, the need for parallel parking to protect the sidewalk, the epidemic of unnecessary traffic signals, the mandate for truly buffered bike lanes. . . the list goes on. But what if there were one category that managed to include all the others?
I believe there is, and it goes like this: models matter.
In other words, pay attention to precedent. So, you’re designing a street? Great! What street do you want it to be like? Does it look like that street? Not really? Why not? Where is there a street like the one you just drew? Is it any good?
Sounds obvious enough, right? Then why does it seem to happen so rarely? Are plans that hard to read? Why is it that engineers, planners, citizens, and the media all regularly don’t ask these questions?
Case in point: consider this recent example from Lowell, Massachusetts, a city with a great history of urban wisdom. Thanks to several decades of pro-planning public servants and a great non-profit called The Lowell Plan, the city has reinvented itself as a smaller, less expensive Boston, a place that now attracts residents and businesses to its great urbanism, focus on higher education, and commitment to historic preservation and the arts. Its once-abandoned downtown mills are now full of middle-class lofts, and a third wave of redevelopment is well underway.
Lowell is a city I know intimately, having lived there for some time in 2010 as I completed an “evolution plan” for the downtown. That plan is now being implemented and has, among other things, reverted a confusing and speedy network of one-way streets back to calmer two-way traffic. Lowell is a city that gets things done.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across an article earlier this month about the city’s plans for its southern gateway, the Lord Overpass. This site is particularly important to Lowell, being an area of major redevelopment as well as the key link from the train station (at right in the image below) to downtown (beyond the canal to the left). This collection of streets—a squared traffic circle floating above a highway—is due for reconstruction, and the city came up with the smart idea of putting the depressed highway back up at grade to create more of an urban boulevard condition.
At the level of intention, this seemed a wise plan. It is hard to find a pleasant urban place with two levels of streets, unless the lower level is completely hidden, and it was beyond the budget here to fully cap the highway. There are many good examples of surface boulevards that handle as much traffic as this section of road does, and replacing highways with boulevards is something that U.S. cities know how to do at this point. It turned out that, for the $15 million price tag of rebuilding the bridges, the city could just as easily truck in enough dirt to fill the hole. So far, so good.
But then came the plan, and my reason for writing this article. Picture in your mind a classic large urban street, one that will attract pedestrians while also moving a lot of traffic. Perhaps you are imagining Paris’s Avenue Marceau, Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia, or Washington’s K Street? Now look at the image below.
Not quite what you had in mind? Yeah, me neither. I have to reach the conclusion that the distinctions between the two models of boulevard and highway are actually more subtle than I am suggesting, because this drawing was created by a skilled engineering team, embraced by the City Council, local non-profits, and newspaper, and presented this month to resounding applause from neighborhood residents.
So, let’s zoom in and describe what we see:
- Four lanes dedicated to motion straight through, just like the now-submerged highway;
- Three lanes dedicated to turning motions, two of which swoop around the edges in great curves;
- Two dedicated bus lanes, each about 17 feet wide, curb-to-curb. (A bus is 8 1/2 feet wide, so perhaps the goal is to squeeze two past each other?);
- Bike lanes that are partly protected, partly unprotected, and partly merged into the bus lanes;
- A collection of treeless concrete wedges, medians, and “pork chops” directing the flow of vehicles;
- No parallel parking on either the main road or any of the roads intersecting it; and
- Green swales lining the streets, resulting in set-back properties to the one side and open space to the other. (Note that the open space at the bottom of the drawing is too shallow to put a building on.)
Not listed above, but perhaps of the greatest concern, is the issue of precedent. While there exist a growing number of locations in America with street configurations like this one, it is impossible to name one with street life. Swoopy configurations like this design are found mostly in suburban drive-only locations out by the mall, not in cities. If no attractive place can be found with a similar configuration, then a design should not pass the street-planning smell test.
The comparison of drive-only suburbia with walkable cities then allows us to make this critique of the approved plan:
- Walkable streets do not have swoops, slip lanes, pork chops, and other features that encourage drivers to make fast turns;
- Walkable streets have narrow lanes, typically 10 feet wide—even for buses;
- Walkable streets place continuous shade trees in any medians;
- Walkable streets have parallel parking along every curb, to protect pedestrians (and potentially bikes) from moving traffic; and
- Walkable streets are lined by buildings that give them life, and in urban locations these buildings are tall and sit directly against the sidewalk.
All of the above criteria, in addition to making pedestrians feel welcome, contribute to an environment in which cars drive more safely. Students of urban form will recognize that they all come from studying the proper model, the classic boulevard.
If the goal is to move lots of traffic in a walkable urban environment, there is only one time-tested model. As so well described in The Boulevard Book by Alan Jacobs, all successful boulevards follow certain rules, including those above. Since we know that proper boulevards make successful places, a respect for precedent gives us clear direction here.
So, what would this stretch of road look like as a boulevard? I took a stab at it above. To satisfy the car counters—because they always win—I even added a lane, to match the current condition. This proposal, one of many possible solutions, includes a 4-lane, high-volume center flanked by two 2-lane side roads. One of the lanes on each side can be dedicated to buses, if so desired. Each side road is flanked by parallel parking, and protected bike lanes are placed in the outer edge of the sidewalk, European style. All intersecting streets maintain parallel parking on both sides, and corners are tight, with no swoops. Street trees fill both medians, aligned with the trees in the sidewalks.
Nothing is wider than it needs to be, and the whole facility hugs the properties to one side, with no swales or setbacks. This leads to something surprising: free land. Three large and valuable building sites are now available in what is planned to remain wasted space alongside the railroad. This is great news, for two reasons. First, because the sale of this land—more than an acre of prime real estate—can be used to defray the costs of the project. Second, because a street is only as good as its edges. Without the spatial definition, activity, and supervision provided by buildings against the sidewalk, a boulevard is not complete.
This design was done quickly and could no doubt be improved. It is presented with the confidence that it follows a well-established model, and its outcomes can be predicted. Sadly, the current proposal that it hopes to replace also follows a well-established model, with predictable outcomes. These outcomes are a far cry from those currently anticipated by the good people of Lowell.
City planning is not just an art, but also a profession, and like in the professions of law or medicine, its practitioners have a responsibility to learn from past successes and failures. Study of precedent makes it clear that boulevards create street life and enhance real estate value, while highways obliterate street life and sunder real estate value. It is not too late for Lowell to embrace a model that will transform this site from a place that is easy to get through to a place worth arriving at. Similarly, all of our cities, as they contemplate expensive reconstruction of obsolete roadways, have two models to choose from, one led by engineering, and another led by precedent: the study of places we love.
Legacy Oxnard Planning Documents
Origins of the term “charrette” (Wikipedia):
The word charrette is French for “cart” or “chariot”. In the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century, it was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously in teams at the end of the allotted term, up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among the students to pick up their scale models and other work for review while they, each working furiously to apply the finishing touches, were said to be working en charrette, in the cart. Émile Zoladepicted such a scene of feverish activity, a nuit de charrette or charrette night, in L’Œuvre (serialized 1885, published 1886), his fictionalized account of his friendship with Paul Cézanne. The term evolved into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up until a deadline.
The following description of the word ‘charrette’ pertaining to the urban planning processes is from Wikipedia:
The word charrette may refer to any collaborative session in which a group of designers (plus stakeholders and the public) drafts a solution to a design problem.
While the structure of a charrette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work to the full group as material for further dialogue. Such charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people.
Charrettes take place in many disciplines, including land use planning, or urban planning. In planning, the charrette has become a technique for consulting with all stakeholders. This type of charrette typically involves intense and possibly multi-day meetings, involving municipal officials, developers, and residents.
A successful charrette promotes joint ownership of solutions and attempts to defuse typical confrontational attitudes between residents and developers. Charrettes tend to involve small groups, however the residents participating may not represent all the residents nor have the moral authority to represent them. Residents who do participate get early input into the planning process. For developers and municipal officials charrettes achieve community involvement, may satisfy consultation criteria, with the objective of avoiding costly legal battles. Other uses of the term “charrette” occur within an academic or professional setting, whereas urban planners invite the general public to their planning charrettes. Thus most people encounter the term “charrette” in an urban-planning context.
The following description of a charrette event and process is from the National Charrette Institute, with edits and additions by the Oxnard Community Planning Group, and describes in general the process and goals of the CNU-CA charrette for Downtown Oxnard:
(More on the CNU-CA CNU-By-Design Annual Charrette can be found below.)
“A charrette is a multiple-day, collaborative design workshop. It harnesses the talents and energies of stakeholders and all interested parties to create and support a feasible plan that represents transformative community change.
- A five consecutive days, with three design feedback loops
- An open process that includes stakeholders and all interested parties
- Focused on producing a feasible plan with minimal rework
A charrette is a holistic, collaborative planning process during which a multiple-day charrette is held as the central transformative event.
Compared to conventional planning processes that take years of endless meetings, a charrette can:
Save time and money through
- Reduced rework via short design feedback loops
- Time-compressed work sessions
- Creation of broad support from community members, professionals, and staff
Increases probability for implementation through
- An integrated team design process
- Early focus on engineering and finance
- Bringing all decision makers together for a compressed period of time
Promotes trust between citizens and government through
- Meaningful public involvement and education in which input may effect the outcome
- The building of long-term community goodwill
- Broad stakeholder involvement – no one takes over
Results in the best sustainable design through
- Integrating all viewpoints throughout design
- Uninterrupted, focused team design sessions
- Design based on shared guiding principles
The CNU charrette is a collaborative design event spanning 5-days. The goal of the charrette is to produce a feasible plan with minimal rework that benefits from the support of all stakeholders through its implementation. This support is facilitated by the ability of the charrette to transform the mindsets of the stakeholders.
A multidisciplinary charrette team, consisting of CNU consultants and sponsor (City of Oxnard) staff, produces the plan. Stakeholders – those being anyone who can approve, promote or block the project as well as anyone directly affected by the outcomes – are involved through a series of short feedback loops or meetings. Most stakeholders attend two or three feedback meetings at critical decision-making points during the charrette. Note that stakeholders are not at the charrette all the time. These feedback loops provide the charrette team with the information necessary to create a feasible plan. Just as importantly, they allow the stakeholders to become co-authors of the plan so that they are more likely to support and implement it.
A major reason the charrette needs to last at least 5-days is to accommodate 3 feedback loops, the optimal number for gaining stakeholder understanding and support.
Charrettes take place in a charrette studio situated on or near the project site. While the event may vary the CNU charrette generally follows the following format. The charrette team first conducts an open public meeting to solicit the values, vision, and needs of the stakeholders. The team then breaks off to create alternative plans or scenarios, which are presented in a second public meeting usually a day or two later. The team then synthesizes the best aspects of the alternatives into a preferred plan that is developed in detail and tested for economic, design and political feasibility. The charrette concludes with a comprehensive presentation at a final public meeting.
After the charrette, the project enters into the document creation phase. During this phase the charrette team tests and refines the charrette plan. Communication with stakeholders also continues through e-mail, websites, blogs, and possibly social media. During a follow-up public meeting, held about 6-weeks after the charrette, the refined plan is presented for another feedback session. The results and process of all 3 charrette system phases are summarized in a final project report ready for agency approvals.
All interested parties must be involved from the beginning. Having contributed to the planning, participants are in a position both to understand and support a project’s rationale.
A multi-disciplinary team method results in decisions that are realistic every step of the way. The cross-functional process eliminates the need for rework because the design work continually reflects the wisdom of each specialty.
Compress work sessions
The charrette itself, lasting five days, is a series of meetings and design sessions that would traditionally take months to complete. This time compression facilitates creative problem solving by accelerating decision making and reducing unconstructive negotiation tactics. It also encourages people to abandon their usual working patterns and “think outside of the box.”
Communicate in short feedback loops
During the charrette, design ideas are created based upon a public vision, and presented within hours for further review, critique, and refinement. Regular stakeholder input and reviews quickly build trust in the process and foster true understanding and support of the product. A feedback loop occurs when a design is proposed, reviewed, changed, and re-presented for further review.
Study the details and the whole
Lasting agreement is based on a fully informed dialogue, which can only be accomplished by looking at the details and the big picture concurrently. Studies at these two scales also inform each other and reduce the likelihood that a fatal flaw will be overlooked in the plan.
Produce a feasible plan
To create a feasible plan, every decision point must be fully informed, especially by the legal, financial, and engineering disciplines. The focus on feasibility brings a level of seriousness and rigor to the process for everyone involved.
Use design to achieve a shared vision and create holistic solutions
Design is a powerful tool for establishing a shared vision. Drawings illustrate the complexity of the problem and can be used to resolve conflict by proposing previously unexplored solutions that represent win/win outcomes.
Hold the charrette on or near the site
Working on site fosters the design team’s understanding of local values and traditions, and provides the necessary easy access to stakeholders and information. Therefore, the studio should be located in a place where it is easily accessible to all stakeholders and where the designers have quick access to the project site.”
More about the CNU Charrette (with edits and additions by the Oxnard Community Planning Group):
“Beginning in 2013, the CNU-CA started a program to host a CNU-By-Design Annual Charrette (“the Charrette”) as a Board led program that provides educational and membership outreach opportunities statewide.”
“The CNU-CA Charrette is designed to advise a city, with the benefit of the CNU-By-Design Annual Charrette, to envision mixed-use, walkable places for a city with CNU’s principles and processes, such as public Charrettes. Our board’s selection of an Annual Charrette project is based upon the request (Oxnard) relevance to CNU initiatives and expertise, such as Transit-Oriented Developments, Form-Based Codes, Sprawl Retrofits, and Tactical Urbanism.”
“A typical charrette week is organized as follows:
Day 1: Arrival, Orientation, Sponsor Briefing, Opening Public Event (Educational)
Day 2: Stakeholder Interviews, Design Interventions/Alternatives Produced
Day 3: Alternatives Vetting, Stakeholder Interviews, Public Workshop (Dialog)
Day 4: Preferred Design Interventions; Report Design/Illustration Production
Day 5: Draft Report Production, Final Public Presentation (Dialog/Education)”
The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.
We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.
We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.
We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.
We represent a broad-based citizenry, composed of public and private sector leaders, community activists, and multidisciplinary professionals. We are committed to reestablishing the relationship between the art of building and the making of community, through citizen-based participatory planning and design.
We dedicate ourselves to reclaiming our homes, blocks, streets, parks, neighborhoods, districts, towns, cities, regions, and environment.
We assert the following principles to guide public policy, development practice, urban planning, and design:
The Region: Metropolis, City, and Town
- Metropolitan regions are finite places with geographic boundaries derived from topography, watersheds, coastlines, farmlands, regional parks, and river basins. The metropolis is made of multiple centers that are cities, towns, and villages, each with its own identifiable center and edges.
- The metropolitan region is a fundamental economic unit of the contemporary world. Governmental cooperation, public policy, physical planning, and economic strategies must reflect this new reality.
- The metropolis has a necessary and fragile relationship to its agrarian hinterland and natural landscapes. The relationship is environmental, economic, and cultural. Farmland and nature are as important to the metropolis as the garden is to the house.
- Development patterns should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis. Infill development within existing urban areas conserves environmental resources, economic investment, and social fabric, while reclaiming marginal and abandoned areas. Metropolitan regions should develop strategies to encourage such infill development over peripheral expansion.
- Where appropriate, new development contiguous to urban boundaries should be organized as neighborhoods and districts, and be integrated with the existing urban pattern. Noncontiguous development should be organized as towns and villages with their own urban edges, and planned for a jobs/housing balance, not as bedroom suburbs.
- The development and redevelopment of towns and cities should respect historical patterns, precedents, and boundaries.
- Cities and towns should bring into proximity a broad spectrum of public and private uses to support a regional economy that benefits people of all incomes. Affordable housing should be distributed throughout the region to match job opportunities and to avoid concentrations of poverty.
- The physical organization of the region should be supported by a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems should maximize access and mobility throughout the region while reducing dependence upon the automobile.
- Revenues and resources can be shared more cooperatively among the municipalities and centers within regions to avoid destructive competition for tax base and to promote rational coordination of transportation, recreation, public services, housing, and community institutions.
The Neighborhood, The District, and The Corridor
- The neighborhood, the district, and the corridor are the essential elements of development and redevelopment in the metropolis. They form identifiable areas that encourage citizens to take responsibility for their maintenance and evolution.
- Neighborhoods should be compact, pedestrian friendly, and mixed-use. Districts generally emphasize a special single use, and should follow the principles of neighborhood design when possible. Corridors are regional connectors of neighborhoods and districts; they range from boulevards and rail lines to rivers and parkways.
- Many activities of daily living should occur within walking distance, allowing independence to those who do not drive, especially the elderly and the young. Interconnected networks of streets should be designed to encourage walking, reduce the number and length of automobile trips, and conserve energy.
- Within neighborhoods, a broad range of housing types and price levels can bring people of diverse ages, races, and incomes into daily interaction, strengthening the personal and civic bonds essential to an authentic community.
- Transit corridors, when properly planned and coordinated, can help organize metropolitan structure and revitalize urban centers. In contrast, highway corridors should not displace investment from existing centers.
- Appropriate building densities and land uses should be within walking distance of transit stops, permitting public transit to become a viable alternative to the automobile.
- Concentrations of civic, institutional, and commercial activity should be embedded in neighborhoods and districts, not isolated in remote, single-use complexes. Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle to them.
- The economic health and harmonious evolution of neighborhoods, districts, and corridors can be improved through graphic urban design codes that serve as predictable guides for change.
- A range of parks, from tot-lots and village greens to ballfields and community gardens, should be distributed within neighborhoods. Conservation areas and open lands should be used to define and connect different neighborhoods and districts.
The Block, The Street, and The Building
- A primary task of all urban architecture and landscape design is the physical definition of streets and public spaces as places of shared use.
- Individual architectural projects should be seamlessly linked to their surroundings. This issue transcends style.
- The revitalization of urban places depends on safety and security. The design of streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments, but not at the expense of accessibility and openness.
- In the contemporary metropolis, development must adequately accommodate automobiles. It should do so in ways that respect the pedestrian and the form of public space.
- Streets and squares should be safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian. Properly configured, they encourage walking and enable neighbors to know each other and protect their communities.
- Architecture and landscape design should grow from local climate, topography, history, and building practice.
- Civic buildings and public gathering places require important sites to reinforce community identity and the culture of democracy. They deserve distinctive form, because their role is different from that of other buildings and places that constitute the fabric of the city.
- All buildings should provide their inhabitants with a clear sense of location, weather and time. Natural methods of heating and cooling can be more resource-efficient than mechanical systems.
- Preservation and renewal of historic buildings, districts, and landscapes affirm the continuity and evolution of urban society.
The Ahwahnee Principles for Resource-Efficient Communities, written in 1991 by the Local Government Commission, paved the way for the Smart Growth movement and New Urbanism. These principles provide a blueprint for elected officials to create compact, mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented developments in their local communities. Cities and counties across the nation have adopted them to break the cycle of sprawl. If you like the newly emerging downtowns across the nation – full of people, activities and great public spaces – that’s the Ahwahnee Principles in action.
Existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life. The symptoms are: more congestion and air pollution resulting from our increased dependence on automobiles, the loss of precious open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community. By drawing upon the best from the past and the present, we can plan communities that will more successfully serve the needs of those who live and work within them. Such planning should adhere to certain fundamental principles.
- All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.
- Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.
- As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.
- A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.
- Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community’s residents.
- The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.
- The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.
- The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.
- Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.
- Each community or cluster of communities should have a well-defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.
- Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully-connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high speed traffic.
- Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.
- The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.
- Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.
- The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.
- The regional land-use planning structure should be integrated within a larger transportation network built around transit rather than freeways.
- Regions should be bounded by and provide a continuous system of greenbelt/wildlife corridors to be determined by natural conditions.
- Regional institutions and services (government, stadiums, museums, etc.) should be located in the urban core.
- Materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region, exhibiting a continuity of history and culture and compatibility with the climate to encourage the development of local character and community identity.
- The general plan should be updated to incorporate the above principles.
- Rather than allowing developer-initiated, piecemeal development, local governments should take charge of the planning process. General plans should designate where new growth, infill or redevelopment will be allowed to occur.
- Prior to any development, a specific plan should be prepared based on these planning principles.
- Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.
Authors: Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Stefanos Polyzoides
Editor: Peter Katz, Judy Corbett, and Steve Weissman
(Adopted in 1991)
Cities everywhere are facing similar problems – increasing traffic congestion and worsening air pollution, the continuing loss of open space, the need for costly improvements to road and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community. The problems seem overwhelming and we suffer from their consequences every day. City character is blurred until every place becomes like every other place and all adding up to No Place.
Many of our social, economic and environmental problems can be traced to land use practices adopted since World War II. In the late 1940’s we began to adopt a notion that life would be better and we would all have more freedom if we planned and built our communities around the automobile. Gradually, rather than increasing our freedom, auto-oriented land use planning has reduced our options. Now, it takes much more time than it used to carry out our daily activities. We must go everywhere by car – there is no other option. We must take a car to the store for a gallon of milk, drive the children to Little League practice, even spend part of the lunch hour driving to a place to eat. And as roads become increasingly clogged and services further from our home, we spend our time as anonymous individuals waiting for the traffic light to change rather than chatting with friends at the corner store or playing ball on the lawn with the neighborhood kids.
Rather than designing towns so that we could walk to work or to the store, we have separated uses into homogeneous, single-use enclaves, spreading out these uses on ever-increasing acres of land. Housing of similar types for similar income levels were grouped together. Retail stores were clustered into huge structures called malls, surrounded by endless acres of parking slots. Businesses imitated the mall – creating “business parks”, usually without a park in sight, and with people working in clusters of similar buildings and parking spaces. At the same time, public squares, the corner store, main street, and all the places where people could meet and a sense of community could happen were replaced by the abyss of asphalt.
Even people are segregated by age and income level. And those who cannot drive or who cannot afford a car face an enormous disadvantage. In the words of Pasadena’s Mayor Rick Cole, “there’s a loss of place, a loss of hope, and it’s killing our souls.”
The effects of single- use, sprawling development patterns are becoming increasing clear. And, with that has evolved arealization that there is a better way. Towns of the type built earlier in this century – those compact, walkable communities where you could walk to the store and kids could walk to school, where there was a variety of housing types from housing over stores to single-family units with front porches facing tree-lined, narrow streets -these towns provided a life style that now seems far preferable to today’s neighborhoods. Thus we have seen an increasing interest in a number of concepts that would bring us back to a more traditional style of development and a style of planning that would be more in tune with nature including “neotraditional planning”, “sustainable development”, “transit-oriented design”, the “new urbanism”, and the concept of “livable” communities.
In 1991, at the instigation of Local Government Commission staff-member Peter Katz, author of the New Urbanism, the commission brought together a group of architects who have been leaders in developing new notions of land use planning: Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule, Peter Calthorpe, and Michael Corbett. These innovators were asked to come to agreement about what it is that the new planning ideas – from neotraditional planning to sustainable design- have in common and from there, to develop a set of community principles. They were then asked how each community should relate to the region, and to develop a set of regional principles. Finally, they were charged with defining how these ideas might be implemented by cities and counties. The architects’ ideas were drafted by attorney Steve Weissman into a form which would be useful to local elected officials and provide a vision for an alternative to urban sprawl. A preamble, topics of specific ideas, community principles, regional principles and implementation of the principles was presented in the fall of 1991 to about 100 local elected officials at a conference at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. There they received both a highly enthusiastic response and their title- the Ahwahnee Principles.
The community principles define a community where housing and all the things needed to meet the daily needs of residents are located within walking distance of one another. They call for returning to historic population densities around transit stops to provide the critical mass of people and activities in these areas needed to make transit economically viable. They call for housing which provides places to live for a variety of people within a single neighborhood instead of separating people by income level, age or family situation.
The Ahwahnee Principles state that development should be compact but with open space provided in the form of squares or parks. Urban designer Michael Freedman describes this as space-making rather than space-occupying development. Rather than surrounding buildings in the center of unusable landscaped areas (space-occupying development), Freedman says we should use buildings to frame public space (place-making design).
Freedman holds that to plan for more livable communities, local government officials must understand the human scale – that is, the basic relationship of people to the environment in which they live. In neighborhoods, for example, we must recognize the relationship of the house to the front door to the street. In doing so, we will create the sorts of places which bring people together and create a vitality, a sense of community. By framing open space with buildings which open onto it, there are more eyes to look upon the area and that creates places that feel more safe. And with that design solution comes more compact development – development which has less costly infrastructure requirements, and development which is more walkable and more easily served by transit.
Further, the principles call for an end to the monotony of contiguous, look-alike building by separating each community with a well defined edge, such as an agricultural greenbelt or wildlife corridor, so that we can actually see where one community ends and another begins. From a transportation standpoint, one of the most important principles is that all parts of the community should be connected by streets or paths – no more dead end cul de sacs, fences, or walls which prevent us from going directly from one point to another. Narrow streets, rather than wide streets, are recommended because they help slow traffic and make it safer for pedestrians and bicycles. Narrow streets also create more attractive, more people-friendly neighborhoods and shopping districts.
Finally, the community principles call for more resource-efficient land use planning – the preservation of the natural terrain, drainage and vegetation; and the use of natural drainage systems and drought tolerant landscaping and recycling. They ask that buildings be oriented properly, (as required by the California solar rights act) so that they can take advantage of the sun for heating and natural breezes for cooling.
The regional principles call for the land-use planning structure to be integrated within a larger network built around transit rather than freeways, with regional institutions and services located in the urban core. A perfect example of this can be found in the City of San Jose where city planners chose to locate a new sports stadium in the downtown area, close to several rail stops rather than off a freeway. The surrounding restaurants and shops are benefiting from the increased number of passers-by before and after games, and freeway travel is not as clogged as it otherwise would have been.
The architects noted that regions should be distinct from one another rather than fading into one another as they largely do today. Each region should be surrounded by a wildlife corridor or greenbelt and the materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region. Santa Barbara and Santa Fe come forward as two excellent examples of communities who have followed these principles and who have realized that there are economic as well as aesthetic advantages of doing so. Both of these cities have implemented strict design guidelines for their downtowns which preserve the historical architectural styles of their regions. Because these cities have retained a very special and distinct sense of place, they have become highly popular both as places to live and as tourist destinations.
The implementation strategy forwarded by the planners is fairly straightforward and simple. First, the general plan should be updated to incorporate the Ahwahnee Principles. Next, local governments should take charge of the planning process rather than simply continuing to react to piecemeal proposals.
Prior to any development, a specific plan or a precise plan should be prepared based on the planning principles. With the adoption of specific plans, complying projects can then proceed with minimal delay. The developer will know exactly what the community wants. There should be no more costly, time-consuming, guessing games.
Finally, the architects put forth the most critical principle of all, “Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.” Without involving citizens from every sector of the community, including developers, the political viability of a new plan may be limited. Citizens must be getting what they want and care enough to be vigilant about it so that the plan cannot be changed by a single property owner with a self interest.
But the stability of planning policies is not the only advantage of citizen participation. Bringing together citizens to create a common vision for the community has more benefits than just the creation of a good plan that will be upheld through time. The process itself can create a sense of community and an understanding between previously warring factions.
However, it is difficult for citizens to visualize what a new planning scheme is going to look like after it is built if they see only a one-dimensional sketch or read about the plan in a six-inch thick planning document. There are a number of techniques which have been developed to address this problem. The visual preference survey, where participants are provided an opportunity to express their likes and dislikes through judging slides, allows citizens to actually see concrete examples of their options. Another useful technique is computer simulation where the visual results of a physical plan can be created on the computer. Another method involves taking participants on a walk through their own town to determine which portions of the community look good and function well and which do not.
Implementing the Ahwahnee Principles
The concepts embodied in the Ahwahnee Principles are being implemented by cities and counties throughout the nation, with most of the activity occurring on the east and west coasts. In Pasadena, the participation of 3,000 residents from all sectors of the community resulted in a general plan with a guiding principle which states, “Pasadena will be a city where people can circulate without cars.” The plan lays out where growth should occur – primarily along light rail stations and in neighborhood commercial areas within walking distance of residences. The city is now preparing specific plans to guide what that growth should look like. One of the projects, a mixed-use housing development near a downtown rail stop, is already complete.
In San Jose, the City has produced, under the guidance of citizen advisory groups, a total of four specific plans for infill sites in various parts of the City covering a total of almost 1,000 acres. Their goal is to assure that new development will occur as compact, mixed use neighborhoods located near transit stops. The City of San Diego has adopted “Transit-Oriented Development Design Guidelines” for the purpose of redirecting existing patterns of building within the City and helping reduce the community’s dependence on the automobile. The planning staff has completed the first public review draft of a comprehensive zoning code update that will create zoning designations to implement the guidelines.
In Sacramento, Walnut Creek, Santa Barbara and San Diego, city officials have broken new ground by siting new shopping malls downtown, near transit, rather than off a freeway. The benefits include both a new surge of economic activity for downtown businesses and a reduction in auto use and the associated negative air quality impacts. The California Air Resources Board has noted that over 60% of the people arriving at San Diego’s downtown mall, Horton Plaza, arrive via transit or walking.
Developer-proposed, large-scale, new development is also reflecting the influence of the Ahwahnee Principles. The one-thousand acre, Playa Vista infill project in Los Angeles will include the preservation of 300 acres of wetlands. As it is designed now, the development will feature moderately-dense housing built small neighborhood parks. Large offices, small retail stores, restaurants, grocery stores and small telecommuting offices will be integrated, allowing residents to walk when they go to work, shop, or go out to dinner. A bicycle and pedestrian esplanade will link the town with the beach. Rialto’s Mayor John Longville is working with the developer of a 3,000 acre development near the Ontario airport to incorporate the concepts of the Ahwahnee Principles in that project.
With the assistance of urban designer Michael Freedman, the City of Cathedral City is no longer focusing solely on density and the control of uses as a means of guiding their future growth. At a joint meeting of the city council, planning commission, and architectural review committee, Freedman presented the Ahwahnee Principles and the key role of local government in future planning and general plan development. Cathedral City adopted the Ahwahnee Principles by resolution and has started to incorporate them into their general plan. With only 50% of the city built out and development plans on the table, the city council acknowledged the importance of having planning guidelines. An innovative city in the desert region, Cathedral City understands that the best way to deliver good planning principles is to work both with the community and the building industry to develop a comprehensive strategy of planning more livable neighborhoods
Even the US government has embraced the Ahwahnee Principles. Architect Peter Calthorpe reports that the planning concepts outlined by the Ahwahnee Principles have been written into a guidance document recently published the federal government. Calthorpe was a coauthor of the document, Vision/Reality produced by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for local government officials interested in applying for Community Development Block Grant program and other funds.
A number of city planners believe that if they can just solve the problem of traffic, they can solve the major problems of their cities. Yet the simple needs of the automobile are far more easily understood and accommodated that the complex needs of people. The Ahwahnee Principles outline a set of ideas for planning more livable communities built for people, not just cars, and provide a vision for an alternative to urban sprawl. This new vision will lead to neighborhoods where people no longer live in a house with an isolated rear yard. They will live in a home with a comfortable relationship to the street which is part of a neighborhood. Tree-lined sidewalks with narrow streets will induce cars to drive more slowly. Children will be more safe when they play in the neighborhood and the sense of community will add a feeling of security. When they need to go to school, to the store, or to baseball practice, children will be able to walk or ride a bike rather than being dependent on someone driving them there.
The top down, traditional planning of yesterday is no longer an acceptable means of making cities. The people served must be involved. When people come together and openly discuss their visions for the future, a sense of community will result. Bringing citizens into the process of developing and revising the general plan will also result in new development which both serves the needs of the community and is used and respected by the residents it serves. To make better, more livable cities, local governments must take charge of the process of planning while involving and utilizing its bet asset, the people who work, live and play in our communities.
About the Architects
The architects who gathered in 1991 to develop the Ahwahnee Principles are all internationally known for their inspirational work and innovative ideas. Peter Calthorpe, is one of the leaders of the “New Urbanism” movement and was cited by Newsweek Magazine as “one of 25 innovators on the cutting edge.” Michael Corbett, a former Mayor of the City of Davis, has received international recognition for his design of the resource-efficient Village Homes development in Davis, a project often cited as the best existing example of sustainable development in the world. The husband-wife team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, made headlines with their wildly successful Seaside development in Florida and have become highly acclaimed architects and planners of neotraditional communities. Stefanos Polyzoides is an associate professor of architecture at the University of Southern California. He and his partner, Elizabeth Moule, are the architects of Playa Vista in Los Angeles, a model application of the Ahwahnee Principles.
Authors/Editors: Peter Calthorpe, Peter Katz, Michael Corbett, Judy Corbett, Andres Duany, Steve Weissman, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Stefanos Polyzoides.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group advocates for visionary practices in planning, design, and development that will lead to a more livable and prosperous city.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group envisions a city that grows wisely, preserves farmland and open space, drives smart economic development, welcomes vertical density, cherishes our past, and boldly anticipates our future.
The Oxnard Community Planning Group believes in a city that works to meet the needs of all our residents: young, old, people with disabilities, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists; even people who don’t go anywhere. We strive to be open-minded, welcome thoughtful discussion, and are willing to invest our time and efforts towards bringing these beliefs into being.