Smart Code

Continuing in our look at the basics of Urbanism, I’d like to introduce another concept today: the SmartCode. SmartCode is a highly refined, form-based model development code. It was produced by Duany Plater-Zyberk during the 80′s and 90′s, and released to the general public in 2003. The entire code and a lot of supporting material is available at SmartCode Central. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts, I recommend downloading and reading the complete code. Like all model codes, SmartCode is a reference intended to be modified to suit the needs of a specific locale.

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SmartCode versus conventional code

The major differences between SmartCode and conventional development code is that SmartCode is focused on creating high quality interfaces between private properties and public streets, and otherwise mostly leaving propety owners alone. As with all form-based codes, the fundamental idea is that by requiring buildings to adhere to a few minimal geometric standards (exactly the way the City of Houston’s subdivision ordinance does right now) that land-use regulation becomes irrelevant, and the market can operate more efficiently. For Houstonians this is not a shocking revelation, we’ve been using form-based code all along.

However, there are still three critical differences between SmartCode and Houston’s code:

1. SmartCode is transect-based and context-sensitive, whereas Houston’s code is ‘one size fits all’.

2. SmartCode is human-oriented, and supports all users of the public right-of-way; Houston’s code is automobile oriented and does not provide for other users.

3. SmartCode recognizes the importance of interfaces on the public realm, and focuses the small amount of regulation it entails on improving them. Houston’s code extensively regulates properties to maximize conduit performance.

For more detail on structures, interfaces, and conduits, see my series on Property Value Theory.

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The end goal of SmartCode is to allow and encourage developers to build traditional neighborhoods. The impact of this is best understood visually. Consider the two images above (courtesy SmartCode Central). These are great examples of the difference between conventional suburban development (which is fully dependant on the automobile) and traditional neighborhood development. Traditional neighborhoods are walkable at the local level, and potentially transit serviceable at a regional level.

The SmartCode approach to development regulation is to take a broad sample of standard building types and classify them based on their suitability for various transect areas. The code effectively has three major focus areas: building heights, building entries, and parking placement. These requirements are organized by transect area, so that a collection of typical building types (based on building height and relationship to the street) is recommended for each Transect area. To see what this looks like, I’ve included a few sample images from the code in the gallery below.

Building heights are in my opinion, the most stringent control in the ‘standard’ SmartCode.  Essentially the code recommends general parameters for building heights in stories. In rural and suburban areas heights from 1-3 stories are allowed by right, in urban areas heights of 2-5 stories are allowed, and in urban core areas there is no height limit, but there is a step-back requirement every eight floors. These basic heights are pretty low for a city the size of Houston, but remember this is a model code written in it’s ‘standard’ form to serve the most typical municipal government and intended to be changed by ‘atypical’ cities (which Houston cetainly is by virtue of its size).

The building placement and frontage standards are pretty ideal for creating safe, high-quality streets while adding flexibility to build closer to the front of the lot.  The sidewalk standards are also pretty basic, though they represent tremendous improvement over the rudimentary sidewalk requirements that exist in most places, including Houston.

How could this be used in Houston?

The SmartCode could serve as the basis for a tremendously beneficial overhaul of the City’s current subdivision ordinances. The major changes needed to “Houstonize” the code are the removal of all references to recommended or restricted land uses (a minor change to the code, but important to mesh with Houston’s culture); and an increase to the height limits.

Height limits could be controversial in Houston, but then again the lack of height limits has been a major source of citizen uproar recently. If we adopted a height limit of 3 stories in the T1-T3 areas, 5 stories in T4 areas, 10 stories in T5 areas; and unlimited in T6 areas, we would have a system that closely mirrors the development patterns existing in the city while helping to diffuse situations like Ashby without creating an outrageous bureaucratic song-and-dance every time a similar project is proposed.

As far as the lot configuration and disposition goes, those standards are already being applied voluntarily in most of the ‘suburban’ city, and it would streamline the handling of these cases to simply offer a city standard and let neighborhoods “buy-in.” For the urban city, this code would be a major improvement because it would allow by right the kind of development that has become predominant despite the opposition: 2-5 story developments built close to the street in urban infill locations.

A major departure from the code, but one that Houston critically needs to embrace, is the rejection of parking requirements. Property owners know how much parking they need, just let them decide! This would not only free developers from an unnecessary piece of government interference, it would almost certainly result in a lot more infill activity in some of the central city areas. In places like Midtown, the Museum District, and the 4th Ward there are tremendous numbers of tiny vacant lots that stay vacant primarily because it’s too hard to assemble enough land to make room for off-street parking. All of those areas have tremendous capacity for on-street parking, and when redevelopment finally causes that supply to be strained, the viability of the areas (and potential for higher-intensity development) will have increased enough to justify more expensive land assembly and structured parking.

To really work, the city would need to have a transect map that clearly defined which patterns applied to which areas. This would be tricky to pull off, for sure, because it sounds a lot like zoning. In reality it’s not much like Euclidean zoning, and the basic system is already in place today (the City Ordinances refer to everything outside the loop as “suburban,” inside the loop as “urban,” and in Downtown as “CBD.”). We could simply clean up that a little bit to account for urban areas outside the loop (like Uptown, Greenspoint, and Westchase).

We could also have an educational campaign to inform property owners what the different transect levels mean and then allow property owners to define their own property, much in the way deed restrictions are currently used. This would have the benefits of being a grass-roots, bottom-up approach, which likely means better participation and understanding. I’ve also got other ideas about how this could be implemented that I’ll discuss later on.

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So, what do you think? Are elements of SmartCode relevant for Houston, and if so which ones? What kind of implementation do you think would work? Let me know by leaving a comment!


Posted: Wednesday, April 8th, 2009 at 3:30 pm
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9 Comments

  1. For a City that prides itself on “market-based solutions,” the minimum parking requirements are seriously misguided. I agree that they should be one of the first things to go.

    To be clear, technically speaking, isn’t what you’re suggesting simply an implementation of Form-Based Zoning? People shy away from the using term “zoning” because the public commonly associates it with Use-Based Zoning, but isn’t your Transect-based suggestion simply an example of Form-Based Zoning?

    By categorizing areas of the City on a Transect-based map, aren’t you essentially identifying different zones, for which different development parameters would be applied?

    For the record, I’ve gone back and forth in my thoughts about what is best for the future of land use regulation in Houston. Ultimately, my current belief is that the best long-term solution for the City is the implementation of Form-Based Zoning. In the short-term, I think the Urban Corridors plan is a good start–and I think it is the only plan that might actually have enough momentum to become a reality.

    Let me know if you disagree with my terminology. Frankly, I think there are a lot of misnomers that are commonly used in discussions about zoning and land use regulation–particularly in Houston, where “zoning” is a four-letter word.

    • Mark,

      You’re right that transect-based planning, or form-based planning, could be called zoning if you implement it with a fine-grained map… And maybe that’s what Houston should do.

      Still, I hesitate to identify any concept as “zoning” because not only is the term culturally and politically loaded, it’s legally loaded (in Houston) because of previous referenda that have been passed which make it illegal for the city to enact any ‘zoning’ ordinance without a subsequent referendum to authorize it.

      As I said in the post, though, Houston already has a very weak form-based code with three zones: CBD, urban, and suburban. So, if that’s “not zoning,” then no form-based implementation should be considered “zoning.”

      It’s one of the quirks of discussing development policy in Houston :)

      I think that you can, possibly, find ways to implement transect-based standards that are not based on “colors on a map,” and therefore truly not zoning. For instance, the transect classification of a property could be an elective choice (like the current deed restriction system) or based on another criteria, such as the classification of the adjacent rights-of-way. But whether or not an alternative approach like that would work well is hard to guess, since no other city has tried.

      Thanks for the feedback!

  2. You know what’s even better than the smart code? No code! It’s the amazing planning solution that allows for (i) both our current, “traditional” sprawlscape AND (ii) all the happiest, most walkable urbanism you can imagine.

    Simply delete the minimum parking regulations, delete the setback regulations, make it a priority to have parallel parking on all new arterials (using Multiway Blvd principles where applicable) and presto! Instant urbanism, and suburbanism, and exurbanism, and just about everything you could possibly ever want.

    Amazing.

    With no zoning or height restrictions, Houston already comes pretty damn close to this ideal. WE JUST NEED TO GET RID OF THE PARKING REGS. That’s all. No new codes, no plans, no councils. Just one simple regulatory *deletion*. SO SIMPLE. And yet so difficult for the architects to accept.

  3. I would happily accept no code in lieu of the current code. Your point about parallel parking illustrates the potential drawback though.

    In order for the city to operate sans-code it would need to commit to acquiring sufficient right-of-way so that they could actually have sidewalks on their streets. Right now a significant amount of the sidewalk space in Houston exists on private property and is consistent from lot to lot only because of an ordinance.

    The best solution is for the city to buy sufficient ROW and build intentionally urban streets, then we wouldn’t need a code.

    However, as long as street construction lies almost entirely in the hands of the private sector and the city lacks the funding to acquire sufficient ROW and urbanize (have parallel parking and sidewalks at a minimum) all it’s streets, we would benefit from having an ordinance.

    If we’re going to have an ordinance, it should be the lightest, simplest ordinance possible. It should only address infrastructure continuity and placement, and should be simple and straightforward enough that it doesn’t place an undue burden on anyone and results in the city ‘review’ of developments going away as it would be no longer needed.

    Smart Code has the right essence to serve Houston in that way if it were trimmed down to its core elements, which are parking placement (really, driveway placement) and sidewalk configurations.

    And, in the end, I don’t think it’s the architects who can’t live without ordinances, it’s the politicians. Trying to take away a power that bureaucrats have become accustom to wielding is difficult to say the least. In my opinion a vastly overhauled and simplified development code is a good idea as a transitional step to a future where most of the existing regulations in Houston could go away entirely.

    • RE: Streets built by private developers

      The residential streets are just fine. 28′ back-to-back allows for the standard single-lane dual-parking residential street, or in a pinch one side of parking can be deleted for a 10′-10′-7′ through street. 50′ ROW is enough for sidewalks, whether they’re constructed at the beginning or added later.

      Likewise with arterials. The standard 24′ two-lane section can work just as well in an 11′-5′-8′ configuration with 11′ thru lane, 5′ bike lane, and 8′ parking strip. All it takes is paint.

      And if you *really* need through traffic capacity, you can replace the 24′ section with a 29-footer for 10′-11′-8′. This is quite easy to do within our existing 100′ arterial ROW standard.

      A “typical” Houston suburban arterial is 15′-24′-22′-24′-15′. Widen on the inside (retain outside curbs) and get 15′-29′-12′-29′-15′. Widen on the outside (retain inside curbs) and get 10′-29′-22′-29′-10′. Either way you’ve got ample sidewalks (minimum 10 feet) *and* ample through-traffic capacity *and* parallel parking.

      And this is all using our existing sections, with our existing regulations, as they are built by the private sector developers.

      It *does* take some political willpower to drop the cash on widening for parallel parking, or to get out the paint stripers and reduce a four-lane road to a two-lane with parallel, but I don’t see how it’s too much more challenging than implementing a new code.

      Certainly, the primary concern of the developers is going to be cost. This means you’ll get a built-in opposition to any kind of overly-legislated, decorative-pavers, minimum-street-tree-spacing, unique-district-specific-context-sensitive-complete-street-plan type proposal, because it costs more. But what if the only difference is the location of the paint stripes? Easy.

      Simple is beautiful.

  4. I also think stripping most of our counterproductive regulations would be a good first step toward better developments within the City.

    I disagree, however, with your assertion that “Houston already comes pretty damn close to this ideal [of having urbanism, suburbanism, and exurbanism].” Houston has a lot of suburbanism, a lot of exurbanism, and a dearth of urbanism. There are areas inside the loop (and in Uptown) in which the market is pushing hard toward urbanism, but outdated regulations and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure are making it difficult for that market-driven urbanization to happen naturally.

    The first big step, in my mind, is to improve the infrastructure for pedestrians. Great automotive and pedestrian infrastructures are not mutually exclusive. Instead, the city has historically done a good job with automotive infrastructure and has neglected pedestrian infrastructure. That may have been what the market demanded 10-20+ years ago, but it isn’t now.

    As far as what regulatory changes should be recommended–I’m not sure my opinion on that yet. But I do think that a good first step would be for the City to rethink its historical neglect of pedestrian infrastructure.

    • @ Mark,

      Absolutely! It’s past time for the city to start thinking of streets as human spaces and designing accordingly.

    • I have a built-in opposition to any kind of “transect” based code, because in most New Urban applications the “transect” is simply a drop-in replacement for traditional RCI zoning.

      Crossley likes to dis our “one size fits all” approach, but I think it’s responsible for a lot of the city’s material prosperity and low cost of living. If we draft new street standards or eliminate old ones, they should apply *citywide*… no “this is the Heights street standards, this is the Montrose street standards, this is the Third Ward street standards…” No, this isn’t Portland, it’s not San Diego.

      I don’t even think we should differentiate between “urban” and “suburban.” Why can’t we build townhomes on 1400sqft lots *outside* the loop? What are we afraid of? Some of the best-done new construction is on the urban fringe… go check out “City Park” at 288 and Orem/Beltway 8, where they creatively interpreted the city’s alley and street standards to have all the *front yards* facing narrow, bricked drives with the *garages* backing up to 28′ “alleys”.

      If there’s to be narrower, pedestrian-focused streets, they should be contained in a single code that is applicable everywhere. Some of the most innovative land development design will happen on the urban fringe, where it’s not as constrained by existing settlement patterns.

  5. Cool Blog! I’m Reddit-ing this! :)

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