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.
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.
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!