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Outdated Rules Hinder a Sense of Place

Geoffrey Ferrell, Ferrell Madden Lewis LLC

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Geoffrey Ferrell is a principal of Ferrell Madden Lewis LLC, a Washington D.C. firm that focuses on urban design, town planning, and form-based coding. Geoffrey is an advocate of form-based code, a land development regulatory tool that places primary emphasis on the physical form of the built environment to produce a specific type of place.

Geoffrey began by outlining the importance of thought. Of stopping our daily routine to step back and look at how we got here, and really thinking about what we are doing and where we want to go. Form-based coding is a relatively new approach to regulating development that creates a sense of place. But before we can embrace it, we need to look at the old system and what is wrong with it.

How Did We Get Here?
Many suburban communities have been creating detached single family homes with great interiors that don’t connect with each other and don’t provide a sense of community. The 1998 Comprehensive Plan for Prince William County, Virginia contained the same goals that most communities have—responsible, fiscally sound growth to produce a vibrant, prosperous, stable, and livable community. A lot of effort went into the zoning plan but what they got was suburban sprawl development where the taxes collected are not enough to cover first generation maintenance; taxes have to go up to pay for police, fire, sewer extension, etc.

FerrellPart of the reason for the failure of our policy goals is that there is a contradiction between those goals and the regulatory tools. Twentieth century zoning rules were created to reduce population density and to separate uses. The technicians that are trained to focus on moving traffic quickly and distributing utilities efficiently without a regard for sense of place have dominated the design of our communities.

We need fundamental changes that look at how buildings relate to one another and the development of street space. It’s nice to have buildings with pretty details, but that’s not what creates a sense of place. Some communities have tried to address the issues with performance zoning. This deals with the symptoms rather than the disease. If two things next to each other are incompatible or different, we add a buffer—the bigger the difference the bigger the buffer. While some aspects of performance zoning may make sense, this is not going to create a sense of place. Healthy cities mesh together. It’s not about how you keep uses apart, it’s how the pieces of a city reinforce one another as they are built that creates a more human environment.

Density is not the problem. When the street space is a living space where private buildings face and interact with the public space, you create environments were people want to live and walk everyday. The zoning rules we have in place segregate uses and create urban sprawl. Where did they come from?

The Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented concentrations of people and power to the traditional city. Dickens’ novels describe the awful conditions in London, including the lack of sanitary sewers, overcrowding, and polluted air. Instead of fixing these technical problems, we created a system to get rid of cities. Early zoning was an attempt to apply the logic of industrial production to overwhelmed cities. Uses were separated out into smoke-belching industry and dormitory areas connected by collector and arterial streets.

The Standard Enabling Acts of the 1920s granted governments the broad authority to enact zoning ordinances to reduce population densities in cities for the purposes of health, safety, and well being. The United States Supreme Court upheld this authority as constitutional in the landmark case of the Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Company, 1926. What had been an avant-garde idea became the norm.

Since 1926, generations of planners have been trying to build cities based on these rules that are fundamentally anti-city. Development regulations are out of balance. To deal effectively with human settlement we have to deal with three basic things: form, use/density and management. Traditional zoning takes hyper control of use and density. If form is included it only comments on the exterior of the building and is thrown in as an after thought at the end.

AudienceForm-based codes require greater control of form and less control of use. By micro managing use, we stifle the ability of entrepreneurs to try new businesses and do what they do best. The advantage of form-based code is that it allows us to shape the public space.

When you lay down a form-based code over your community you’re defining where the public space is, the sidewalks and streets and identifying the buildable areas where private development goes. The public sector sets up the rules that reward people for building in a positive way. The private sector creates the shops and businesses that make the space come alive. The current rules penalize people for building in a positive way. And they reward developers for building out in the fields.

When we define the street space using form-based code, we create a sense of place. Establishing build-to lines shoulders buildings up to the sidewalk. Setting minimum and maximum heights prevents thirty-story buildings from sucking up the market for three ten-story buildings or six five-story buildings. Setting minimum and maximum numbers for windows and doors for residential and commercial districts ensures vitality on the street. Creating parking regulations that don’t allow parking lots to be open to the street prevents parking from becoming an open chest wound that sucks life right off the sidewalk. These rules on form and scale naturally corral uses without making it impossible to change uses as trends change. They encourage a sustainable density of lifestyles.

Density of lifestyles is what’s best about small town America and its core cities. Green urbanism is the most important thing we can do for the environment. Green buildings out on the fringes still cause environmental problems as they require people to drive to find any amenity unlike urban places where people can walk or take a short bike ride and find any amenity. A city block includes many uses—commercial, residential, large houses, small cottages, town houses with parking in the back, civic functions, green spaces and rental units. This diversity in ways and costs of living creates relative affordability. Everyone is within comfortable walking distance of the privileges and necessities of daily life. Creating sustainable, walkable urban communities is the answer.


If you have any questions, please contact: 
Colleen Layton, or Arnold Weinfeld, .




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