Special Districts Getting All Mixed Up

Recently there’ve been rumblings of a very interesting trend among cities that have adopted form-based codes to guide the character of their neighbourhoods. That is, once a city begins to think urbanistically, they start to solve some really hard problems. And those problems lately have been to do with industrial uses, and how to reconnect industry to the walkable portions of the city.

Over the last month, I’ve lost count of how many emails and phone calls I’ve gotten asking for exemplary plans under form-based codes that incorporate industrial uses. I got one while I was writing this, in fact. Heavy industry is one primary thing zoning initially sought to separate. I am reminded of one of my favorite T.S. Eliot excerpts, from Little Gidding:

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

Not that anyone’s adding back in noxious uses to the ‘hood, but it is a very interesting turn of events.

When the first form-based code was written 30 years ago, all sorts of large format uses ended up in something we still call “Special Districts.” Not because they’re special, but because they aren’t inherently walkable, and don’t really fit in the rural-to-urban shape sorter we call the Transect. These typically auto-oriented Special Districts (SDs) generally include uses such as industrial, big box retail, medical centers, and airports.

Use-based codes separate communities into their various uses — residential, commercial, industrial, institutional — and put those uses into auto-centric pods to which one must drive. Initially conceived to keep you from living next door to a stinky candlemaker or butcher, use-based or Euclidean zoning was the first to put large format uses on the edge of neighborhoods, and eventually, on the edge of cities. This, in part, contributed to the sprawling development patterns of the suburbs.

Form-based codes aim at a mix of compatible uses, but until recently still followed their use-based predecessors in grouping large format development patterns as generally car dependent, and more or less putting them in their own auto-centric pod.

But something is changing.

Form-based codes generally are residentially based. That is, they put basic daily needs within walking distance from our homes. And by walking distance we mean 5 minutes away, about a quarter mile or 400 meters. It’s the optimal scenario, on all levels. And for the codes that give in to the political pressure to count density, they key into dwelling units per acre or hectare.

However, in the cities, such as El Paso, Texas, that have started seeing the value capture inherent in using the SmartCode, they’re loathe to let something  even as usually unwalkable as an airport give up the extra value of mixed use.

Some things will always be separated from residential, but often can still be walkable in context. Just because a use isn’t compatible with residential, doesn’t mean they can’t be compatible with each other, and the rest of the city.

As increasing oil prices and decreasing wealth are putting the brakes on the long commute, non-noxious industrial uses are being reintroduced to urban formats.

When El Paso leaders started planning the redevelopment of their airport, the first simple goal was to give the workers in the district somewhere they could walk for lunch, and the guests at the airport hotels an interesting and walkable retail street. Just because the FAA doesn’t allow single family residential in this proximity to flight patterns won’t keep it from becoming the most walkable airport in North America.

El Paso Airport, reworked to mix industrial, commercial and hotel users together. Click for larger view.

Similarly, Andrews University’s design for Barrio Capital de Analco in Santa Fe, New Mexico, won a 2010 Charter Award, with a capital campus special district incorporating larger format governmental uses.

Click for larger view.

Medical Center of the Americas uses a medical center special district to integrate a larger format medical campus into surrounding urban structure, and offers some economic stability as an anchor for the neighbourhood.

Regulating plan for the MCA campus in El Paso, Texas. Click for larger view.

All three of these plans are designed to a locally calibrated form-based SmartCode. If you’d like to get into a 3-day conversation on this subject, join me in El Paso in November for the SmartCode Workshop. Or drop in on a monthly PlaceMaking@Work session.

I’m not saying we’ve arrived, but we’re heading in a full circle. Reintroducing our workforce — both white collar and blue collar — to the walkability that makes for healthy planet, people, and profits. And doing it in a way that honors and advances the character of the place.

–Hazel Borys


  1. If you look at the Providence airport (2000 Post Road, Warwick, RI) you will find that even single-family homes are about a 10 minute walk away.

  2. Michael, exactly! From StreetView, it looks like those homes mostly date back to before the airport? A good argument for negotiations with the FAA, which removed single-family residential from the plan above. There is still lodging, however.

  3. I recall some years ago Andres Duany telling me about an airport (I believe somewhere in a Latin American city) in which the entrance to the airport fronted onto an urban plaza at the edge of the city. People could literally take transit and walk into the front door of the airport. Now that’s integrating a special district into adjacent walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. WE should ask Andres if this sounds familiar.

  4. Madrid Airport is like this. You can basically walk from terminals 1-3, through a few parking areas and across to Barajas, which is a dense suburb of Madrid.

    This only works though if the airport can be arranged in such a way that none of the residential areas are directly under airport flight paths. In most airports this is not feasible, thus normally airports are surrounded by industrial areas and walking to the airport is not feasible.

  5. I am interested to hear about any FBC prepared around light industrial uses. Many communities are looking for ways to revitalize their defunct industrial areas (midwest and northeast primarily) and the challenge is to find ways of integrating new light industrial uses that are compatible with nearby residential and mixed use districts. Many of these neighborhoods have suffered from the deterioration of the industrial areas and communities have the opportunity to have each of these uses benefit the other. Any good case studies out there?

  6. How is the review process handled for this? In Lee County, FL, the county has initiated form-based regulating plans for community areas to be known as activity centers. They want to use the Special District concept to attract industry that will support these areas but are struggling with how to incentivize a business to locate in these areas while still requiring some level of a relationship to the activity center. The regulating plan has eliminated the need for public hearing approval within the activity center, but they are not sure how to avoid this level of review in a Special District.

  7. Matthew Reeves says

    To Hazel Borys:

    Hello, my name is Matthew Reeves, an architecture student in his final studio project at the University of Utah. Thank you for writing this article, albeit sometime ago.

    I am designing a biodigester to be integrated within the city limits of Chicago, for the sake of this article’s message.

    Do you know of any similar industrial integration case studies?




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  4. […] her September 2011 blog, Special Districts Getting All Mixed Up, Hazel Borys questioned why we treat large format areas with distinctive uses, such as […]

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