Measure Local, Share Global, Part 2: From app to main course

Talk about geek love!

When I wrote recently about having cooked up an iPhone app for collecting the physical metrics behind form-based codes, my intentions were pretty modest. First, I was just kind of giddy over how it was coming together and wanted to talk about it. But second, and more importantly, I wanted to get the idea out there and let the swarm take a crack at it, as a true, open-source initiative.

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Measure Local, Share Global: There’s an app for that

Okay, so I have a little problem. Since 1985 I’ve been a committed, out of the closet, Macoholic. I wrote my architectural thesis on an Apple IIe. Don’t do the math — I’ll be fifty this year.

A couple of months ago one of my business partners, Howard Blackson, suggested we find a way to use our iPhones and iPads to collect the urban DNA we use in writing form-based codes (another problem of mine — I’m a code geek). Understanding how to write standards that produce the types of places people love the most is my professional passion. Continue Reading

“You’re terminated, hippie.” — Where does that leave local sustainability?

Federal government to sustainability efforts: You’re terminated.

In a blockbuster-style showdown, the House Appropriations Committee started a furor this month as they proposed the elimination of HUD, USDOT and EPA sustainability programs in 2011-12, as well as suggesting the rescinding of dollars already awarded by the Sustainability and TIGER grant programs. As municipalities, counties and regional COGs scramble to find ways to focus the weak development market forces into more sustainable patterns of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, the possible removal of the federal support is discouraging.

Looks like we’re gonna have to go indie.

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My Sleuthing Adventure: Where are Western Canada’s Form-Based Codes?

Western Canada’s form-based codes are missing.

This is no small problem. Those of us working in the region are continuously grilled by municipalities with the same question, often delivered with a suspicious, cocked eyebrow: “Where are they? Where in Canada have they, or any other alternative zoning regulation, been enacted?”

The answer we’re obliged to offer is unfortunately neither reassuring nor helpful:  “We’ve turned up little evidence,” we mutter quietly. Little enough, in fact, that a comparable municipal mentor is typically unable to be found.

A mystery is at hand. Continue Reading

Brave New Codes Reach Tipping Point: When, Where, Why?

A year ago, Apple’s sales of its iPhone and iPod Touch eclipsed 40 million units, confirming their potential to fundamentally retool our future opportunities and patterns of daily life.

Today, a year later, form-based codes hit a similar milestone, with similar implications, as over 330 cities and towns around the worldrepresenting over 40 million people — have embraced the idea of form-based coding as an alternative to the sprawl-inducing zoning models of the past century.

We’ve hit the tipping point. Welcome to the other side. Continue Reading

Development Option Theory

The real option theory of land development was a hot topic in the mid 2000’s, as the volatility of the real estate market peaked. Now that we have a break from the U.S. housing bubble and financial crisis, it’s worth talking about how we might decrease the volatility of the development market over time.

Urbanism by right is achieved with tools such as form-based codes, which allow walkable, compact, mixed-use, sustainable development, at the scale of the lot, block, neighbourhood, and region. Changing the law to allow urbanism by right makes walkable communities go “in the money” for several reasons, including decreased uncertainty, shortened planning and approval processes, increased flexibility, and increased long term asset value.

Snow falls on The Waters, a traditional neighborhood development in
Montgomery, Alabama, governed by the form-based SmartCode.

One of the best ways to decrease volatility is to decrease uncertainty. You change what developments pencil when you decrease the uncertainty of what is developable. Uncertainty is “beta” from the option theory perspective. As beta decreases, the required rate of return also decreases, because people don’t need to be paid so handsomely if they aren’t taking as much risk when they “buy” their option to develop.

The time value of money is less of a factor when the playing field is levelled to allow urbanism by right, because the development process is drastically shortened. If the developer isn’t owning a call option on a property as long, her interest fees decrease. The reason that form-based codes shorten the timeline is because a prerequisite is consensus on the community vision. By agreeing in advance about the sort of development that locals want, developers have both shorter plan approval times, and increased certainty about what their options are. Less emphasis is put on individual mojo and political connections that allow discretionary power over development decisions. Community NIMBYs have already spoken to what is and isn’t allowed in their back yards.

As flexibility increases, the option value increases. Form-based codes are inherently flexible, and nimble in their responsiveness to adapt to changing conditions. The mixture of compatible uses allows one building or block to respond to market demands, changing from a townhouse, to a live-work, to a storefront, and back again, all as a matter of right. Higher densities encourage more compact development patterns, allowing narrow lots that can provide a range of price points. Blocks within form-based codes are easily re-platted to move up or down the Transect, because the basics of the urban form and street grid are honoured. Conversely, in suburban bedroom communities, along strip retail, or within other auto-centric patterns, sprawl repair is expensive and time consuming. Once a developer commits to one of these uses, they’re locked in.

Increased long term asset value is enjoyed by walkable neighbourhoods, which are healthier for the economy, society, and environment. This is from myriad reasons, including increased walkscore, decreased vehicle miles traveled, increased housing value, decreased carbon emissions, decreased auto costs, increased personal fitness, decreased infrastructure cost, increased hours available, real community, and the list goes on.

All of this is captured in the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the development option. Intrinsic just marks the asset to market once the land is developed, while extrinsic is the value of the volatility around which a developer can bet or trade. Too much of the latter builds your house of cards, and bubble bursts. The extrinsic value decreases and intrinsic value increases when physical and policy planning reforms are undertaken.

A recent NY Times article discusses several market factors of the development landscape over the next two years, as we recover from recession. These include the current scarcity of construction financing, the lowering price points of residential demand along with increasing housing types to include condos, town homes, and flats, and that in many places, conversion is less expensive than new construction. All these items, with the exception of financing, find solutions within the flexibility, certainty, and timeliness of form-based codes. In fact, in places that have adopted optional form-based codes, locals indicate that most of the recessionary development is occurring under these optional form-based codes instead of under the auto-centric laws.

“One of the economic conundrums of the past year has been the great divergence in the Canadian and U.S. housing markets. While American home prices swooned in 2009, the Canadian market only stumbled before resuming its inexorable climb upward,” according to the Globe & Mail last week. Some economists say this is the result of Canada’s fiscally sound banking practices, while others argue that the Canadian housing market is 15 to 35% overvalued. If the latter is true, a careful look at the predominance of Euclidean bylaws in Canada that increase market volatility via destabilizing uncertainty is worth consideration. Indeed, western provinces are leading with bylaw reform, with 12 out of the current 14 Canadian form-based bylaw initiatives being based in the west.

–Hazel Borys

Miami Just the Tip of the Iceberg for Form Based Coding

When Miami, Florida adopted a SmartCode on October 22 by a 4-1 vote, an important step was taken for the global knowledge base of placemaking. This zoning reform is clearly a turning point away from the energy-intensive, environmentally-destructive, auto-centric development patterns of the 20th century. Miami 21 represents the “Miami of the 21st Century,” and takes into account all of the integral factors necessary to make each area within the City a unique, vibrant place to live, learn, work and play. The initiative is the largest mandatory form-based and transect-based unified development ordinance in history.

While this is a massive step for the 4th most populous urbanized area in the U.S., Miami is not alone. About 200 other cities are in the process of zoning reform that utilizes form-based codes to reverse the negative effects of use-based zoning. Use-based codes separate the uses into pods of commercial, residential, industrial, and agricultural. And generally requires an automobile to get from one pod to another. Form-based codes allows a mixture of compatible uses that enable neighborhoods to develop again, nodally along transit corridors.

Form Based Coding's thousand points of light.

To get an idea of where all form-based codes are happening, Collaborative Google Maps show the lay of the land. These maps provide an informal support group of SmartCodes and other form-based codes at some point along the process of code writing, adoption, and implementation.

While most of these other initiatives are not on the scale of Miami, several are close, including El Paso, Texas; Denver, Colorado; San Antonio, Texas; Montgomery, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Nashville, Tennessee; Phoenix, Arizona; St. Petersburg, Florida; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On the other end of rural-to-urban transect is the “New Ruralism” that is occurring among the towns and villages that are seeking to deal with sprawling placeless-ness through form-based codes that protect their rural character.

The idea is that by learning from the experience of others, ideas can grow more quickly, and the continental community consensus building power can increase. The maps allow individuals to change their own information, however the general format includes:
– A description of the work at hand
– Links to the draft or final codes
– Illustrations and maps
– Project, client, and consultant websites
– General statistics on adopted codes, including population and acreage
– Links to news articles regarding each initiative

Currently, the maps contain information on 41 adopted SmartCodes, 51 SmartCodes in progress, and 97 other Form-Based Codes. This is not an exhaustive list, as new initiatives begin every day, so everyone is encouraged to add their own work.

Check them all out:

SmartCodes Adopted
SmartCodes in Progress
Other Form Based Codes

Green markers indicate SmartCodes adopted, yellow SmartCodes in progress, and purple other Form-Based Codes.

Additionally, TND maps give details on projects that are being designed in form-based development patterns. While many of these projects were done without the benefit of form-based codes but rather as Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), others are designed under adopted form-based codes. These maps are intentionally not a ranking or review system, however turning on satellite view and zooming in is an instructive virtual tour on the successes and challenges of thse developments.

All of these maps may be opened simultaneously, to get a regional idea of the sorts of initiatives that are occurring across the continent. When traveling to a particular region, the maps become a tour guide for progressive urbanism and zoning reform.

TNDs US – West
TNDs US – East
TNDs US – Florida & Caribbean
TNDs Canada

For TNDs, blue markers indicate greenfield development, and turquoise for infill, brownfield and grayfield.

— Hazel Borys