The Dreaded Density Issue

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ‘em down for your consideration.

A number of recent conversations with Stefanos Polyzoides, Howard Blackson, and Matt Lambert regarding density and residential types has me thinking about building typology as one solution to visualizing and embracing density.

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On the Street: The DNA of place and the ROI of movement

The corporate culture of our government has been a carte blanche to keep doing what we’ve been doing. This culture implies that what we’ve been doing works.

In business, last year’s income statement is a major driver in this year’s action plan. If a product or service was profitable, then it’s nurtured and grown this year. If a deliverable creates a loss, then change is made as quickly as possible.

Because governments are focused on GDP and jobs instead of ROI, the reasons behind decisions often get muddy. Return on Investment (ROI) is quite simple. It’s just the gain from investment less the cost of investment all divided by the cost of investment. How many times over your money will be returned to you.

And yet our governments aren’t geared to think this way unless it has to do with a change from business as usual.

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Retail: When it bends the rules and breaks the law.

Getting ready for a TEDx talk in a few weeks, I’ve once again been noticing how the places that I love the most usually break the law. The contemporary development codes and bylaws, that is, which are geared to the car, not to the pedestrian and cyclist.

Then last week’s urban retail SmartCode tweetchat with Bob Gibbs sparked a debate about the rules of thumb that govern the success or failure of the most risky development of all: retail. And when those rules might be bent by certain special circumstances.

Ready to geek out with me for a moment?

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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.

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Form-Based Codes? A picture’s worth a thousand words.

If the attendees list of Placemaking@Work, my monthly webinar series, is any indicator, we’re increasingly united in our desire to improve the places we call home, wherever those places might be. Last month, I had participants from Hawaii to Russia, from British Columbia to Saudi Arabia, and many points in between.

The common thread among these seekers is their search for tools and tactics that have proven effective. And increasingly dominating these conversations are form-based codes.

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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

Let’s Get Small: Placemaking as Antidote for Shrinking City Budgets

It’s that time of year, but it’s no holiday party in most city budget meetings. Cities across the continent are looking for ways to make ends meet. A quick survey turns up some sobering city deficits: New York $4.4 billion, Toronto $225 million, Washington DC $188 million, Houston $120 million, L.A. $87 million, San Diego $72 million, Cleveland $28 million. States are worse still: California $6 billion, Illinois $15 billion, Arizona $1.5 billion. Those are some major gaps to fill, before we make it to the federal level.

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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