Does planning = zoning?

Scott Page's picture

I would like to think that the overwhelming response to the question posed in the title would be a resounding, "No!"  I never gave the issue much thought before last week because frankly, I didn't really need to.  Working in a city like Philadelphia where the overwhelming percentage of proposed projects requires a zoning variance, we've trained ourselves to work within an imperfect system and make the best of what's at hand.  (It should be noted that Philadelphia is about to embark upon a process to re-vamp the zoning code, but that is for another post in the future).  More importantly, the issues faced by some neighborhoods go a lot deeper than zoning.  So why this post?

I spent a day last week working in Philadelphia's Francisville neighborhood with a room full of New Urbanists who were in town for their annual Congress.  We've been working on a neighborhood plan for Francisville for the past 8 months, so my role was to answer questions and play general tour guide when necessary.  By and large, it was interesting to see the community through the eyes of outsiders.  That said, I perceived an underlying tone that this neighborhood could somehow be "fixed" by zoning, or more specifically, a Smart Code.  This is only a perception on my part and is based on the comments of a handful of people who said something specifically to this effect.  One person actually told me that our plan would be meaningless if we didn't create a Smart Code for the community.  This assumes that 1) Planning=Zoning; and 2) If we don't, or can't, change the existing zoning then we shouldn't even bother planning, which would effectively put this neighborhood in paralysis. 

Outside of cities, I have no real issues with Smart Codes (or at least none I feel it's worth getting into here).  But in cities, reality often conflicts with the ideal.  Generally speaking, I agree with Smart Code ideals in that in the city, we should build for density and accommodate parking in the rear if possible.  In theory, I also am not a big fan of zoning for use. 

So where does reality interfere with the Smart Code?  Well for one, telling people to build for density and mixed-use will not magically bring a market for new development, which, in Francisville, is only now beginning to resurface after decades of decline.  This is not an issue specific to the Smart Code but one about planning for shrinkage versus growth.  For now though, let's take a more specific example.  A few CNU members told me that some of the local restaurants must be great for the neighborhood (generating activity and introducing a mix of uses and all).  What they didn't see is that these establishments are often used for drug trafficking.  With similar concerns in mind, the City of Rochester has down-zoned some of its commercial corridors to stop the development of check-cashing and other establishments that have negatively impacted surrounding neighborhoods.  Zoning for use, it seems, has its merits. 

I wish it didn't.  It would be much easier to think of cities as physical gameboards that we try to manipulate formally.  Taller here, less dense there, etc.  Sounds like a process played out when planning resided in fewer, more powerful hands.  As a designer, the idea of somehow shaping a city is still attractive, and a Smart Code certainly allows this illusion.  Existing zoning codes, for that matter, also enable some degree of fantasy for city-shaping (depending on the code of course), assuming everyone plays by the rules.  But there's the rub, there will never be a code (Smart or not) that will be implemented to the degree that its authors can sit back and watch the city grow according to their wishes.  Reality always gets in the way and that is, I think, where our profession gets particularly interesting.  


Scott Page is the founder of Interface Studio, a collaborative design office based in Philadelphia.



Planning = Zoning dilemma not limited to just cities

Mr. Page has some excellent insights into the limits of traditional zoning in promoting sound design. I agree with all of Mr. Page's comments, except where he implies the planning = zoning dilemma and limitations of smart codes only apply to cities. I work in Springdale, Utah - the gateway to Zion National Park - a town of just 500 people. Because we are the gateway to one of the premier National Parks we constantly struggle and strive to promote thoughtful and sensitive design in new development. Traditional zoning standards are only mildly effective in this pursuit, and Smart Codes are not a perfect solution for the same reasons that Mr. Page describes in Philadelphia.

I echo Mr. Page's conclusion: this is what makes planning an interesting profession.

Fascinating topic

I, personally, think this topic is under-discussed.

Why? SmartCode is an attempt to extricate land use from function-first zoning. Does it do some things well? Sure. Does it do all things well? What does?

IMHO Form-based code is a better fit in many locations as it is more like Europe in its philosophy: buildings last for hundreds of years but uses last for a generation, maybe two, so why not build a good box and work from there? ** Form-based code is more about planning than zoning.



** Caveat: I know nothing about Francisville. This comment does not represent an endorsement for FBC in all locations.

Planning Does NOT = Zoning

Planning is the vision (with varying degrees of detail). Zoning/coding is the enforcement arm of planning.

Leslie Creane, AICP
Town Planner
Hamden Government Center
2750 Dixwell Avenue
Hamden, CT 065118

tel. (203) 287-7070
fax (203) 287-7075

Does Planning=Zoning?

Hi Scott,

Thanks for bringing this up. We CNU consultants for Francisville haven't written up our reports yet, so I can't yet characterize what our advice would be regarding specifics like use. (You would customize Table 12 of the SmartCode for Specific Function & Use, and Table 10 to moderate the mix of uses in each zone.) In any case, the workshop was educational for us as well, and we very much appreciated your intelligent neighborhood comp plan and thorough mapping on which last week's Urban Lab sessions were based. (The labs were: Coding for Neighborhood Evolution, People & Process, Creating Living Urban Spaces, and Ridge Avenue Retail Resurrection.) Obviously anything we come up with is available as food for thought, but Francisville certainly doesn't have to use what isn't useful.

That said, I'd answer your subject line question with "Planning Requires Zoning." Note that I'm using "Zoning" to mean simply "organizing patterns of development into usable categories." I do not mean conventional separated-use zoning, which is the opposite of what a walkable neighborhood like Francisville represents.

The separation of disciplines has also been a problem. At the APA convention in April a presenter stated that planners should just plan and leave the zoning to others. I believe he was a lawyer. Whoa! That's how we got into this mess.

In general, if a plan is implemented only as guidelines without the force of law, it is unpredictable. That's not to say a coded plan should be so predictable as to stifle a healthy and sometimes quirky evolution of neighborhoods. One of the beauties of the Transect Zones we use in the SmartCode and other New Urbanist codes is that they are parametric and permit a variety of elements to choose from for development. However, the essentials of walkable urbanism are firm, e.g., the private frontage matters to the public realm, the proportions of the street and civic space are important to making humans feel safe and comfortable, and the pedestrian shed (walkshed) should be the unit within which Transect Zones occur so that everyone has the option to walk to something useful if they wish to.

Francisville already has wonderful urban form comporting with the SmartCode T-4 and T-5. Therefore any form-based/transect-based code would be protective of the existing pattern. That's why the calibration (when we finish it) will be based on the analysis of existing conditions your studio has done and what we did that day. But what about all those huge swaths of cleared land within the Francisville street grid? Development is coming. What form will it take? I looked at the existing zoning for the area and there is almost no attention to frontages. Retail will not thrive without retail frontage types. There is also a frightening provision that allows (for accessory buildings) additional height for every foot of setback, up to 60 feet. Picture that! It violates the formal context of the neighborhood in two major ways.

Sure, you could keep dealing with variances and constant public meetings to control the form of future development. Or, the vision of the residents and businesspeople could be coded so that developers know coming in what essential form (n.b. not style) is expected of them. They are expected to respect what Francisville is and wants to become.


Sandy Sorlien

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