“As local municipalities, we should have the goal that every one of our residents succeeds,” declared Tukwila City Councilmember D’Sean Quinn during the opening public lecture of CNU25.

This year’s 25th Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Seattle has included a strong theme on equity and inclusion, on ensuring that new urbanism is living up to its principles for all people as it enters its second quarter century.

Throughout the Congress, various speakers have emphasized that equitable placemaking needs to look both the benefits and opportunities offered to diverse members of a community, and also across the various communities within a county or region. Great places cannot be a luxury afforded only to certain groups.

King County’s Targeted Universalism

Quinn spoke in the public lecture on the suburbanization of poverty in his role as an elected official in Seattle’s most diverse suburb, but also appeared in his role as a King County employee in a session on that county’s equity and social justice policies. The county passed an equity and social justice ordinance in 2010, identifying 14 determinants of equity against which to measure their progress towards a fair and just community

The County describes their approach as “targeted universalism”: the 14 factors outline things that should be universal to all in the community–things like “quality education” or “affordable, safe, quality housing”–and then targets efforts to the people or communities who are not yet enjoying those universal benefits.

The nuts-and-bolts application of this principle include an equity impact review for county policies or programs, to make explicit who will experience positive or negative impacts. The county has also incorporated equity standards into their sustainable infrastructure scorecard, an internal accountability document that all capital improvement projects must complete.

Project for Code Reform

One Congress effort I’ve personally been involved in is the Project for Code Reform, an initiative to support local municipalities in targeted, tactical fixes to their development codes that enable the creation of better places.

As the Congress’ CEO Lynn Richards explains,

“The Project for Code Reform is centered on incremental change. Many code reform processes seek to overhaul the entire code. The all-or-nothing approach has significant potential to morph into a contentious and arduous process for all involved … Our approach focuses instead on smaller, achievable changes. This incremental approach lays the foundation for creating great places by addressing the most problematic coding issues.”

The result is not necessarily codes that ensure good place–but codes that have had the worst barriers to good placemaking removed, offering the opportunity for improvement.

From a municipal perspective, this is significant because it offers an alternative approach to potentially pricey and time-consuming efforts like full form-based code rewrites: most of the League’s communities have the capacity to tweak, but not overhaul.

But this is also an equity issue.  Traditional development codes require high levels of expertise and bureacracy-navigating skills by a potential developer, skewing the playing field towards large firms with access to financing and professional resources. Through the project for code reform’s incremental appraoches, we not only hope to expand applicability to smaller communities, but to smaller developers.

Cleaner, clearer codes that provide the by-right ability to develop small projects put development in reach of many more of our residents. By allowing people the opportunity to invest in and shape their own neighborhoods and communities, we both help deepen their ties to each other and our municipalities but also expand access to the upside of neighborhood revitalization and the secure tenure that developer-ownership can provide in the face of potential displacement.

The project for code reform fits well with our existing support of Redevelopment Ready Communities, and our work to expand crowdfunding as a means of participatory placemaking, and we’re interested in hearing from communities that want to road test some of the tools we’ve created.

In the meantime, back in for day 4 of the Congress.

We know that traditional zoning and development codes, as applied by nearly every one of our hundreds of members across Michigan, can be harmful to building strong, prosperous communities. We have major statewide initiatives to support locals in wrestling their regulations around to something that does what they want—Redevelopment Ready Communities to help identify and clear away procedural obstacles that prevent good development, and the MIplace partnership’s ongoing focus on form-based approaches that support the creation of great places.

So why has progress been so slow—why do rules that actively hinder the development that we say we want persist in most of our cities and villages?  Last week, we hosted a workshop that connected five of our cities with a team of national development code-writing experts convened by Congress for the New Urbanism to dig into this question.

Together, the group cnu_action_shottalked through the cities’ development priorities, and what code-related barriers stood in the way of success on these issues. While this working session was just one part of a larger effort by CNU to support national reform, a few observations stuck out to me.

  • Better development codes don’t have to be via a full scale “Form-Based Code.” The starting point of the conversation was how to streamline adoption of FBCs, as the best tool for building the places we want. Considering the limited resources (political, staff time, financial) of most of our communities, though, incremental improvements to existing, traditional zoning may allow more progress.

    Local staff can look to the Lean Code Tool for tactics to apply locally, or may consider implementing a FBC only for a single key district, rather than community-wide. In any case, the goal is to increase the attention the regulations pay to form, reducing the emphasis on separation of uses.

  • Prioritize—don’t try to fix everything. Even the largest city in our focus group, with the most staff capacity, said they were overwhelmed by the scale of their code reform needs. (When asked to bring a priority need to focus on, they brought six.) Focusing time and resources to make the rules work better in a few important places within the community can be more effective than trying to fix everything at once.

    Communities looking to undertake code reform should focus attention on strengthening their traditional downtown (if they have one), on areas facing heavy development pressure (to ensure that interest supports local placemaking needs), and on neighborhood centers (especially in low-income or minority neighborhoods where support is needed to correct past disinvestment).

  • Residential areas are difficult. The planning profession has done a spectacular job of convincing people that a neighborhood should be made up exclusively of single-family, owner-occupied houses. As a profession, we’ve admitted that we were wrong, and that we’ve done a lot of damage by imposing that norm on traditional neighborhoods through zoning ordinances, and we have tools for walking back some of those mistakes.
    Permitting fourplexes is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    Permitting missing middle types is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    But old habits are hard to shift, especially when working with residents whose homes are both quality of life and investment. When identifying priorities, post-war subdivisions may not be on the list in most cities—instead, we should think about repairing downtown-adjacent traditional neighborhoods. These are both the places that already have precedent for missing middle housing choices and small businesses alongside single-family houses, and where conventional zoning has created holes in the neighborhood fabric.

  • Finally, communities need good examples. Nearly all the specific needs that our panel of communities brought to the national resource team were issues for which known-good tools or approaches already exist. The difficulty is in sharing that knowledge across our 500+ member communities, especially to the staff that are wearing several different hats and spread too thinly to search out those tools.

This last observation is where the League has the clearest role. We’ve been very successful in spreading awareness of placemaking to our membership over the past few years, but communities still need good, on-the-ground examples of, say, how to allow new homes that fit onto historic 33-foot-wide lots, or how to provide for more missing middle housing options without fear that college student housing will saturate the neighborhood.

I’m definitely looking forward to further work with the CNU team, as well–thanks to Matt from DPZ, Karen from Opticos, Susan from Placemakers, Marcy from Urbsworks, and Mary from Farrell-Madden for three days of making my head spin with their expertise.