Down the street from the League’s Ann Arbor offices is this row of oak trees, 20 years old or so. They line the vacant lot, about a five-acre grassy space, at the edge of an office park.

I do not like these trees.

The offending trees.

The offending trees.

It’s nothing personal—they are very nice trees, and have done nothing wrong—but they bother me every time I walk past them because they were planted in the wrong place.

Most likely, when the first phases of the office park were developed, the city’s zoning ordinance required that these trees be planted around the edge of the site as a “green buffer” for the development, a common standard based on the theory that development is ugly and passerby need to be protected from it by a moat of plants. As in this case, these well-intended requirements can be counter-productive: by looking narrowly at the site, the development standards misuse good trees as mere damage control, when they could have been the seeds of a great place.

Those trees could be doing so much better than to dress up the edges of these parking lots.

Our trees could be used for so much better than merely dressing up the edges of these parking lots.

Imagine if they had been planted as street trees, between the sidewalk and the curb, instead of ten feet behind the curb.  At this point, they’d be shading a good portion of the pavement, and in another few decades might reach over the centerline—perhaps meeting trees planted on the other side of the street. This wide-open suburban byway, where drivers regularly drive 10 over the speed limit, would feel much more like a city street, with all of the safety, cooling, stormwater, and health benefits that properly placed street trees provide.

Next there’s the impact the trees have on the future development of that parcel. This site is a short bus ride from downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s campus and medical center, plus has two supermarkets, a drugstore, coffee shop, and several restaurants clustered around the nearby intersection at Plymouth Road. If the trees were in their proper location as street trees, we could easily imagine a neighborhood of townhomes at this location, opening the fierce Ann Arbor housing market to 100 or so more households. With front stoops near the sidewalk, parking limited and accessed from alleys in the rear, such a neighborhood would continue transforming the area.

But where the trees are now, 10 feet behind the sidewalk, they push any future development of the site back away from the street, encouraging a continuation of the car-centric suburban pattern.  We only have to look at the site next door to see what kind of development these trees support: stormwater basin, parking lot, standalone office building, more parking lot.

Streets reflect the use of the land around them. The road sees traffic levels of 3,900 vehicles / day, in SEMCOG’s most recent counts. As a general rule of thumb, a street can carry about 10,000 vehicles a day with a single lane in each direction. The three-lane layout of this road is wildly overbuilt, especially considering how few places there are to make a left turn: it only makes sense because there’s nothing better to do with the width.

Low traffic volume and few intersections means the left turn lane isn't even considered worth plowing--which creates a hazard for pedestrians at crosswalks.

Low traffic volume and few intersections means the left turn lane isn’t even considered worth plowing–which creates a hazard for pedestrians at crosswalks.

In our scenario of street trees and townhomes, though, Green Road cries out to be a better street—to put that space to better use. Let’s eliminate that completely unnecessary left turn lane, then put a row of on-street parking along the front of our townhomes on the east side of the street. Bike lanes along parking lanes are dangerous, so let’s use the remaining width for a two-way protected cycle track on the west side of the street, creating a safer connection between the neighborhoods to the south, the commercial amenities at Plymouth Road to the north, and the campus access points to the west.

This street in Muskegon shows how a street with the same width of pavement can have an entirely different feel when that width is allocated differently and the adjacent land use is oriented at people over cars.

This street in Muskegon shows how a street with the same width of pavement can have an entirely different feel when that width is allocated differently and the adjacent land use is oriented at people over cars.

We could continue rippling outwards to see how these changes support even more momentum towards creating great human habitat, rather than moving cars at unnecessary speeds, but you get the point: the trees are in the wrong place.

(Spoiler alert: later this year we’ll be rolling out the second Michigan-specific “Enabling Better Places” guide as part of the Project for Code Reform. This guide will focus on incremental tactics for updating local zoning codes to enable, not necessarily guarantee, development that supports great places in suburban corridors.  As a hater of trees-in-wrong-places, I’m pleased to note the draft has “eliminate buffer requirements” on page 29.)

“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.