Cities: April 2005 Archives

David Hall (a doctor and a friend from church, not the disgraced former Oklahoma governor) called my attention to an article about urban design in the latest issue of byFaith, an excellent new magazine published by the Presbyterian Church in America. One of the things I appreciate about the PCA, and the broader realm of Reformed ("Calvinist") evangelical Christianity, is the commitment to applying the Lordship of Christ to every aspect of life, not just the spiritual realm. That's how you end up with blogging PCA missionaries out on the streets of Kiev, helping the Orange Revolution get its message to the English-speaking world.

And it's how you end up with an article by an Atlanta-based architect and urban planner about how we glorify God with the places we build. Christopher Leerssen says that because God made the physical world and made us to dwell in it, the built environment matters to God. He says that how we build cities affects sustainability and our stewardship of the natural environment. Pedestrian-hostile urban design destroys the connections that make a place a community and burdens people for whom driving isn't an option -- the poor, the young, the old, the disabled. Cookie-cutter building practices obliterate the natural uniqueness of a place. Restrictive laws discourage the construction of affordable housing.

David, the friend who tipped me to the article, is part of a group working to start a new PCA congregation in south Tulsa. He observed that neighborhood and home design in that part of town makes it tougher to reach out to people. It's so easy just to zip home, pull into the garage, and isolate yourself.

Why is that? Homes are oriented away from the street. Porches, if they exist, are symbolic and non-functional. If a neighbor were to pass by on the sidewalk, you'd never see him, because you're in the living room in the back of the house. You might go for a walk, but the sidewalk doesn't lead to any place you really need or want to go.

Where are the gathering places? Where do you find people who are open to having a conversation with someone they just met? Leerssen writes:

Perhaps most importantly, modern communities lack venues for outreach and discourse. Recently our church struggled with a decision of where to have an evening outreach to neighbors in the affluent part of our city. Our aim wasn’t to go bar-to-bar or stand on the street corners screaming about Jesus, but rather to simply engage skeptics and unbelievers; to discuss everyday issues in order to bring the Gospel into focus. Where would we find them, and that atmosphere?

There aren’t many places where this naturally occurs, but a city does provide options. A coffee shop is private. The local bookstore may be the right spot. But the fact is, there are not many venues that comfortably accommodate discourse. In the end, we rented a nearby bread shop one evening a week and invited people to join us. To the Lord’s glory there was fruit born out of these efforts. The city does provide options.

Go read the whole thing. And be sure to sample some of the other articles in the current issue:

Blogs comment on Miami 21


Here are a couple of interesting comments on the web regarding Miami 21, Miami Dade County's proposed replacement for its ancient and complicated zoning code. (You'll find my comments in the previous entry.)

From Out of Control, the blog of the libertarian Reason Public Policy Institute -- New Urbanism can be market-oriented and freedom-friendly:

For those of us that advocate market-oriented planning approaches, it is important to make a distinction between "new urbanism" and the control-minded "smart growth" movement that it typically gets confused with. Free marketers generally have no objection to new urbanist design principles per say; the objection comes when NU design is promulgated through highly prescriptive and coercive policy mechanisms. For more on this, check out this Practice of New Urbanism listserve discussion on the relationship between Libertarian and New Urbanist ideals; participants include Reason's own Sam Staley and NU guru Andres Duany, who will be leading Miami's zoning code rewrite.

Also check out this piece by Reason's Chris Fiscelli, which lays the groundwork for a market-oriented new urbanism.

Over at Planning Livable Communities, Sharon Machlis Gartenberg says the new code won't change Miami overnight, but will have an impact over time:

Even if this goes through, it will likely take years - perhaps decades - for a new zoning code to have major impact on a city the size of Miami. But in 2020, 15 years of development will have taken place with or without the zoning change. Miami 2020 will have a seriously different look and feel depending on the outcome of this zoning plan. Big kudos to them for making the effort.

The mistake so many local officials make is to look at hideous development patterns, whether in Miami or Rte. 9 in Framingham, and throw up their hands in despair. Had our local officials done something like this 20 years ago, we’d all be enjoying a nicer quality of life now in 2005.

A reader sends along a Miami Herald article (free registration required) about Miami's plans to dump its antiquated zoning code for a form-based code. It would be the largest city to adopt this approach to land use regulation, an approach that promises to make the process work better both for developers and for property owners. (Tulsans can learn more about form-based codes this Wednesday at TulsaNow's forum on the topic: "Passing the Popsicle Test: Building a Better Tulsa by Design." It's free and open to the public; 6:30 pm at the OSU-Tulsa Auditorium.)

A new high-rise condo building is cited as an example of the problems with the current code. Edgewater, an older neighborhood of single family homes, began to decline in the '70s and was dramatically "upzoned" to allow high-rises. Now you have a street of bungalows interrupted with a nine-story building with nothing but a garage entrance facing the street. Miami is trying to find a way to accommodate redevelopment and increasing density, while respecting the integrity of existing neighborhoods and encouraging a walkable environment. (A densely developed area combined with a streetscape that discourages walking is a recipe for traffic nightmares.)

The article cites several of the problems with the existing zoning code:

The explanation begins with the fact that parts of the current code date to the early 1900s, city officials say.

Since then, new regulations have been layered atop the old, so that the code has become dauntingly complex, filling several volumes and requiring developers and homeowners to hire lawyers for any significant work. Coconut Grove, for instance, has 22 different zoning designations, according to the planning department.

Sometimes, zoning has been rewritten for individual projects. Variances introduce even more unpredictability. Canny land-use lawyers make a living exploiting loopholes, and developers' political pull has often determined the outcome. The result is inconsistent decisions that lead to urban incoherence and embittered residents.

"We have a city that's the result of people being able to build whatever they want," said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the prominent planner and University of Miami architecture dean hired by the city to oversee Miami 21. "It was never planned, just platted and developed."

The current code regulates building uses and density, Plater-Zyberk said, but says little to nothing about urbanism -- the art of ensuring that individual buildings blend into a cohesive landscape that respects the human scale. There is nothing in it about how buildings should meet the sidewalk, where parking garages should go, where entrances should be, or requirements for streetfront shops and cafes to spur pedestrian activity.

Let me try to translate: Miami's current zoning code is concerned with controlling factors that don't really affect the city's livability, while ignoring the factors that really do make a difference. After eighty years of experimenting with zoning, it's apparent that zoning doesn't produce the kinds of neighborhoods and cities that are interesting and pleasant places to live. Decades of ham-handed regulation and government-driven redevelopment have created dead downtowns and suburbs with beautiful sidewalks that lead nowhere interesting. The traditional urban neighborhood has been outlawed. The automobile has gone from being a convenience to an absolute necessity for survival, and we've stranded the young, the old, and the handicapped.

New Urbanists, like Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who was quoted above, look back and seek to learn from the way cities were built before zoning codes were widely in use. Plater-Zyberk is one of a growing number of New Urbanist design professionals developing new approaches to land use regulation that provide more freedom for developers, provide more predictability for everyone involved in the process, and promise better results.

Miami 21, Miami's proposed new approach to land use regulation, has a home page, with links to a FAQ and a slideshow (a very large PDF file) illustrating the complexity and ineffectiveness of the current code and the promise of the proposed approach. One slide promises that the new approach will "make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective thus thwarting speculative development and reducing fear and opposition of development." And later, "The developer and the public have a clear set of regulations to know what to expect from the very beginning, in any given area, both in the public and private realm."

A clearer, fairer, more predictable process, resulting in better communities -- that should be what we're all after. Let's watch and see if Miami 21 can deliver on its promises.

Read delicious


Searching for blog references to Tulsa, I came across a website called The Big Apple, the core mission (sorry) of which is to provide extensive explanation and evidence for the origins of that fruity phrase, perhaps the best-known nickname for New York City. I'll give you a clue -- it has to do with horseracing. Another clue -- it has nothing to do with "road apples."

The site also features the origins of other city and state nicknames like "the Show-Me State," "the Big Easy," and "the Garden State."

Beyond the nicknames, there's a wealth of New York trivia about buildings, businesses (and their slogans), food and drink, songs, phrases, streets, neighborhoods, and sports teams. Most of the entries feature newspaper or magazine citations, trying to track down the earliest published reference to a name or phrase.

It's a fascinating site, but not very visual. If it's New York City photographs and history you want -- and plenty of both -- you need to visit Kevin Walsh's Forgotten NY.

(Oh, the Tulsa reference? It was a letter to the editor in the March 4, 2005, Tulsa Whirled, perpetuating a myth about the name's origin. A letter correcting the myth was sent to the Whirled, but never published.)

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from April 2005.

Cities: March 2005 is the previous archive.

Cities: May 2005 is the next archive.

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