by Barry Watkins
The old codes are destroying our cities!
Around the middle of the 20th century a revolution occurred. Cities across the US adopted “modern” land development codes that changed everything about the way we built things. We as a nation turned a corner in our history. Our love affair with the automobile was in full swing and it became very popular for our cities to adopt the newest, most progressive ideas. The latest, new idea at the time? — Build everything for the car!
All of the current codes in Brevard basically follow the conventional late 20th-century car-centric pattern. Unfortunately, this new wave of city design had some unforeseen negative side-effects. We didn’t predict that cities built for cars would actually be toxic to basic human activities like walking.
So, exactly how are the land development codes destroying our cities and towns? Well, there are many ways that car-centric codes negatively affect our lives, but we’re just going to touch on a couple… One of the traits of the late-20th-century codes is they hyper-separated segments of our cities into single-use zones. These zones carve our cities and towns into isolated pods that cannot contain complete communities at a walkable scale, but instead force people to drive to perform daily tasks like shopping and commuting to work. Car-centric coding has even made walking or biking to school and soccer or baseball practice a thing of the past. Current “open space” and school location requirements are too vague and don’t take walkability into account. Kids rely on their parents to cart them around for absolutely everything. We have become almost completely a car-dependent society!
Because they’re all about the car, the conventional codes create streets designed for moving cars at the highest possible speed so people can get from one pod to the other quickly. Because cars are king, our codes don’t even allow shade trees along the edge of our streets. Street trees are defined in the conventional codes as an “obstruction” to a car and deemed “unsafe”. No street trees however means no shade on our sidewalks and no barrier between the cars and pedestrians — not good for walkability. Ironically, we are now learning that street trees actually reduce traffic fatalities partly because they provide a visual cue and make drivers more aware of their speed causing them to slow down.
So, what’s the cure?
The cure obviously is to change the rules. We can go thru the pain-staking task of revising our existing codes line by line and replace the current car-centric policies with pedestrian-friendly ones, or we can plug in a set of walkability policies as an addendum to the current code. Which sounds easier and more practical? Fortunately, there is a set of policies designed to be plugged in to the existing code that is proven to do the job. It’s called the SmartCode and it’s being used successfully in cities all over the US and even in other countries all around the world.
The SmartCode is based on the idea that we should design places in walkable intervals (called “pedestrian sheds”) so that walking for daily tasks is possible instead of forcing people to drive so much. The SmartCode introduces mixed-use Transect Zones to replace conventional single-use zones and requires that development accommodate walking, bicycling, and transit as well as cars. It prescribes that a diversity of Transect Zones (T-Zones) be allocated within each neighborhood. The different T-Zones control building heights, front yard depths, and other parameters that help to preserve the desired character on any given block within the neighborhood. It creates walkable streets by requiring narrower lanes, continuous wide sidewalks, street trees, smaller turning radii at corners, etc. vs. the old car-centric codes. The street types in the code vary and help to complement the character of the T-Zone thru which they pass.
The graphic above is a quick illustration of the kind of changes the SmartCode brings. Where it makes some of the most dramatic differences is in retail and commercial areas. When pedestrians are made a priority it effects everything about the way we build things. This holds true in our residential neighborhoods as well. One important thing to keep in mind about the way the SmartCode works however is that although it can make dramatic improvements it also ensures compatibility with existing development. We will be talking in greater detail about the SmartCode in future posts. Stay tuned. Please post comments and questions right here on this blog. You can also follow #smartcodebrevard on Twitter and join in on the conversation there. If you like what you’re hearing here about the SmartCode and would like to support it’s adoption in your area please contact your local officials and let them know. Share this article with them. Let’s get behind something together that will propel us forward into creating those walkable places that we all would love to see!
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