After three decades in the planning profession and several more years since retirement, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want your community to maintain or build a funky, hip, offbeat, or eccentric vibe, it can not be done by applying traditional zoning or form-based codes. There is too much of an emphasis on “traditional,” “aesthetics,” “character,” and “consistency.” In fact, I would go as far as to say that most master plans and zoning codes are the antithesis of fun, whimsical, or eclectic.
This is not to say that traditional or form-based ordinances do not have their place, but when taken to the extreme, which they almost always are, the community can become a monolithic doldrum of same old, same old. While that might help keep up property values for some in the capitalist marketplace, it does not necessarily make for a positive and inclusive living environment for the larger populace.
Let’s face it, Euclidean-based planning and zoning regulations tend to maintain property values and exclusivity for the haves, while keeping out undesirable uses and the associated have-nots. In large part, the only places consistently found to have an atmosphere that exudes unique are college towns, though that is often limited to certain avenues/areas of commerce such as Harvard Square in Cambridge, East Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, High Street in Columbus; and Historic Fourth Avenue in Tucson. You can also find some neighborhood pockets of funky in larger cities, though once they “get discovered” tend to gentrify into the prefabricated mold of conventionality.
In the profession today, planners rightfully go to great strides to bring all stakeholders into the discussion. Unfortunately, if you are not already a stakeholder (a have-not), how can you truly participate on an even playing field with the haves?
When I visit places like Madrid, New Mexico; Bisbee, Arizona; Casey, Illinois; Leadville, CO; and other offbeat, eclectic, and funky towns/city neighborhoods, I am repeatedly reminded of how much “vibrancy” is missing throughout most American cities and towns. As a result, we often fail as planners.
So…how do we correct or reverse this problem? Well…it won’t be easy given the entrenched forces of real estate, banking, insurance, transportation, politics, regulators, etc. that often fight any thoughts of change or “something different.” Here are just a few thoughts/ideas though to consider:
- Consider releasing certain areas of the community from the strict dogma of zoning as an economic development incentive. This is NOT to say zoning should be abolished in it’s entirety, but instead it means the onerous aspects that can limit creativity, whimsy, and flair, should be stricken or at least waived. Who cares if an art gallery wants to put a funky carved cowboy out front? As long as it doesn’t cause a health or safety issue, let it be.
- Code enforcers should concern themselves primarily with health and safety-related issues, not style. Too often, overly restrictive codes wipe out all semblence of fun, offbeat, and eclectic. As a result, what you end up with is too often both bland and boring!
- Let signs be fun and whimsical again. Every sign doesn’t have to be a rectangular box on a pole or on masonry foundation. And, neon is good, too!
- Go beyond traditional boundaries to include the have-nots in the formulation of plans/codes. These could include artists, crafters, the houseless, advocacy groups, seniors, young adults, and especially minorities and the underprivileged.
- Amend your standards to be broader and more inclusive — aesthetics, character, traditional, and similar words are simply code speak for maintaining the status quo.
- If the structure is already there, don’t force it to conform to modern zoning setbacks, parking, landscaping, and the rest. All that does is speed up the chances for the building to be demolished in favor of something that will likely be far-less charming.
- Blight is a tough subject. While many forms of blight are problematic, there are circumstances where it can be both appropriate and enhancing to the community. For example, old mining towns like Madrid, NM and Bisbee, AZ would be far less interesting without the remnants of their mining past remaining there as part of the landscape. So, in situations where there is an extended contextual or social relationship between the objects and the history and culture of the location, let them remain. If not, then enforcement measures may be necessary.
- Lastly, don’t create a “one-size-fits-all code” that is so restrictive that it limits options/new ideas gained from citizens, businesses, as well as the staff who are administering the regulations.
Please feel free to write and provide feedback on these thoughts. These ideas are not meant to be a cure-all, but more just a conversation starter on ways to make our communities more vibrant, fun, and inclusive. Peace!