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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 5, NO. 2 -- SPRING 2003
 

The SmartCode: A Weapon to Fight the Sprawl War



"The SmartCode went off to the publisher today. It was a four-and-a-half-year wrestling match between the American reality and the American ideal. It was by far the most difficult thing that I have ever done." -- Andrés Duany, Jan 31, 2003

The SmartCode by DPZ is now available as an alternative to conventional zoning regulations. According to its lead author, Andrés Duany, the SmartCode is based on the traditional neighborhood model as it varies along the urban-to-rural Transect, "a natural law that can be observed anywhere," he said.

In keeping with the new urbanist principle that the neighborhood is the basic unit of urban form, the SmartCode provides design criteria for streets, blocks, open spaces and buildings based on their geographic location from rural preserve to urban core. Municipalities can now adopt the SmartCode as a replacement for the aging zoning ordinances often criticized by new urbanists for perpetuating sprawl.

"Genesis states that God created the world in seven days. On about the 10th day He created the neighborhood model," says Duany. "Without the neighborhood providing your daily needs, you die," he said. Duany describes the SmartCode design criteria as based on empirical data: measured examples of the best streets in traditional cities, such as Charleston or Alexandria. In the SmartCode, regulations that control street design, zoning, preserved and reserved open space, and building design are all allowed to work as an integrated system. This is not the case in conventional planning and zoning, he explains, in which the professional disciplines, land uses and design actions are assumed to operate independently of one another, generally at the expense of quality placemaking.

"The code reform war until now has been waged very slowly. ... In the absence of a standard, the task of custom-fitting each component of zoning reform must be repeated in each municipality, and each fight over the really progressive content must be refought in place after place," says town planner Victor Dover. "One gets drawn into the battle over parking requirements, the battle over setbacks and build-to lines, the skirmish over mixed land uses, the scuffle over street designs, and so on. Even at its best, new urbanist land development regulation today is practiced like Gothic cathedral-building -- it seems to take forever; the cost is enormous; very few individuals understand how the whole thing is meant to work; the result is a giant, one-of-a-kind thing. As a result, some turn out wonderful and some fall down. So we hope that the SmartCode begins instead a new era of plug-and-play usefulness, in which official implementation of new urbanist plans can be more rapid, less expensive, and we also hope a larger, more integrated package of regulatory change can be swallowed by local governments as a credible ensemble."

In contrast to most regulatory codes, the Smart Code is a thin document. Sparse in text, it is rich with graphics. One page illustrates a tier system of land development based on hamlets, villages, and town centers. Another page illustrates the spectrum from Natural Zone (T-1) and Rural Zone (T-2) to overlapping gradations leading to the Urban Core Zone (T-6), the most urban transect zone.

Planner Joseph Kohl adds, "Examining the SmartCode for the first time, it is important to realize that the code is a template. The organizing concepts, terminology, and layout are the important constants, but the language in the text and dimensional requirements can all be tweaked for the intended locale or existing conditions."

Kohl says the SmartCode will be a big success if it results in shifting street design standards away from the typical suburban rules, which include wide street dimensions theoretically needed for accommodating oversized fire trucks. "It would be sad if a municipality only adopts the land use regulation without the standards for specifics in neighborhood design and streets."

To that end, some new urbanist traffic engineers are concurrently working on reforming national roadway design manuals to support the approach in the SmartCode. Traffic engineer Rick Hall says the new work will use transect criteria for street design, introducing a new functional classification based on boulevards, avenues, streets, and roads.

Traffic engineer Rick Chellman describes traffic engineering as ripe for change. "In Massachusetts, the new governor has ordered the DOT to rewrite all of the state design criteria by October -- and to take more account of pedestrians and bicyclists in the process. The ITE and Ellen Greenberg at CNU are working with the EPA and other agencies to develop a new street design manual supportive of new urbanism."

Naturally, the accumulating experience of users will bring to light areas for improvement. "First we have to make sure the SmartCode is as smart as it can be, for example, on parking requirements, visitability, and the like," said Dover. "That is best done with comparable case studies, so we should not be hesitant about deploying the code. Then we need to be sure that local governments go into this process aware that there will be a future need for upgrades and updates of the rules. Hopefully the users will communicate with one another about their discoveries," he continued.

Duany says the citizens have the ultimate say in the future of the places they live. To apply the SmartCode, he asks them, "Do you want to be a city in 50 years or do you want to be a town?" "This awakes in the populace the big vision," he explains. "With a SmartCode in place and pre-permitted building types off the shelf, it will be easier for their big vision to become reality."

A summary of the SmartCode version 6.5, with supplemental essays and diagrams, has been printed by The Town Paper and may be downloaded at no charge. The complete file of SmartCode version 9.0 and other resources may be downloaded at SmartCode Central.