Sunday, March 20, 2011

Towards a Simple Urbanist Zoning Code, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series I put out some ideas for how zoning codes could be reformed to produce better results for our cities. By allowing more density and smart mixtures of land uses we can cut pollution, save money, get more exercise, save habitat, spend less on gasoline and infrastructure, etc.

In this part I'll be talking about how to pitch this to the public. There is a broad academic literature in participatory urban planning out there and I'm not even going to come close to doing it justice. I just want to make a few observations.

1) Know Where the Power to Make the Decision Is - This will vary slightly from place to place, but usually with rezoning we're talking about a City Council or County Board of Supervisors. If the councilmembers have districts they will likely have strong influence within their districts, although some local governments have weak mayors and some have stronger mayors that can push a broader policy. Some don't have independently elected mayors at all and use a council-manager style of government. You have to know who has legitimacy to speak to these decisionmakers: their constituents. If you're trying to influence things in District A, don't expend your energy mobilizing the voters in District B or the voters in the whole city/county. Don't spend all of your time preaching to the choir. Find the people who need to be convinced. Find them any way you can: on the internet, in conversation, at meetings you organize, in newspaper editorial pages, whatever. Err on the side of reaching out too much :)

2) Relate Rezoning to Concrete Interests - Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled sound like abstract, wonky goals to a lot of people. How does that make people's lives better, particularly now, in this time of economic crisis? Talk about transportation options saving people money and giving people chances to exercise. Talk about housing options as a way of keeping children from moving away and making it easier to pay the rent/mortgage. Show people why they have a stake in this, even if they've never thought about planning much before.

3) Don't Talk Down to People - People know their neighborhoods well and have real insights to offer, even if they disagree with you. Don't be condescending and don't be a jerk with your language. Why use an esoteric term when you can use a plan-English term? We should make an effort to be understood. After all a "transportation mode" is just "a way of getting from A to B".

In fairness I make plenty of mistakes by these standards as well.
Really listening and compromising are valuable life skills in any kind of relationship, including the relationship of citizens in a municipality. We shouldn't rigidly hold on to our positions, but instead, as Fisher and Ury say in Getting to Yes focus on the underlying interests that motivate us to take those positions. Here are just some of the ways you could make incremental progress by compromising my zoning code:

1) Parking - Instead of eliminating parking minimums, just reduce them. It's better than nothing.
2) Mixed Use Zones - Retain separate use zones but try to mix them up more on your zoning map.
3) Height - Introduce more zones to give people more control over building height.
4) "Obnoxious" Uses - Instead of CUPs for bars and strip clubs you could segregate them into a "High-Impact Commercial Zone"
5) R-1 - Keep an R-1 zone but allow rowhouses in it instead of just detached houses.

The most important point is that no one person has a monopoly on good ideas. By reaching out to the community you can take the best urbanist thought and morph it into something politically realistic that moves us in the right direction. Getting to a deal is actually a very satisfying experience. Ideally at the end everyone feels listened to and respected, and we take some strides towards a more sustainable society together.

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