Zoning out: Cities rewrite codes to transform their look

Mar 28, 2011

Zoning is the DNA of a community: it controls how you live, shop, and work.

After nearly a century of many cities separating those uses, now, they’re going back to the future: trying to recreate an old way of life.

Streetsboro, Ohio is one such place.

Drive down its main commercial district and it has nearly every chain store you can imagine: A Walmart and a Target, a Lowes and a Home Depot.

Some call it sprawl. Streetsboro calls it economic development.

This six-lane strip of big box shopping centers has served this city well since its explosive growth started in the 1960s. It just doesn’t look like a traditional town.

The town center is an intersection with a grassy knoll on one side. But Jeff Pritchard is in charge of planning there now and he’s aiming for a future Streetsboro that would look very different.

These big box stores could eventually be replaced by attractive housing and shops. The way towns and cities used to be.

 “A place where they can walk to a corner store, maybe live above a store, says Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “And, those kinds of things, that’s illegal in America today in so many of our communities."

Illegal because of zoning.  In many cities and towns, zoning codes don’t allow living and working in the same place. And, when zoning spread across the country in the 1920s and 30s, that was considered a good thing.

 “ You didn’t want to have a slaughter house next to a residential apartment,” Flint says.

But those issues aren’t as big a deal anymore.

As the Great Lakes region reinvents itself, there’s a growing feeling among planners and thinkers that much of the public wants to spend less time in their cars.

They point to rising gas prices, and think fewer people will want the single family home separated from everything else in their lives. So, cities as diverse as Peoria with its historic downtown, and Pontiac, Michigan, with its post-industrial woes are joining Streetsboro in rethinking their zoning.

The change could be dramatic: something called form-based code.

In his Streetboro planning office, Pritchard shows the city’s current colorful zoning map: purple for industry, yellow for homes, pink for those big box stores.

But there’s no overlap, no mingling of uses.

Form-based code is the opposite. It encourages mixing.

The city controls how a building looks and operates: say, three stories high, up against the curb, parking in the back. But it doesn’t dictate the use. So, it could be housing and shops in the same building.

How does this work in the real world?

A decade ago, Miami, Florida had a mess of buildings, but some streets had few shops at street level. So, city planner Ana Gelabert-Sanchez pushed for parts of the city to try form-based code.

She says the zoning now allows for the kinds of streets more residents want to live and walk on.

“Younger people started moving into downtown because they wanted to live close by,” she says. “They wanted to work close by. So, it’s happening. And, what I think is great is that it’s happening at every age.”

But is this a life everyone wants? Critics say this is government dictating how people should live and that there isn’t enough evidence that a broad swath of the population really yearns to return to dense, urban areas.

“I sort of chuckle at those sorts of arguments,” says Lolita Buckner Inniss of the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. She says form-based code, and the larger so-called New Urbanist movement, is based on a nostalgic notion of cities.

For many people, they had no choice but to live in a dense neighborhood.

“That wasn’t necessarily something that they sought or that was beneficial,” Inniss says.  “That was how they lived. Many of those people, when they got the opportunity, looked for less density, more fresh air.”

That’s not stopping Streetsboro officials from trying to turn a part of this exurb into more of a traditional town.

It will likely take years or decades before the changes are noticeable.

Standing in front of Walmart, Sean Smetak and Becky Slattery had a hard time imagining this strip having sidewalks and people walking.

“No, no, it’s too busy, definitely too busy,” they said.

But, they have no love for the way it looks now.