All community development passes through a series of doorways on its way to construction. Two very important doorways are those for urban design, and municipal administration. Although both well-intentioned, their current techniques and methods struggle to fully integrate and deliver a coherent system for building great communities. In fact, over the course of the last 50 years the two have evolved into separate silos in their approach toward community development.
Urban design is necessarily complex and inherently “messy”. The demands of markets, financing, technology, society and environment change continually and at different rates in relation to one another. Urban design has to address these “moving targets” proactively to provide successful development outcomes. Municipal Planning is politically conceptualized and procedurally rigid. The demands of constituencies and interest groups influence the responsiveness of mayors and councils. Planning Departments respond reactively by emphasizing the transparency and accountability of their “process” rather than the success or failure of development outcomes. The results are counterproductive to effective community development, which requires “messy” urban design to be married with a “predictable” process of planning administration to insure the delivery of resilient communities. The methods, training and experiences of each silo further reinforce this dichotomy and encourage continued specialization in the other, which creates conflicts and inconsistencies in the documents, methods, and procedures used to guide and enable community development.
The most obvious examples can be seen when comparing a municipality’s comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance & map, and small area plans, the three sets of documents that comprise conventional planning. Different legal requirements and processes, timelines, and priorities have riddled the provisions, goals, and intents of these documents with conflicting language, inconsistent requirements, gaps in intent, and competing design goals. Attempts to solve these have caused more confusion. The rise of conditional zoning in recent years is one direct result of “patches” and “quick-fixes” aimed at circumventing the limitations inherent within the current approaches. The two most important of the three sets of documents supporting a community’s development potential are the Comprehensive Plan and Small Area Plan. Together they should define and illustrate the vision as agreed upon by residents for their community. Unfortunately, they have also become the most compromised and ineffectual.
Updates to Comprehensive Plans are encouraged to be reflected in other administrative documents such as the zoning ordinance, in design documents such as small area plans for neighborhoods, and city policies such as park, transportation and housing initiatives, to name but a few. However, many of these also carry legal weight, such as Zoning Ordinances. Certain small area plans that require infrastructure funding, or enable affordable housing using State and Federal programs also have varying degrees of legal authority and oversight. However, Comprehensive Plans are merely advisory and are not subjected to daily use, let alone, update and revision. Adding to the level of internal conflict is the practice of using the comprehensive planning process as the main and often only public outreach opportunity to identify a community’s priorities for action and investment. Because of the hype and promise piled onto such events they more often than not become rallying points for citizen activism and obstructionism. The intent of Comprehensive Planning is not the problem. Comprehensive Planning is and should be a cornerstone of community development. Its “Achilles Heel” lies with how it is conceived and executed. It has become a relic of the time period during which it was conceived as a planning tool. Today the velocity and volume of change and the data available demands a different approach. Contemporary community development expectations and needs require a committed and robust process of outreach and implementation because cities and towns are complex and constantly evolving systems. However, a robust and committed process is what current Comprehensive planning practice is least able to support.
Small area plans suffer a different fate. Small Area plans are even more advisory in nature than a Comp Plan. Tied to broad level policies within the Comprehensive Plan, they are often drawn from “30,000 feet” and lack the precision to identify and illustrate practical outcomes “on-the ground”. Serious consideration of their intent typically awaits a vetting from developer led submissions and as a result the final plans bear little resemblance to the initial visions embraced by the public once market considerations and actual zoning are taken into account. For plans not subjected to implementation, the day-to-day changes and amendments to a municipality’s Zoning Ordinance and Map quickly render them outdated. It is not an exaggeration to say that most communities have large collections of forgotten Comp Plans and Small Area plans on department shelves.
The reason is because much goes on in the legally authorized, day-to-day administration and development of a community through its Zoning Ordinance, the final of the three community development documents. Changes to the zoning ordinance outpace the less frequently employed Comprehensive Plan and Small Area Plan. When and if the time comes to “update” one or the other of the two, the process merely catches up the old Plans with what has accumulated in the Zoning Ordinance since they were last considered. Because the municipal side of the process is structured to be reactive, work to update the Plans tends to focus on removing, or adding barriers to some hotly contested political issue mostly by means of amending the Zoning Ordinance rather than engaging in a thorough update of the Plans. The steady accumulation of Zoning amendments increases the conflicts between all three documents and seriously compromises a community’s future potential. It is a main cause of public frustration expressed against development and planning at official meetings and workshops.
There are several ways to rectify the disparities between Comp Plans, Small Area Plans and Zoning Ordinances. The ordering of the effort is not as important as the acknowledgement of the final system and the role each document plays in creating and delivering effective community development. We call this process and the techniques involved Full Spectrum Community Development. CODE•Brevard aims to start the process by first updating and restructuring its existing zoning ordinance, also referred to as the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). The update centers on an analysis of the financial and environmental aspects of the City. For most municipalities land is a finite resource. Constant expansion to take advantage of new opportunities for growth has been proven to be unsustainable fiscally, environmentally and socially. Brevard has the added constraints of topography and climate. Steep slopes and heavy rainfall limit the practical footprint available for growth. The City has to make sure to always wisely develop its land resource through proper planning.
Accurately zoning and mapping how the City administers growth is the primary task of a Zoning Ordinance. To update the UDO, CODE•Brevard analyzed the fiscal and environmental attributes of the City. Tax revenues, storm water runoff, and utility infrastructure were studied to make determinations about the optimum locations within the City and its ETJ for development and the density of development. Not all locations in the City are ideal for development or redevelopment. Even the type of development, whether car based or people based, is determined by location. The CODE•Brevard Team reviewed the City’s existing Environmental Ordinances to determine the affectiveness of regulations and proposed changes where required to insure that the results of the analysees would be reflected in the update to the UDO. Layered onto the environmental assessent the Team also studied the tax base and revenue generation of differing development types, with the end goal being to ascertain if enough high performing tax base existed to subsidize less performing tax base. Finally the Team layered these two assessements onto an examination of the City’s current water and sewer infrastructure to make sure it married with the best locations for growth and redevelopment.
The studies and reports engaged to revise the UDO serve not only to write a more precise Zoning Ordinance and prepare an accurate Zoning Map, but also kick-start the process of updating and re-envisioning the role of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. The Economic and Environmental attributes addressed by the Zoning update start the process of positioning Brevard to address these as well as Social and Cultural attributes in a more progressive and sustained manner from the public outreach and urban design perspectives. The urban design perspective, in the form of improved small area plans will offer the Community a more accurate method for visualizing how it can grow. With the completion of the full draft of the new Zoning the City can begin to properly prepare Small Area plans that reflect the provisions and design standards of the Ordinance. Work to reconcile and improve the planning of the “West Loop”, Downtown, “The Pisgah Gateway”, and the Ecusta Property will begin in 2017 and help to calibrate the new Zoning, as well as inform future economic, environmental, social and cultural studies for Brevard’s new Comprehensive Plan.
To view the CODE•Brevard Economic and Environmental Study, please click here to download a PDF of the presentation.