Objective Design Standards are Form-Based Codes

Urban Design

Posted on: https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2023/01/26/objective-design-standards-are-form-based-codes

The state of California is responding to the nation’s second highest housing costs (behind only Hawaii) with regulatory reforms that promote form-based codes along transit lines and commercial corridors.

California’s long standing “Not-In-My-Backyard” (NIMBY) culture has exacerbated the problems of high housing costs and homelessness. Over the past 50 years, conventional zoning ordinances and entitlement processes have conspired to support NIMBY intentions to stop new housing from being built near existing homes. But six years ago, state legislators began passing laws to address California’s acute housing crisis. 

These bills are removing local policy and regulatory impediments to more housing via Objective Design Standards (ODS) with Streamlined Permit Processing. The intent of ODS is to build more affordable and attainable housing along transit and strip commercial corridors that are ripe for redevelopment. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has been championing these two important issues for over 30 years. 

The influential Charter for the New Urbanism had its roots in California, where many of CNU founders helped write the Ahwahnee Principles in 1991 (the principles were, essentially, a first draft of the Charter). Unfortunately, the state, like much of the nation as a whole, continued to promote sprawling development patterns for three more decades. And yet, with 39 million residents, California is often at the forefront of regulatory and cultural trends. The Golden State’s land use reforms could have an important impact beyond its borders.

Since 2017, CNU and California legislators agree that many of the barriers to building new urban housing are found in outdated zoning codes. Form-based codes (FBCs), developed by new urbanist practitioners in cooperation with cities and developers, are land use regulations that facilitate more predictable built outcomes, with explicit design standards that shape a community’s physical form. Both FBCs and the California’s mandated ODS are presented in clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals to show what is allowed without relying on the discretion of a city staff member and hearing bodies. 

In 2003, Andres Duany and CNU-California Chapter members provided research that influenced Government Code section 65302.4, promoting the language and diagrams of form-based codes: “This tool achieves certainty over the physical outcome of land use and development decisions while enhancing flexibility to create more infill or infrastructure as needed. Cities in California that have used form-based codes, such as Ventura, Benicia, and Petaluma, provide examples of this practice.”

Drawing by Howard Blackson

The state’s ODS language first appeared in SB 35 in 2017, in the Housing Accountability Act. California cities are now required to streamline new development reviews using ODS. These regulatory standards are the now the only basis for cities to deny eligible by-right housing and mixed-use projects. 

The following series of state laws require ODS:

SB 2 Building Homes and Jobs Act (2017) provides technical assistance to help cities and counties prepare, adopt, and implement streamlined permit processes housing projects using Objective Design Standards (ODS). The California Department of Housing and Community Development, in coordination with the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, developed this ODS toolkit to explain how these are more predictable and easier to interpret for all stakeholders, including decision makers, staff, applicants, and members of the public. 

SB 35 Affordable Housing Streamlined Approval Process (2017) creates an opt-in program for developers that allows a streamlined ministerial approval process for developments in localities that have not yet made sufficient progress toward meeting their regional housing need allocation (RHNA). Eligible developments must include a specified level of affordability; be on an infill site; comply with existing residential and mixed-use general plan or zoning provisions; and comply with other requirements such as, locational and demolition restrictions. The streamlined, ministerial entitlement process relies on objective design standards.

SB 330 Housing Crisis Act (2019) require a housing development project to comply with objective, quantifiable, written development standards, conditions, and policies appropriate to, and consistent with, meeting the jurisdiction’s RHNA share.

SB 9 Housing Development (2021) requires ministerial approval of a housing development of no more than two units in a single-family zone (duplex), the subdivision of a parcel zoned for residential use into two parcels (lot split), or both. Authorizes a city or county to impose objective zoning, subdivision, and design review standards.

AB 2668 Planning and Zoning (2022) further amend SB 35 by removing perceived ambiguities in the law regarding the application process and the local review process. And when a local government determines that a development submitted pursuant to this section is consistent with its objective planning standards, it must approve the development.

SB 6 and AB 2011 (2022) rezones commercial areas on major boulevards for three-to-six story residential development that includes labor standards and health care requirements in a bid to improve conditions for construction workers and will go into effect July 1, 2023, until January 1, 2033. These require cities to enable a by-right, streamlined, ministerial approval process for multifamily housing with Affordable Housing developments located on commercial corridors using specified site criteria, objective design standards, and prevailing wage labor standards.

In December, 2022, the Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America announced that Bay Area design firm, Opticos, won the 16th annual FBCI Form-Based Code Award for the firm’s Objective Design and Development Standards in Marin County, California. The award jury selected these ODS regulations as a model form-based code. Marin County’s ODS/FBC implements Marin County’s Countywide Plan through context-specific standards based on local development patterns.

Cities are responding to ODS requirements in several ways. Many are simply ignoring the requirement and awaiting future state enforcement. Others are taking their current subjective standards, striking out subjective language, and hoping for the best. Still others are using dedicated state funds to hire experienced California new urbanists to reform local zoning via FBC models, such as Marin County, Santa BarbaraLos Altos, and Carlsbad.

This ODS/FBC approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and suburban measurements (e.g., Floor Area Ratios, dwellings per acre, setbacks, and parking ratios), followed by a series of discretionary review permit processes, which historically has not provided enough housing and led to the state legislator’s intervention. In short, FBCs and ODS-explicit standards allow for faster permitting processes that are better regulatory tools to provide more housing on infill development-ready corridors. Let’s continue to reform California’s regulations to build more places that are transit-supported, walkable, sustainable, and enjoyable for everyone.

Find additional Objective Design Standards and Form-Based Code information herehere, and here.

IN SEARCH OF EQUILIBRIUM…

Social Justice, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Contemporary North American urban design tools provide a pathway for a more sustainable future by their ability to balance the competing economic, environmental, and social equity interests at the region, city, neighborhood, block, and lot scales. These Covid years appear to have accelerated development patterns that have been gradually shifting over the past three decades towards more sustainable outcomes. The United States cultural shift towards more urban living is well documented (Ed Glaeser, Triumph of the City, 2012). And contemporary urban development expectations are being built today as originally formulated by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) practitioners in the early 1990s (Peter Katz, The New Urbanism, 1993).

These three pillars of sustainability, environmental, economic, and equity, provide a structure for measuring or testing North America’s design trajectory today. The United States’ historical values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our 20th-century traditions, culture, cities, and buildings are being re-examined and deconstructed in today’s social equity and justice moment. We acknowledged the environmental pillar in the 60s and 70s. We learned to understand the economics of sustainability in the 90s and 00s. And this past decade we are immersed in a meaningful and healthy understanding of social equity.

In the past, our culture (music, socializing, celebrations, food, worshipping) had secure foundations in public buildings, streets, squares, and plazas (churches, concert halls, theaters, pubs, and markets), and less so within the private home. Then the generation of the mid-20th century added the new by-products of the industrial revolution with television, cars, the highway, and suburbia to these public and private places (drive-in theaters, drive-thru diners, freeway overpass protests, tv movies, tv evangelists, tv news, home theaters, home cafes, home entertainment, backyard pools), which shifted our culture towards a more private life.

Today, we are adding smart phone technology to these public and private spaces while shifting again, but this time away from insular private suburban culture and transitioning towards a more balanced public and private life. These smart phones are our 21st-century version of urban renewal, allowing us to re-inhabit and re-animate public buildings, streets, squares, and plazas cheaper, faster, and with more friends and family. Within a century, everything in our culture changed with how we share music, socialize, celebrate, eat, worship, and take selfies with smartphone technology in our daily lives and cultural norms. Importantly, due to the global pandemic, the design responses to shaping our cities, towns, and building are dramatically changing again.

… in preparation of our ecological Pearl Harbor moment.

Climate Action Plan, Social Justice, Urban Design, Urban Planning

In designing our cities towards economic, environmental, and social equilibrium, we are able to achieve an ethical and sustainable approach to city building. The next few posts will be an exploration of the history, present, and future role of urban design in building regions, cities, towns, and neighborhoods towards a more sustainable city. As North America transitions towards more human-scale urban development patterns in its post-industrial society, and more rapidly in response to the urgency of the global pandemic, urban design is able to incrementally guide cities and neighborhoods towards more sustainable global outcomes. Our built environment’s acute response to the pandemic has prepared our society to respond immediately to forthcoming climatic calamities. The late 19th to mid-20th century of industrialized modernist era designed development, suburban sprawl most notably, are complicit in the scandalous emission of greenhouse gases that have rapidly changed our climate and resulting environmental and social malaise our world is experiencing today. The three pillars of sustainability, environmental, economic, and equity, provide a structure for measuring or testing North America’s design trajectory today.

The United States historical values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our 20th century traditions, culture, cities, and buildings are being re-examined and deconstructed in today’s social equity and justice moment. We acknowledged the environmental pillar in the 60s and 70s. We learned to understand the economics of sustainability in the 90s and 00s. And this past decade we are immersed in a meaningful and healthy understanding of Social Equity. Depending on local context, the next urbanism will move our urban design processes towards achieving an equitable balance between these three pillars as the the most appropriate urban design response to social justice and economic issues is to build towards environmental, social, and economic stability or equilibrium.

The Next New Urbanism

Transit, Urban Design, Urban Planning

This Covid year has accelerated development patterns that have been shifting over the past decade, and as originally formulated by New Urbanists 20 years before. Do you support transit-oriented development? Participating in charrettes? Reforming your zoning with form-based codes? Then thank a New Urbanist. There are many prominent patterns emerging right now, including less commuting; more home/work balance; less industry expansion; and more technology-based business growth in a post-industrial economy.

Detroit Shifting Towards Industrialization Patterns in the 20th Century.

These shifts are changing the way we work, just like the industrial revolution changed our world 130 years ago by creating new building types and city-making technology with the invention of steel. In response to that revolution, our cities were reconfigured with skyscrapers, blocks of offices/factories, highways, and cars.

Many cities were reconfigured during that time, but Detroit is our nation’s most dramatic shift to and from industrialization patterns in the 20th century.

Now, as we shift into our post-industrial age—and deeper into the age of climate calamity—we are able to measure both its successes and failures. For example, classicism works best at the human scale, but it failed us at the industrial scale when it became an ornament/style and a fascist/authoritarian tool. The international style failed us at the human scale but is ubiquitous because it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to build. And modernism was a disaster at every scale (Google Léon Krier; he was right).

We are once again entering a brave new era with the opportunity to create a balanced approach to architecture, building types, and city-making techniques that are intended to civilize and modify the best and worst of our industrial advances with the best of our human-scaled buildings and places. By using a full spectrum of 21st century placemaking tools, the Next New Urbanism is able to advance the human condition toward a more sustainable future.

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Pre-Industrial and Post-Industrial Urbanism… in search of Equilibrium.

Industrialization (or The Education of Howard Blackson)

Climate Action Plan, Leon Krier, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Industrialization via the internal combustion machine changed the world (or the Dynamo as described in the great autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams) when it created steel that created new industrial scaled building types. The factories, offices, and skyscrapers were invented in the late 19th century. And because this invention happened during our western civilization’s Neoclassical era, this familiar classical architecture was applied and used to ‘humanize’ these new buildings. However, because the building forms were new, the classicism was applied as a façade, and thereby is ornament… or this mismatched scale made classicism more of a style than a building technology.

A New Age Industrial Scale Office Building Expressed in a Classical Architectural Style, 1920
A New Age Skyscraper in the Classical Architectural Style.

The technology of building at the human scale was obliterated by the modern industrial materials, energy, and resulting scale. Along with these new engines and buildings, new forms of mobility rose as well, trains, streetcars, and then automobiles transformed with the age. The industrial scale of car production created another mismatch in our traditional city environment. Industrialized suburban sprawl was fueled by this auto production.

Leon Krier Alerted us to this in the Early 1970s.

Modern architecture formed in a parallel track. Le Corbusier’s 1923 book, ‘Towards a New Architecture‘ responded to this new scale w/an industrial design aesthetic post WW1. And until post WW2, cities used both classical and international styles on modern scaled buildings and places. And I am writing this next sentence as carefully as possible because it is an extremely volatile subject… it was the WW2 fascist Axis power’s adoption of classicism as an authoritarian tool at an industrial scale that shamed the use of classicism almost out of existence for generations in both academia and society’s elite. For such, classicism was rightfully deemed a failure. Leaving us limited to only one architectural tool, the untested International Style/modernism, to integrate industrialization into our cities over time. And it eventually failed too.

Industrial Scaled Buildings Expressed with International Style Architecture.

Classical style failed us architecturally at the industrial scale. It had worked fine for thousands of years pre-industrial age and scale. And the International Style failed us urbanistically when applied to the pre-Industrial city. And I dare say the Industrial scaled city (suburban sprawl) has failed use urbanistically as well. This was a lesson Frank Gehry’s ‘Bilbao Effect’ taught us. That the traditional city works great and modernist architecture fits in it well in juxtaposition to it and its classical architecture… adding complexity and excitement to the same old classical buildings set in the same old traditional streetscapes.

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It Was the Architectural Tuning of Place to Create Complexity!

The following are general lessons learned. Modern architecture works fine above the traditional city as long as it doesn’t meet the street/ground. And, classical/traditional architecture works well at the human scale when it touches the ground, but it has to be at the small block and up to mid-rise scale (not at an industrialized size). The traditional city pattern works best to make urbanism. Modern architecture works well when set in natural spaces.

The Salk

Using all of these tools today allows us to build better cities, places, and experiences. A century and change later, we no longer need to censor one while villainizing the other. They both work fine in certain situations and not so well in others. These are just tools that can work together if we understand how to use them.

Expanding on Leon Krier’s Tuning of Architectural Settlements with Classical and Non-Classical Buildings Creating a Variety of Place Types.

We are unfortunately in a new climatic calamity era and are thereby fortunately free of the surly bonds of mid-20th century style wars. I find it maddening that designers and urbanist still argue over style when industrialization is the root cause of our current climate/social calamity! We industrialized work and segregated our society. We industrialized our food and have put our health at risk. We used industrialized machines to emit coal and oil carbon particles into our atmosphere and are heating up our finite planet. We industrialized our health care and extended our lives and increased our population, so it has its merits too. What we need to address is that most people still see industrialization as the only tool to fix what originally caused these calamities… truly, a modern day Aesop’s fable.

In our new 21st century post-industrial/climate calamity era, we are now able to use every tool available to us to build more sustainable cities and places that range from More Industrial to Less Industrial / More Traditional to Less Traditional depending on its context.

Finally Free to Design Using all of our Tools in the Toolkit!

That Feeling of being at Home…

Urban Design

We need to be grounded in that feeling of being around friends and family… Home. Being  home is the idea that goes to the heart of what makes food (neighborhoods) great.

It is an approach to cooking (urban design) that is rooted in respect. Respect for the ingredients (people/places), respect for tradition. It gives the fancy innovations and clever deconstructions a heart and a soul. – Anthony Bourdain, 2008 (Spain – No Reservations)

He said this at the end of an episode describing why the best restaurants in the world were found in Spain. And it encapsulated succinctly how I see urban design, as noted by my parentheses mixed into his quote above. From the intended designed experiences, ingredients and elements, to the reliance on traditions for innovation.

The above photo of Anthony and President Obama eating noodles and drinking cold beer in Hanoi reminded me of my time living in Korea and Singapore in the ’90s. I traveled everywhere, designed a few interesting places, and surfed some exotic spots. It was wonderful. But when I was feeling too foreign and out of sorts with everyone around me, I would go eat at McDonald’s, seek out ex-pat friends for beers, and sit down to watch any American football/basketball/baseball game in order to ground myself in that feeling of home.

The places we inhabit should be purposely arranged and cultivated to bring both the delight of the new and unexpected along with a recognizable structure and traditions to our neighborhoods and homes. Anthony mentioned that too…

The featured Spanish chief in 2008 said he simply wanted to bring joy and order to his guest’s experiences. And to avoid being boring or too serious, because ultimately, we have to be happy.

Especially today.

[Our nation’s old values, attitudes, and prejudices that built our traditions, culture, and homes are being deconstructed today. This is meaningful and healthy, for we can pick and choose what is useful and move forward towards a braver, more just world rather taking the extraordinary risks of having reinventing everything with more failures than successes, especially with most of us living on the razor-thin economic margins. Do Well, Doubt Not!]

Pop-Up Pandemic Plazas and Parklets

Innovation Districts, Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

PopUp1

Three Types of Open Air Spaces

PopUp2

Pop Up Parklet

PopUp3

Pop Up Plaza

PopUp4

Pop Up San Diego Scenario

PopUp5

Pop Up Spaces Defined

PopUp6

Pop Up Plaza, Parklet and Full Block Plaza

These illustrations and site plans are intended to assist our cities in enabling open-air markets in streets and rights-of-way. A follow up to the Podcast interview I had with Andrew Keatts this week (click here), the math shows that a full block provides the most area to enable more dining and shopping to be located in neighborhood centers located every half-mile or so apart. These ‘streateries’ would be managed and operated by local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and Main Street organizations in order to be equitable across the city without it being shop by shop and coordinate efforts and resources (money) to enable us to have a safe place to go to dine in/out, shop in/out, and communicate with others.

San Diego simply doesn’t have enough local parks and plazas to handle the excess space needed to bring small businesses back to our neighborhoods. These places are intended to help small businesses reopen, as well as provide more public space to safely re-emerge from our homes and back into our neighborhoods. These standards would mitigate for social distancing while allowing the local shops to expand their capacity with the biggest issues to be planned for are conflicts between cars and people and maintaining socializing distancing.

The state is beginning to allow shops and restaurants to reopen at 50% capacity and still offer take out service. These plazas are intended to provide that other 50% capacity to help these businesses. In these standard 3-feet by 5-feet ‘safe zones,’ surrounded by a 6-feet social distancing area, are able to comfortably provide a table with two chairs, or a merchandise display, clothing racks, and a place to sit and wait for food while enjoying beverages in the summer time. They’re a safe relief value from the past 3 months of quarantine.

Importantly, American Disabilities Act standards are maintained. Stormwater runoff at the curb is maintained. And, a 15-foot clear fire access lane is maintained through the center of the streetscape as these spaces are marked off by tape and paint. The traffic barriers and reflective tape/paint costs money by the BIDs and local municipalities. The maintenance, cleaning, and daily operation will be a public-private partnership with local shops being active participants in managing these new public spaces. The shops that front onto the space, as well as in the immediate surrounding area, are able to benefit from this extra area and enhance the experience with lighting, signage, shade, seating, and sounds.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (@NACTO) has recently shared its open Streets for Pandemic Recovery design guidelines here. And, a favorite colleague,  Mike Lydon of @Streetplans, is leading a national Open Streets effort, which can be heard/seen here.

We rarely go out shopping and dining to stimulate the economy. The quality of these dining or shopping experiences will entice us to spend time and money because we go places for the experience. Opening streets to businesses involves a plan and design outcome that makes being there worth the time spent. I hope these are useful in starting that plan and beginning the design of our brave new world… outdoors!

Leon Krier and our Cayala Conversations

Leon Krier, Urban Design

I am fortunate to have a relationship with my urban design hero, Leon Krier. In 2003, while working for the County of San Diego’s General Plan 2020 update, I was denied a vacation request to work on a charrette in Chico, California led by Leon Krier. So, I quit my job, drove to Chico, and sat right across the ’table from the Leon (and my eventual life partner, Geoff Dyer) for a week and walked away from the experience a more inspired and humbled designer.

Over the years,  we met at New Urbanism Congresses, and he visited San Diego a couple of times. We drove in a convertible across the desert, gave a riveting lecture to a packed house in Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Art theater. And, I’ve watched him formulated the ‘Tuning of Architectural Settlements,’ (Chico), the ‘San Diego Quartet’ (American Four Corners),  and the Coronado Gates (different column heights would appear to ‘turn’ as you drive across the curved Coronado Bridge and land in its ceremonial entrance). Fortunate.

During this Covid-19 spring 2020 shut down, a young University of Texas student, Adam Bell, and I sat down with Leon and recorded a series of conversations on a wide variety of topics while he was stranded in his new urban district in Cayala, Guatemala. So, these are the #CayalaConversations, that we’ll continue until Spain reopens and he can go home… Watch them here:

With more to follow…

My opinions on our Post-Covid future…

Public Space, Uncategorized, Urban Design, Urban Planning

I got a blog, I’m an urban designer, and I got opinions… so let’s do this!

This epic pandemic moment will resonate in two scales. First, at the global scale:

  1. Easily identified our global economy as being very fragile and forgetting the trickling down part…
  2. Every nation now has the experience to work collectively to… limit Greenhouse Gas emissions. We can all stop driving and we will survive. When our Climate Change Pearl Harbor or asteroid moment occurs, we’ll have practice in how to collectively work on surviving it. This is the hope we were looking for.
  3. There are always people on the wrong side of history. The anti-vaccine groups, hate groups, and libertarians are not helping us collectively survive and thrive as citizens.
  4. Today’s cities exist because of jobs. With the local economies collapsing, big cities will continue to provide the most available jobs to any region, and will continue to grow as long-standing local economic jobs in small towns will be late to the economic recovery cycle. We must prepare for continued big city housing crisis.

Second, at the local scale:

  1. We are sheltering-in-our neighborhoods (place). We are seeing our local streets, right-of-ways, and parks as the health, welfare, and safety valves they actually are. Mindful of San Francisco’s parks post-1906 earthquake and fire, where people lived until they were able to rebuilt their homes.

Camp_1906_SFearthquake

2. Pre-Covid trends will be accelerated:

    1. End of Class A office park pods (retrofitted w/urban amenities);
    2. More outdoor dining/entertainment (pop up container parks)
    3. More online shopping & music concerts/events;
    4. More bike/walkable streets;
    5. More parks for our health, welfare, and safety (See point #1).

3. (Stolen from Bill Fulton) New Office Space as a place more specifically for meetings, sales, showroom, model building, virtual touring (gaming), lectures, parties, and fun and less as a dedicated production work space, allowing for more of that to happen at home. This more mixed-use flexible workspace will help retention of parents who are raising young children, and people who love working from home. It’s a retention program.

4. The neighborhood is the Rosetta stone of understanding how to build cities, which are very complex. And, at this moment, we are collectively learning more and more about our neighborhoods because we are driving less and walking more which is a good thing.

Plus, we’re learning how to respond to a global scale crisis, which is another good thing when the comet (climate change) hits.

More later.