The week before last we wrote a couple of short news briefs (and, thanks to a bad, lingering cold did not put out a Friday News Digest). The first was on Streets We Can't Afford and the second was on Dollar Devaluation. We tied these into small towns by pointing out that rural communities typically have vastly more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain and that the debt that they either currently have or are going to soon have because of that infrastructure is going to be more costly to service if we have large devaluations in the dollar.
Neither Ben or I are simply naysayers or backbench bomb-throwers. This blog is sobering at times because the extent of the problems are so great and mindset of most of the country so oblivious to the financial situation small towns actually face. When people complain about the size of government, the amount of taxes they pay, the poor shape of their towns, the fact that nobody seems to be thinking ahead, the lowing standard of living, congestion, safety, crime, etc., etc., etc..., they are pointing out real frustrations with the current system. We echo that, but try to explain it AND try to point the way to an alternative.
We are convinced that the current way we plan small towns and then regulate their development (their zoning) and subsidize their key components (roadways and other infrastructure) is financially unsustainable. When local government spending goes from 3% of GDP to 15% of GDP during the highway era when we really didn't change the responsibilities of local governments (infrastructure, public safety and general government), it should be a wakeup call to people. The fact that we really can't point to broad prosperity in most of our small towns, despite this enormous amount of government spending, is sobering. More of the same is not the answer.
So the planning needs to be dramatically different. The subsidies - if they continue to exist, and there is reason to believe they will not - need to be redirected. And finally, the approach to zoning needs to be dramatically overhauled.
Enter Miami. A couple years ago I visited Miami to attend a conference on the Smart Code to find out what was going on and to see if I could learn anything I could incorporate into Small Town America. Miami is the home of Andres Duany and a talented group of urban planners working on form-based coding (FBC). At the time, Miami was in the process of developing a FBC to replace their existing Euclidean zoning code.
Fast-forward to September of 2009 and Miami looks poised to be the first major metropolitan area to adopt a form-based code citywide. Some quotes from the article:
This is about the future of Miami, about building sustainability,'' a beaming [Mayor Manny] Diaz said after the vote, noting that the plan is designed to guide development in the city for the next century.
Diaz framed Miami 21 as a bid to tame intrusive and over-scaled development fostered by an outdated, hodgepodge zoning code he said was easily exploited by developers' lawyers.
A vote to support Miami 21 will be a radical departure from our city's plan -- a past best exemplified by the philosophy of `build now, plan later,' '' Diaz said at the hearing, which included four hours of public testimony.
Passage of the plan puts the city at the leading edge of urban planning nationally. Miami 21 represents a rejection of zoning as practiced in much of the country, which mandates separation of residential and commercial uses, in favor of a ``form-based'' code that encourages mixed-used districts and mandates that buildings hug the sidewalk with shops, homes or offices to encourage street life.
While not the complete answer, Form-Based Coding is part of the Strong Town solution. Changing the orientation of small towns from pass-through automobile hubs to complex destinations of commerce and community is going to take at least a generation. FBC will help to get them there, both physically as a development code and intellectually by getting cities to emphasize neighborhoods and providing value for each public investment (instead of the current emphasis on new development on the periphery and the endless fight against traffic congestion.)
Community Growth Institute is finishing work on the Code for Strong Towns, a model development code for small towns and rural areas that incorporates some of the principles of form-based coding. The model code is designed to strengthen small towns by facilitating robust development on existing infrastructure, getting a better return on existing investments and reducing or eliminating public subsidies for inefficient development patterns. It contains a long-term reorientation of our approach to development in small towns and rural areas and, in doing so, builds on the rural-American values we understand from our decades of living, visiting and working in small towns across the country.
We will be making the Code for Strong Towns available for free to any community that would like to adopt it. If you would like to be notified when this document is available, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you on the notification list.