How shall we regulate land? Should we?

Lets take a walk into the future, via the past.


Despite an ever-growing number of wonderful talented inspirational counter-examples, most municipal engineers and planners today are not great city-builders. They're just bureaucrats, stamping the forms and churning it out. In terms of regulation, they deal with what their predecessors left them, and tinker a bit. It isn’t worth risking their job or their pension to think outside the box.

Specifically they each have a playbook: the Green Book, handed down from AASHTO, and Single Use Zoning, handed down from Euclid.

Built environments composed from these playbooks are easy to design and approve. Like Big Blue, nobody ever got fired for referencing these.

Unfortunately this kind of beautiful walkable human scale environment is damn-near impossible to create under these rules. Mixed-use buildings flanking pedestrian-first streets are as good as illegal.

So I think we need some new rules.

To the libertarians

Some say we need no rules, pointing to all the nice places in the world (like the one above) that were built before the current rules.

But these places were constrained by the technology and capital available in their day and, perhaps more importantly, they were constrained by unwritten rules: by tradition, also known as "copy-paste-and-adapt-a-little-bit". When it came to building cities, we did at a human scale because that was what we'd always done. We built original green.

Today, technology, assumptions and skills are different. For streets, a free-for-all would mean survival of the fittest monster-truck. For buildings, we would see the developers with the biggest pockets throwing up the cheapest and nastiest tilt-ups all over the place. Big non-local developers aren’t interested in pedestrian propulsion, and much of tradition has been forgotten. We need the long arm of the law (however realised) to constrain the power of capital.

To the architects

Many of you get upset when we start talking about regulating for good urbanism. Clearly, we don’t want the bureaucrats dictating architectural style, and stand-out signature buildings will always have their place. But your special monument needs a canvas, a consistent backdrop against which it can stand out. That canvas is called urbanism. It's ok if most of a street is kind of the same, with a few quirks here and there: a street of townhouses of slightly different heights and front-features and colours; a street of single family homes of, sure, more varied styles, but all still appropriately designed for their climate (e.g. more or less shade or windows).

And there are some universals of placemaking, like the balance of built space to open space (parks and squares) in a neighborhood, and enclosure, and terminating vistas etc.

Our new rules should clearly show landowners and developers what space above the surface of the lot they can and should fill - in three dimensions - and define some of the street-facing parts so that they work with the street. Within those simple constraints, you architects can go nuts. Knock yourselves out. (And you can still seek variances, as you do now. We just want to make sure the easiest, the by-right, is better. We might offer pattern books for people who can't afford architects.)

To the engineers

We know you’ve just finished a lot of schooling in which shorthands seem like a great idea. In school, you derived a lot from theoretical first principles, but in practice you just want a template that you can trust. You don’t want to become fully-fledged urbanists, considering the delicate psychology of pedestrian comfort.

Don’t worry: we’re going to give you some new, better shorthands for streets. For example, the rule is no longer maximise-LOS everywhere: now it's high LOS for inter-urban roads, low LOS for intra-urban streets. On most streets, you can just apply these like you did the old rules.

Sounds great! Where do we start?

Personally (and this will surprise no-one) I like the SmartCode as a starting point. It still seems way over-complicated to me, and it needs local calibration through a synoptic survey, and the street designs are often still too wide. But its heart is in the right place: the overarching idea is to ensure transparent regulation of how a street feels and how it should grow. To me that sounds like a much better plan than today’s spot-rezonings and protracted, costly nimby battles.

Can developers still get financing, if a municipality zones by "outdoor room type" instead of by use? Sure. You can still have single-use buildings, so you can still tick the bankers’ boxes.

Do pedestrian friendly streets cost municipalities more? Nope. Fast-moving heavy vehicles wear down surfaces quickest: the less space you dedicate to that, the better. In fact, you can start your retrofitting tomorrow with paint and planters. And what’s more, the more your municipality is covered with taxpaying buildings, as opposed to non-places, the better your revenue-to-cost ratio looks.

The future: blockchain leviathan?

Kunstler-fans may wish to look away now, because in this part I'm going to muse about the future. From last month's robotaxi piece, readers will know I'm not averse to including certain new technology in my forecasts. And the design of regulations and governance is no different.

The pattern of twentieth century governance was to ever-greater centralisation. It is this centralisation of power and money, and the resultant stamping out of infrastructure and regulations with no thought for local context, that led to  many of the worst urban abominations. The solution, then is to decentralise. And fortunately, this appears to be a 21st century trend well-enabled by technology, from distance-working to 3D printers to solar microgrids.

One particular recent decentralising technology is the blockchain, a method for decentralising trust. In its most famous instantiation the blockchain is used for trust in financial transactions - in bitcoins, dogecoins, litecoins or whatever your flavour of the month is.

But the blockchain idea is much bigger than just electronic money. The simplest definition I’ve seen is that blockchain is "a method for bypassing the use of centralised officials in recording stuff".

Could we one day bypass centralised officials in recording the collective will of neighborhood citizens, with regards built form and urban growth?


Neil Salmond is a regular contributor to Strong Towns. He is a renewable energy consultant from Vancouver, BC. Neil is a member and longtime participant in the conversation here at Strong Towns – you may know him as Neil21, which is also his Twitter handle – and he blogs at Stroad to Boulevard as well as other places. We enjoy his thoughts, insights and writing so much and are thrilled that he has agreed to share them more prominently here.