Is a Zoning Overlay the Magic Wand You've Been Looking For?


I spend a lot of time wishing for a magic wand. Not because I want the ability to cast a patronus or use a summoning charm (although both of those could come in handy).  I want a magic wand so I can walk around town fixing stuff.

Inhospitable streetscapes, asphalt oceans, chain store “architecture,” billboard blight, ugly and intrusive utility poles — all would be gone with the flick of a wrist.  Trees would be planted.  Urban “renewal” projects would be undone.  Suburban stroads would be returned to farmland.  Demolished architectural treasures would rise up from their concrete burial grounds.

Next, all the fossilized regulating documents — the zoning code, the subdivision regulations, the traffic engineering standards, the fire code — would be amended and re-written with a goal of preserving vibrant neighborhoods and building pleasant, walkable, fiscally strong places. 

Most satisfyingly, the five good ol’ boys who defeat every solid proposal that comes before the planning commission would suddenly become the strongest advocates of good urban design in the city. (Hey, if you’re going to have a magic wand, you might as well go all out.)

As delicious as magical thinking can be, though, it’s not a practical solution to solving a city's urban design problems. So, what’s the average muggle-born to do?

If you follow Strong Towns, you know that some parts of the city are more financially productive than others, when compared “apples to apples” on a per acre basis. These tend to be older, more walkable parts of town, where land is used fully, and little space is wasted on surface parking and other unproductive uses.

For decades, however, cities have relied upon a “one size fits all” zoning code that systematically destroyed what was great about these places by requiring car-centric development standards for every infill project.

Fortunately, that trend is changing, as more and more cities are starting to build flexibility into their regulatory documents to allow for context-sensitive designs.  

If you care about old neighborhoods, get familiar with the local zoning code and look for wiggle room.  If there's not a good base zoning option, is there an opportunity to define a neighborhood overlay (a specific area with alternative requirements or incentives created just for it) or to develop form-based guidelines for that neighborhood?  If so, this may be the magic wand you’ve been looking for.  It may offer the opportunity to protect and enhance the places that have the perfect DNA to be walkable, strong and resilient neighborhoods for generations to come. 

Here are 10 tips for finding and supporting those high-potential neighborhoods in your town.

1. Look for a Compact Street Grid

A compact street grid is a big help if you want good urban design.  Small lots and short, connected blocks make perfect places for people on foot.  There’s no wasted space and you never have to travel out of your way to get where you’re going.  A compact street grid is the primary building block (no pun intended) of a walkable place.

 A compact street grid is typical of older, walkable neighborhoods. (Source: Google Maps)

A compact street grid is typical of older, walkable neighborhoods. (Source: Google Maps)

Take a quick glance at Google Maps.  Surrounded by the cacophony of curvy roads and cul-de-sacs that came later, the logic and pragmatism of the historic street grid is self-evident. Unfortunately, many of these places have been overlooked and ignored for decades.  While money was thrown at "shiny and new" projects on the edges of town and city leaders turned their attention elsewhere, slumlords and blight often set up shop in city centers. But older neighborhoods were built to be walkable and served by transit.  They’re loaded with potential and worthy of our protection. 

2. Search for Survivors

Within these older neighborhoods, look for remnants of surviving shopping districts where people used to walk to nearby stores, repair shops, and diners. Look for one- and two-story buildings, built up to the sidewalk.  They may be in rough shape, but if at least some of the traditional urban fabric remains, you’ve found a place worth fighting for.

These are great places to focus reinvestment because they're unique and people love them.  They’re also more visible than residential streets, and will serve as a beacon to attract additional investment to the area once positive changes start happening. 

If your neighborhood has a compact street grid connected to the remnants of an old "main street," you have every element needed to rebuild a terrific, high-quality, walkable place.  This makes it a good target for a zoning overlay or design guidelines to help it reach its potential.

 You can learn a lot from little old buildings. (Source: Sarah Kobos)

You can learn a lot from little old buildings. (Source: Sarah Kobos)

While you're at it, take a good look at these buildings. They can teach us a lot about walkable design, because the people who built them knew what they were doing.  Notice the scale.  Pay attention to the proportions and how they relate to each other and the street.  Use these buildings as a template for future infill development standards.  When filling in the "missing teeth" on a street (i.e. the empty lots) it’s going to be important that the implants match the species.  You don’t want a horse tooth sticking out of a human face.

3. Cross your Fingers

If you’re incredibly lucky, the area will have preserved the habit of on-street parking, and no recent “improvements” will have been made to force highway design standards upon local streets.  Nothing kills the intimacy of a place like an over-wide stretch of roadway and the roar of speeding cars.

On-street parking is important because it’s flexible, it’s accessible, it slows traffic, and it creates a buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians on the sidewalk. Most importantly, it reduces the amount of off-street parking needed to support adjacent businesses.

4. Places Worth Saving

You’ve got something special here.  Something tough and resilient, built by people who knew how to create pleasant, highly productive, walkable neighborhoods.  It's time to stop shoehorning suburban design standards into these unique places.

This is where a neighborhood overlay comes into play. When considering the types of standards to include in an overlay, focus on what matters to people on foot. While nobody cares what color you paint your shutters, there are some elements of design that do matter when trying to rebuild a high-quality public realm. Let the surviving goodness of your old neighborhood be your guide. 

There are different priorities for predominantly residential areas and predominately commercial ones. For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on the most basic priorities of a walkable street with commercial uses on the ground floor.

5. Build-to Lines, Rather than Setbacks

While car-centric commercial areas are defined by the enormous distance between the building and the street, walkable places require just the opposite.  They need intimacy.  To achieve this, buildings should be built up to the sidewalk. 

 Buildings in walkable places should meet the sidewalk.  (Source: Sarah Kobos)

Buildings in walkable places should meet the sidewalk.  (Source: Sarah Kobos)

People will avoid walking across surface parking lots because they feel exposed and unsafe. This is one reason why a continuous “street wall” is important. (A street wall is different than a blank wall. More on this later.) It’s also why gaps in the urban fabric are so damaging to walkable places. Together, a consistent grouping of buildings along the sidewalk offer comfort, shelter, interest and a motivating variety of destinations to people on foot.

 This is not the public face of the author.  (Source: Sarah Kobos)

This is not the public face of the author.  (Source: Sarah Kobos)

6. Don't Confuse the Back with the Front

The front of a building is the public face of a street. If you need a rule of thumb, here goes: If it's ugly, bland, or utilitarian, put it in the back.  If it's decorative, inviting or comforting, it goes in front. Architectural details, sidewalk dining areas, benches, planters, trees, awnings, and art all belong in front. But most importantly, a building's face needs windows and doors.

7. Transparency

Blank walls discourage pedestrian activity, which is why windows matter.  Just as no one wants to walk along a surface parking lot (it’s boring and you feel exposed), people are also repelled by blank walls (it’s boring and you feel oppressed). 

It takes energy to walk, and people are naturally fueled by curiosity, variety and discovery, which is why windows are critical to walkable, economically prosperous places; they give people the opportunity to peek inside.

 Pedestrians appreciate windows and the chance to see what's going on inside. (Source: Sarah Kobos)

Pedestrians appreciate windows and the chance to see what's going on inside. (Source: Sarah Kobos)

This applies to more than just retail space.  People will happily walk past office buildings, restaurants, bars, repair shops, music schools, workout rooms, barber shops, and art studios — as long as they can look in and see what’s going on.  Transparency also makes the sidewalk safer for people on foot as it increases the number of “eyes on the street.”  

8. Entrances Face the Street

Windows and doors go together: windows are the lure, doors get you in. Entrances should face the street and be accessible from the sidewalk. Placing the building along a sidewalk and installing windows only works if there’s an obvious front entrance for pedestrians to use.

9. Parking: Location, Location, Location

There are two kinds of parking: on-street and the stuff you hide in the back. If possible, try to eliminate minimum parking requirements in walkable areas.  This does not mean eliminating parking. (Oh the uproar!) It just means that there’s no need to make arbitrary guesses about how much parking is required for a given establishment.  Excessive parking requirements simply add to the cost of doing business while reducing the value of walkable places.

Off-street parking that is provided must be located behind buildings and appropriately screened from the street. The goal is to minimize the impact of parking on the public realm.

Ideally, parking should be located on-street, or in shared garages or lots that serve the entire neighborhood. Because different establishments have very different parking needs throughout the day and on different days of the week, there’s a lot of opportunity for symbiosis by sharing the parking burden, rather than everyone paying to build more than they need. Shared parking also encourages people to park and then get out and walk.  If every establishment has it's own dedicated parking lot in the rear, you've just created a nicer version of car-centric place, where everyone drives and too much land is wasted on auto storage. 

(Pro tip: It’s a lot easier to designate space for shared parking before a neighborhood really takes off than it is to try to solve parking problems retroactively, once development pressures build and property values skyrocket.)

10. The More Options, the Better

Ask people to describe their favorite parts of town, and then pay attention to how often they use the word “lots.”  Lots of places, lots of people, lots of things to see and do. Humans naturally prefer places with the most options.  This is yet another reason why old neighborhood “main streets” deserve our respect.  It’s a building pattern we can learn from. All those long, narrow buildings placed side by side not only utilize space well, they make walking a pleasure by creating lots of different things to see.

 Having lots of options makes this an interesting place to walk. (Source: Sarah Kobos)

Having lots of options makes this an interesting place to walk. (Source: Sarah Kobos)

(This is one reason why huge “new urbanist” developments often fail to be lovely to humans.  The scale is too big, the façade is too monolithic and there’s not enough diversity to make it interesting.) 

So keep it small.  It’s better to have ten small building than one large one.  A large building is a thing, but ten destinations is a place!

A Few Final Thoughts

If your zoning code allows for the creation of a design overlay, you’re going to need buy-in from neighbors and business owners in the focus area.  You’re also going to need to be a stakeholder yourself, with tangible ties to the neighborhood.  Nobody cares what outsiders think about what’s best for them.

In addition, never underestimate the power of fear and misunderstanding.  Before you start throwing around terms like “design guidelines,” you need to get a lot of people on board with why change is needed. Next, work on what sorts of changes should occur.  Once people start to care about a shared goal and a positive vision, it’s time to start talking about how to make the change a reality.  Otherwise the typical reaction will be to crush any proposed change due to simple fear of the unknown. 

Be respectful.  Take the time to get it right.  Talk to people, but more importantly, listen.

Finally, when contemplating a zoning overlay, try to keep it as simple as possible.  The fewer changes you attempt to implement, the less opposition you’re likely to face.  Too many additional rules can also serve to constrict creativity and opportunity in ways you may not even anticipate.  So be humble and aware of the possibility of unintended consequences.  Focus on the things that really matter and try not to sweat the small stuff.

Then get busy and make it happen.  The results just might be magical.


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