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The city planners of Anchorage, Alaska, are attempting to bring that city’s land-use regulations into the 21st century.  In particular, they are proposing a variation on form-based zoning that would encourage mixed uses, orientation of development to the street, and pedestrian- and people-friendly building design.  This has been a massive undertaking, in the works for the better part of a decade.  And it is running into opposition.

  downtown Anchorage (by: Chris Yunker, creative commons license)

Note: Today’s post is co-authored with my good friend Lee Epstein, a seasoned and very policy-savvy environmental lawyer and land-use planner.

Longtime Anchorage planning director Tom Nelson articulated the rationale in 2006 in the Alaska Business Monthly:

"Like most cities, Anchorage's land-use regulations have encouraged single-use districts, and reliance on a single mode of transportation to connect them--the automobile. This has led to a more sprawling land-use pattern and greater consumption of energy resources than would otherwise be the case . . . as one looks ahead, there is a need to create other viable, attractive and less energy-consumptive choices for transportation--be it walking, biking or transit--as well as to shorten distances to destinations . . .

"Mixed-use developments, winter-city design, energy-conserving buildings and transportation systems, creation of public spaces and retention of important open spaces are all increasing in usage. These trends in land development coincide with many of the solutions proposed in response to the changing economic circumstances and community aspirations in Anchorage. As developers, residents and local officials see the benefits of these attributes, Anchorage's land-use code needs to change in order to help accommodate and facilitate them."

Anchorage (by: yksin/Mel, creative commons license) Sengaya's City Market, Anchorage (by: city of Anchorage)

Writing last week in the Anchorage Daily News about changes the new code would bring to the commercial sector of Anchorage development, Rosemary Shinohara reports that "under the proposed new rules, a local builder no longer could put a windowless, blank side of a commercial building next to the street" but, instead, would be required to choose from a menu of options within each of three major design categories:

  • Windows, entrances and the building's orientation in reference to the sidewalk and street. Opening to the street rather than just to offstreet parking lots helps walkability, visual appeal, and a sense of community.
  • Building design. Shinohara: "Examples of choices are setting an upper story back from the lower stories; building a plaza; adding a second color, texture or material to the front of the building; or creating recesses or projections so the facade is not just a flat surface."
  • Northern climate considerations. The code's menu includes entrances protected from the weather, sheltered or ice-free walkways, sunlit atriums, and balconies or marquees that project out over a sidewalk or entrance, providing cover.

Seems sensible, no?  But Shinohara also writes that "a group called the Building Owners and Managers Association has started a petition drive to get the city to kill the massive, seven-year-long, 14-chapter modernization of local zoning laws, of which commercial design standards are part. They want the city to stay with existing code," which as far as we can tell has pretty much allowed commercial developers to do whatever they want.  This is, after all, a notoriously independent part of the country that doesn’t warm to government involvement very easily (except, um, for those timber, oil, and gas subsidies, but that’s another matter). 

  a long, flat wall on a hotel (by: city of Anchorage)  blank wall on the sidewalk (by: city of Anchorage) 

The proposed code is scheduled to come before the city’s decision-making Assembly for adoption this spring.

Anchorage’s circumstances raise some important issues about how best to improve urban landscapes and urban livability – sometimes in the face of libertarian attitudes about government.  More expansively, how best can citizens and their governments, organized by the consent of the governed into a constitutional system aimed at enforcing the responsibilities of citizenship toward the common good, better attain those ends?  That’s a mouthful, but the query is aimed at those who will always say, "Not me, buddy.  I know what’s best for me.  And unless you’re calling to rescue me from my burning building, stay out of my hair, OK?"  Such a response is too often engendered whenever new local requirements are proposed, whether necessary to clean up a community’s rivers and streams, keep children out of danger or, heaven forbid, keep truly ugly buildings from proliferating like dandelions in the spring.

a restaurant that ignores the sidewalk and street (by: city of Anchorage)

But let’s face it:  Blank walls running along a city street are ugly, and they’re even dangerous.  They allow for no "eyes on the street," crucial (by all professional law enforcement accounts) for keeping streets safe.  And they’re the architectural equivalent of presenting your backside to the rest of the world – all the time.  Lovely.

But how do you "legislate" them away?  How can a local government best achieve the legitimate aims of enhancing public safety and securing for the benefit of all citizens a more functional, efficient and, yes, attractive community?  After all, you can’t pass a law that requires "good taste," whatever that is.  (At least that’s the apparent complaint of some of our architect friends, who fear some draconian curb on their creativity.  C’mon.  Apart from the fact that form-based codes are themselves the work of gifted architects, maybe it’s that insistence on sculptural freedom and "creative" architecture that sometimes gets us into this fix in the first place.  But don’t get us started.)

Regardless of what some might think, most of us do live in communities.  And the constitution says that communities have the right – and the responsibility – to provide for the public good, and the general health, safety and welfare of all their citizens.  Sometimes that is going to mean that, after a lot of open consideration, an ordinance will be passed that requires citizens to pony up to the mutual responsibilities bar: ‘We [insert name of community] pledge to keep you safe and keep our community livable and economically energetic, while you [insert name of citizen and business alike] pledge to uphold certain standards of behavior and action.’

  the kind of walkable, mixed-use environment Anchorage seeks to encourage (by: city of Anchorage)  a mixed-use building that is friendly to pedestrians (by: city of Anchorage)

That’s how we see attempts such as those that Anchorage is making, or similar ones elsewhere, to try to eploy reasonable new zoning standards to improve a city’s image and look, its functionality, walkability, and environmental quality.   We elect representatives to make these decisions, and if the process is an honest and open one, we should honor our subsequent responsibilities as citizens.

With respect to Anchorage’s proposed new zoning, no, good taste cannot be legislated.  But certain minimum standards and principles can be articulated that express qualitatively or quantitatively how a community wishes to present its face to the world – standards relative to proportionality, bulk and height, scale, location on a street, pedestrian functionality and yes, even how the street-level façade should function.  A city might achieve this with a variety or menu of choices, or provide some incentives and disincentives to property owners and developers.  (For an interesting presentation showing the issues Anchorage is trying to address, and some modest improvements the new code would encourage, go here.  Most of the images in this post are from that presentation.) 

The bottom line is that local communities can and should take on, through mechanisms like zoning, how they look, how they function, or how green they become – because the alternative is to succumb to the lowest common denominator, and (as Ian McHarg once said about failing to achieve environmental quality through good planning and zoning) to let the devil take the hindmost.        

Kaid Benfield writes occasional 'Village Green' commentary on DailyKos and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page. 


Originally posted to Kaid at NRDC on Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 07:20 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for posting, Kaid (4+ / 0-)

    This looks like a very interesting diary, and I'll be reading it carefully later.

    Zoning reform sounds like one of those necessary, eminently sensible ideas that our thoroughly broken political system won't take up in a zillion years.  I hope somebody has some good ideas about how to make zoning reform, density-based development and public transportation expansion a reality in our present day.

    •  Zoning reform goes on at the local level, and as (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dallasdoc, borkitekt, freesia

      such tends to be processed in parallel with the collapse of the financial system, etc. etc. If you're really interested in this, go to your local City Council and/or Planning & Zoning department and find out if there are any initiatives like this in your community.

  •  very important and green topic (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    borkitekt, freesia

    Revising zoning and planning codes, planning for walking communities with greater public transportation are an important part of energy conservation, as well as policing issues and long term maintenance and expenses to local government for infrastructure.  Neighborhoods make life enjoyable and safe.  Mixed uses, attractive buildings, open spaces and tree planting (not as easy in Alaska as to variety I am sure) make areas more liveable, moderate heat domes, improve air quality, and make places safer as well as cost less.  Its win/win except for developers who want to maximize short term profit and leave the community dwellers and local government with all the downside costs.

    While growing populations are a problem everywhere, in the US poor planning makes population a much worse problem than overall density itself.

  •  Even though the Palin do not live there (0+ / 0-)

    They do not follow city guideline ,by doing construction  illegally where they choose too

  •  Wonderful post Kaid, Lee. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You're spot on about the points, and, I'll add that in fact, some countries have boards that determine the aesthetics of buildings- Sweden of course has one, and they at times really aren't all that popular with architects trying to bring something new to Sweden. If it is this group or not, I'm not certain, but lots of more exciting things are happening elsewhere.

    But I'll check out the links, it'd be nice to see what another city is building and thinking in a similar climate.

    Listen to Noam Chomsky's Necessary Illusions. (mp3!)

    by borkitekt on Fri Mar 05, 2010 at 08:39:56 AM PST

  •  Very important (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    diary. I was happy to see the word 'destination' used in the same sentence with 'walking, biking..'.
    People will walk if there is somewhere to walk to. Mixed use is the way to go forward in land planning, there are plenty of commercial endeavors that mix beautifully with residential use. Business owners should be happy to see a city take an interest in making the area more attractive to foot traffic. After all, customers are people too. Maybe it would help if the proposed changes would be pitched as such. A nearby town here has made a lot of changes to revive downtown, and it was beginning to look good, but the recession has brought everything to a halt. What makes the effect of the economic downturn worse in this case, is that the rebuilding was aimed at 'high end' condos and upscale businesses and eateries and such.  
    Gentrification, or Disneyfication of suddenly popular neighborhoods is a problem everywhere, and something to guard against from the beginning.  

  •  Thanks for reading and commenting, everyone (0+ / 0-)

    Your comments are spot-on.  

    Lee and I had one of our occasional lunches today in Annapolis, a great smaller city with tremendous historic character, walkable traditional neighborhoods, and the spectacular Chesapeake Bay as its setting.  But it, too, is surrounded by the same kind of sprawl that other places have.  At least the historic core is a very healthy and good model.

    I'm more optimistic than not: reform will come through a mixture of better policies at the state and federal levels, along with one-place-at-time local reform in municipalities.  The good news is that market trends are now with us; people want walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, and policy will catch up.  Although it's frustrating to read about opposition, I'm actually encouraged that even Anchorage is among the places that are addressing the issues, however modestly.

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