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Taking a Closer Look

Making a “Visible” Difference

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Planning commissioners are often overwhelmed by the press of routine business such as variance requests, subdivision approvals, re-zoning applications, and the like. As a result, they often have little time to think about what their communities will look like in the future.

Unfortunately, most zoning codes are proscriptive in nature. They merely try to prevent bad things from happening, without offering a vision of how things ought to be. But suppose you could do just one or two things to drastically improve the future character and appearance of your community, what would they be?

Street trees downtown illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb
Illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb

In recent years, a number of well known planners, architects, and community visionaries have recommended a few simple steps to transform a community from “Anyplace, USA” into someplace special. Let’s take a look at some of these visionary recommendations and find out where you can learn more about them.

1. Build to the Sidewalk — In his popular book, City Comforts, author David Sucher illustrates how suburban style setbacks have destroyed the fabric of many small towns and urban areas. His recommendation: “build to the sidewalk.”

This would allow buildings to define and activate streets and squares as if they were outdoor rooms. According to Sucher, the only buildings pulled back, “freestanding,” from the street should be important civic buildings such as the City Hall, Public Library, or Courthouse. Changing your local codes to require “build to” rather than “setback” lines is one measure which could dramatically transform a community. …

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photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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