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How Dimensional Standards Shape Residential Streets

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Dimensional standards, which regulate building setbacks and height, lot coverage, minimum lot area, and similar matters, have been one of the basic building blocks of zoning since its inception.

If a community’s goal is to create a suburban environment of widely spaced buildings surrounded by broad lawns, then the dimensional standards found in most communities’ land use regulations today work well. However, if a community’s goal is to create more compact neighborhoods, with an attractive public realm conducive to walking, it may need to re-examine its dimensional standards to ensure that they will help achieve this goal.

This article will explore some of the key differences between dimensional standards that have fostered our conventional development pattern, and those which underlie the growing “new urbanism” and “smart growth” movements — standards designed for what new urbanists call “traditional neighborhood” developments. But first, it helps to look back and consider the origins of the suburban dimensional standards commonly used today.

Looking Back

The origin of dimensional standards harkens back to the original purposes of zoning, which arose in the industrial age both to protect residential uses from the harmful effects of industry and to ensure that homes and workplaces would not be overcrowded and would have sufficient light and air. The impulse behind both use and dimensional regulation was to separate things: to separate incompatible uses from one another and to separate buildings so that there would be enough breathing room.

This made sense in its time, given the overcrowded conditions of urban tenements 100 years ago. But during the 20th Century, local governments extended and inflated dimensional standards to the point of creating an enforced no-man’s land between buildings, a spatial geography that inspired the title of James Howard Kunstler’s book, The Geography of Nowhere. …

Changing Purposes: Toward the Shaping of Public Space

In response to a growing dissatisfaction with this low-density, land-consumptive pattern of suburban development, a new movement emerged in the late 20th Century, one which has turned dimensional regulation on its head. The “new urbanism” movement has understood that dimensional regulations can be used to shape and define public, neighborhood-oriented space, rather than to separate and frame individual buildings.

Indeed, “new urbanism” is often a form of “old urbanism” since it draws on patterns of neighborhood and village development common before the widespread adoption of local zoning in the early 20th Century. Editor’s Note: For more on the new urbanism movement, see Philip Langdon’s PCJ article, “New Development, Traditional Patterns.”

Conventional dimensional standards, by focusing on the goal of separating buildings from one another, give little attention to the design of the “streetscape,” that is the street and the space surrounding it. To shape this space, planners and landscape architects are realizing that it is necessary to pull buildings close to the street so that they create a sense of enclosure and make the street into an open air “outdoor room” in which the “walls” are the front facades of buildings and the “floor” consists of the street, sidewalk, and the front yards of buildings. …

The challenge for planners and planning commissioners is to determine what pattern of land development the community wants to see: auto-dependent with low-density, widely spaced buildings, or pedestrian-oriented with more compact, closely-woven neighborhoods. If the community wants to move towards the latter, it is essential to re-examine dimensional standards to ensure that they will, in fact, support achieving this goal.

End of excerpt

Joel S. Russell, Esq., is Executive Director of the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI), a national think tank and training organization devoted to advancing the practice of form-based coding.

For 25 years before his appointment to FBCI he served as a self-employed planning consultant and attorney based in Northampton, Massachusetts working with municipalities, landowners, land trusts, and developers on zoning reform, form-based codes, comprehensive planning, and land conservation. He was founding Executive Director of the Dutchess Land Conservancy in New York State.

–bio note updated 03.27.14

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