Chuck Wolfe over at Crosscut posted a really useful rundown of planning ideas for Seattle’s next mayor. Among other things, Wolfe urges Seattle’s next leader to consider bigger and bolder ideas when considering land use. The biggest and boldest idea is scrapping traditional zoning in favor of innovation and flexibility.

Growth can bring advantages with it—walkable neighborhoods, aggregated demand for transit, less impact on the climate and environment. So, some of us might be saying “amen” to many of the ideas Wolfe puts forward, including the idea touted by Dan Bertolet: to create an  Office of Sustainable Urbanism. An OSU could be the place where the big ideas and reality meet.

  • But the most important part of Wolfe’s article mentions some important approaches to land use we’ve been researching this summer. Namely, converting city zoning from what Peter Steinbrueck described in the Great Debate as an “accretion of small things we don’t want to a big vision of what we want from our built environment.” 

    Two examples of this new thinking on planning: One is “form-based” codes (a method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form rather than rely on prescriptive regulatory standards). Another is “context-based” planning (emphasizing relationships between the street and multiple buildings, pedestrians, and vehicles, public and private spaces, a block, a neighborhood, and associated scale transitions).

    This approach should also include performance-based zoning. The Journal of Planning Education and Research published a paper a few years ago that describes performance-based zoning this way:

    While traditional zoning tends to separate land uses, performance-based approaches allow better land use integration as long as performance criteria are met. A day care center, laundrymat, and residential development can be integrated if they meet the set performance standards for that area.

    And what kinds of standards could be set? In Vancouver, BC, where performance-based zoning has been used for many projects including Granville Island,  the parameters can be set to just about any limit. For the development of Granville Island, a prescriptive code was scrapped and instead “categories like public interest, innovation, character, visual interest, pedestrian access, and vehicular access. Uses were then arranged according to these outcomes”(from a Masters Thesis on historic preservation). 

    Performance Anxiety Granville Map

    Granville Island claims status as an  urban oasis where “rusty tin-sided factories boast rebirth as a Public Market, an art school, shops, restaurants, theatres, galleries, a hotel, and a great deal more.”

    This oasis was created using a code focused on mixing uses, a healthier approach and one that supports being less car dependent. Performance-based code would start with a list of principles or outcomes—beyond building height and lot coverage—and allow architects, developers, and members of the community to feasibly meet the goals, together, without the usual constraints found in most zoning codes.

    Studies have found that where performance based zoning has been tried, cities found it a challenge to administer. That shouldn’t be a surprise given that performance-based code would require intensive evaluation of sites and criteria that can change from project to project, not just a check list of compliance with minimum requirements. But cities should give it a try.

    A project like the Goodwill Project (picture below) in southeast Seattle (which was scuttled), for example, could have used a performance based process with outcomes like affordability, support of local business, and open space. This approach might have rescued a contentious process, turning it into a more collaborative one with the developer and the community working together to develop a proposal that substantially met the City’s broad objectives and still made financial sense.

    Form, context and performance based zoning all need more research and piloting. But Wolfe’s article is a good start for Seattle’s next mayor, or any city official in the region. Officials can also learn from Vancouver’s example. By hiring strong, visionary planners and focusing on how zoning can accomplish sustainable outcomes planning can be less about what we don’t want and more about achieving a sustainable city.