Building Great Communities

Zoning for Vibrant Communities

By Katherine K. Henderson

Vibrant communities are easy to identify. You can tell when you have arrived: these places are busy and unique, and they function well. They have a flourishing economy that supports a wide variety of people who live and work there. Vibrant communities include a range of development intensities, from untouched green spaces to thriving downtown centers. They protect local resources—natural, human, and cultural—as part of the community’s continuing growth and development. Vibrant communities respect the past and plan for the future.

Sprawl is the antithesis of vibrancy. You know this when you see it, too: all the neighborhoods look the same, and it is nearly impossible to get anywhere on foot. The first series of sprawl-related problems include traffic congestion, air and water pollution, expensive public service extensions, and loss of green space. These problems then combine with others to create and perpetuate some of the biggest issues of our day, including global warming and health epidemics such as diabetes and heart disease. Sprawl often seems to happen by accident.

In contrast, vibrant communities require sustained thought and intention. They are the result of collaborative planning by a wide variety of constituents, including the public, private and non-profit sectors, and citizen stakeholders from all walks of life. Ideally, a community’s planning systems serve as guardrails within which good development can occur in a creative manner. A major aspect of community planning centers around land use: how particular pieces of land are developed and used (or not), and how these uses are arranged to create a functioning place.

Public land use regulations set the tone; individual development outcomes then happen through the messy intersection of municipal rules, owner intent, and citizen involvement. Cities and towns have many tools and strategies available to regulate land use, depending on local particulars including political, regulatory and market realities. Almost every community includes zoning in their menu. Zoning refers to a set of regulations that govern the way that land can be developed. “Zoning isn’t architecture, of course. But it is a kind of municipal DNA that governs a city’s physical growth. And like good genes, good zoning can have a sweeping impact, safeguarding historic neighborhoods and fostering development that meets high standards for design and sustainability.” Bad zoning can also have a sweeping impact.

Over the last 80 years or so, most municipalities used conventional zoning to separate land uses. Use-based zoning serves some good purposes: it keeps factories from locating adjacent to daycare centers, for example. But when used in the extreme (as is often the case), conventional zoning helps foster sprawl. Zoning can, in fact, be part of the solution. New zoning codes are emerging that emphasize a variety of ways to guide development, with the ultimate goal being community sustainability. Options include regulations about deliberate mixing of uses, building form (height and design), and resource protection. Chris Duerksen pushes this concept further, calling for a “sustainable code”: “The answer is to build on the best attributes of these other code approaches, but address a far wider range of issues like energy, climate change, food security, and health. The sustainable code must be tailored, and it must help shape new development to live in harmony with nature rather than trying to trump it.”

At home in Wake County, the City of Raleigh began working on a new development code in October 2009 that will help implement the recently-approved Comprehensive Plan. This is a big opportunity to change the rules of Raleigh’s land use game. This process is a chance for everyone to join the conversation, and help shift Raleigh toward a more vibrant future, and set the tone for further regional change.