How standards can enable more diversity in urban design

If residents want to live in a walkable community, it’s the planner’s job to communicate the requirements—and then lay the foundations for a wonderful, walkable place.

Photo of the main street in Fernwood, Victoria, BC. Quiet streets are lined with local shops painted in different colours. At the end of the street there is a building with a steeple, and a small public area with benches
Fernwood, a neighbourhood in Victoria, BC. Photo: Nick Kendrick / Flickr

September 20, 2022

By Tristan Cleveland

Today, urban planners tend to oppose implementing a common set of standards for zoning and design, because they fear this approach would ignore the diverse needs of each community. Many prescriptive standards today do harm communities, such as road design rules that force communities to build wide, fast roads.

But what if we have this backwards? What if planners could implement standards in a way that gives people more options, not fewer?

Food safety standards do not reduce the variety of food we can eat in restaurants. Structural standards do not lead all buildings to be the same. If anything, these standards expand our options, making it safe to eat at new places and spend time in new buildings.

This October, Happy Cities team members are publishing a chapter in a new book—Infrastructure, Wellbeing and the Measurement of Happiness—that proposes a new way to think about planning standards. We propose an approach to community consultation that puts standards front and centre—not to restrict options for residents, but to expand them.

Life with and without options

One morning in Fernwood, a neighbourhood of Victoria, BC, small groups of families and friends gathered around telephone poles on the local main street. Armed with paint cans, they got to work, slapping graffiti on the telephone polls. They painted stars, rocket ships, flowers, anime characters, flamingos, octopuses, fireworks, hearts, airplanes, and more. Today, you know you are in Fernwood when you see the art on the telephone poles.

Fernwood has only a small main street, but it’s a lively one. This community heart features a pub, café, art gallery, church, local shops, and a small public square, all centred around a single intersection. And residents do a lot with the main street. They host multiple festivals there every year, including small concerts and art showings. 

When I lived in Fernwood, there was a community garden nearby, where passersby were encouraged to eat edible plants. A local neighbourhood organization opened a café, and used the proceeds to fund affordable housing. The place had impressive energy for community projects. 

Photo of the main street in Fernwood, Victoria, BC. Quiet streets are lined with local shops painted in different colours. At the end of the street there is a building with a steeple, and a small public area with benches
Fernwood’s main street is a lively, human-scaled community heart. Photo: Nick Kendrick / Flickr

All this was possible, in part, because Fernwood has good bones. It has small blocks, which allow people to easily walk from their homes to local shops. Its streets are relatively narrow, ensuring that cars do not travel at highway speeds. Buildings face onto the streets, often with porches, which makes sidewalks feel comfortable and welcoming to walk along, and creates opportunities to bump into neighbours. And while most homes in the area are only two stories tall, they are on small lots, providing sufficient density to support a few shops and the café.

Compare this to Larry Uteck, a neighbourhood in my current city, Halifax, which was built in the mid-2000s. Larry Uteck has a central street, but this street is wide, which encourages fast driving. The street has stores, but they are confined to stripmalls behind parking lots. Residents live in apartment blocks, separated from the street—and from each other—by expanses of empty lawn. There is little along the street to look at.

Photo of a wide street with two lanes in Larry Uteck. Cars drive on the road, with a speed limit sign that says 50 km/h. There are 6-8 storey apartment blocks in the background, and few people in site.
Larry Uteck’s main street is wide, and designed for cars. The environment discourages walking or community gatherings in public spaces. Photo: Tristan Cleveland

The dangerous road and the parking lots discourage people from walking or lingering on the street, providing a poor host for parades, parties, art showings, chatting, or festivals. If residents painted telephone poles, or planted an edible garden, there would be few people walking by to enjoy them. When it comes to participating in their community, residents there have fewer options.

What is frustrating about Larry Uteck is that it was designed in the 1990s. By then, urban planners knew how to design communities to have the kind of magic people find in Fernwood—something we now call “walkable design.” If planners had implemented the minimum requirements of walkable design—short blocks, slow streets, compact buildings, and buildings that face the street—Larry Uteck residents today would have more options: they would be better able to open local shops, hold community events, and organize activities in local parks. Research suggests that if the community were walkable, residents there would also enjoy improved health, stronger social ties, and better access to jobs.

The type of standards we are arguing for are not meant to homogenize communities. They can do the opposite, providing a stage for community life in all its diversity.

A standards-based approach to community consultation

Our book chapter does not recommend imposing walkable design on all communities. We do propose, however, that all communities should be offered the choice to become walkable. Urban planners should inform residents everything that will be necessary to provide a strong foundation for walkability. If a community does decide it wants to become walkable, planners should consult residents on how to implement everything it requires, and not whether to implement these requirements.

To illustrate what we mean, consider if a community decides to build a library. An architect will be responsible for ensuring the library has everything it needs to stay standing: a foundation, structural pillars, and so on. The architect might consult residents on the look and feel of structural pillars, but not whether to include structural pillars.

Similarly, if a community decides it wants to be walkable, planners should make it clear that some things are essential, including small blocks, safe streets, compact zoning, greenery, and so on. This does not mean, however, that all communities must be identical. Far from it: planners should consult residents on how to adapt requirements for local needs, such as where to put benches, what trees to plant, what types of buildings they prefer, and so on. And, they should consult them on how to take advantage of walkability, such as how the city can support local businesses, festivals, and community events. Strong foundations enable more diversity, not less. Architects too can build a greater diversity of buildings by meeting their structural requirements.

If residents do want walkable design, it is important that planners insist on implementing its foundations, because residents often request things that, research suggests, would contradict walkable design. For example, people often demand high off-street parking requirements, which can hurt the financial feasibility of new businesses and make homes more expensive. Residents often want very low-density zoning, which further undermines the viability of local businesses. They may also ask for wide traffic lanes to make driving feel comfortable, which encourages fast driving and makes streets feel unsafe to walk.

To fulfill such wishes may seem responsive, but it in effect deprives residents of options. If architects allowed the public to ask for changes that would cause a library to collapse, they would fail in their responsibility to the public, depriving them of everything a functional library can offer. There is, after all, only so much residents can do with the rubble of a collapsed building. There is, similarly, only so much residents can do with dead, empty streets.

Everyone should be able to choose to live on vibrant streets like those in Fernwood. To give residents this choice, planners must distinguish what is foundational to walkability from what is optional. It is up to planners—and other city officials—to provide strong foundations. Once those foundations are in place, residents can enjoy the freedom to organize events, open businesses, and do everything it takes to make a community special and wonderful.

We expand on this argument in a chapter of a new book, Infrastructure, Wellbeing and the Measurement of Happiness, set to be published on Oct. 17, 2022 from Routledge.

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