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Urbanism: One Size Does Not Fit All

Liddell, Alice & Lorina on See-Saw (Lewis Carroll picture 1860)Land use policy is the fulcrum in the tug of war between the property rights of individual owners and the regulatory interest of communities in establishing and enforcing a vision of their own community.  Three separate conversation and analysis threads bring home the reality that the cookie cutter approach to development and even to the ordinances and interpretations that govern development are not the best approach.  Indeed, inflexibility of approach and failing to encourage a more diverse and vibrant style of development are exactly the failings that the new schools of thought of "urbanism" are seeking to replace.

On the first topic, Chris Cheatham reported last week on some criticism of the Tyson's Corner proposal to allow density bonuses to developers for reaching green certification levels.  A multi-family residential developer raised what I regard as legitimate questions about whether LEED should be the only standard used.  If jurisdictions are turning to third party voluntary programs and means of certification, they should develop the means to evaluate and understand these tools and avoid getting handcuffed to a single green standard fits all approach.  While the LEED standards have certainly evolved and continue to evolve, there are some who believe they still reflect their roots flowing primarily from the commercial design and construction environment.

The second thread was covered by my colleague Tad Lunger last week in reporting the results of the recent Arlington Retail Task Force.  Much of Arlington's success has been pinned to the concept of mixed-use development, but many developers have expressed heartburn over filling first floor retail space in areas that do not appear to support such uses.  Many retailers have expressed heartburn that this land use policy creates a glut of too much retail and too much competition.  It appears that the task force has reached similar conclusions.  This is another thread towards the same conclusion that a cookie cutter approach of requiring the same thing in the same way on every project does not achieve the intended results.

Against this backdrop, I ran across a brilliant presentation by James Howard Kunstler posted at Aribra entitled The Tragedy of Suburbia, a video from a TEDTalks conference.  Mr. Kunstler may be somewhat of a lightning rod for the vehemence of his critiques of suburbia, but he makes a lot of great points regarding architecture, community, the challenges we face regarding fossil fuels, and how to build a sense of lasting community through urbanism.  I know this may be a lot to ask, but trust me: watch this video.  It is worth the 20 minutes for sure.  It is thought provoking, and will honestly give you multiple gut busting laughs to boot if your sense of humor is anything like mine.

Pulling this all together, developing vibrant communities certainly requires a regulatory and legislative framework that permits local government to plan areas of density, areas of commercial and residential development, and to encourage the creation of appropriate infrastructure to support those efforts.  That framework should not be reduced to a cookie cutter, one-size fits all approach.  That type of approach is arguably what helped foster the suburban sprawl that most planners are seeking to undo now, most notably in Tyson's Corner locally.  In encouraging a more transit oriented style of development, localities should be mindful of not not crippling the development of true urban commercial cores through excessive restrictive and repetitive requirements, but instead should like to foster organic growth a much as possible. 

Image: Alice and Lorina Liddell on See-saw, from Lewis Carroll photobooks

  • Shareholder

    Timothy Hughes is the managing shareholder of Bean, Kinney & Korman. He also represents clients in construction and commercial litigation, as well as corporate, contracts and general business matters. With over 20 years ...