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Working Toward a New Understanding of Zoning

Typically, jurisdictions address the public realm, if at all, in broad-brush master plans, but often vaguely and without the kind of exacting constraints imposed by zoning. Rarely do zoning ordinances and master plans set forth adequate design standards for street cross sections, planting, furniture, lighting, sidewalk dimensions and finishes, building porosity at sidewalk level, or graphics. Rarely are plaza geometries or landscaping spelled out.

Instead, most jurisdictions fabricate a patchwork quilt of uncoordinated ordinances that deal separately with transportation, public works, utilities, building and public safety codes, and parks and recreation.

Ideally, a new set of principles and rules for urban design and development, superseding zoning, would explicitly and comprehensively address all of these issues: patterns of land use, densities, infrastructure, building form and, equally important, cityscape and landscape. And to be effective, its mapping and design criteria would be fine-grained, ranging in scale from districts and neighborhoods to specific sites.

A new code still would need to prescribe limits where appropriate, but its aim would be higher: to achieve desired aesthetic quality and functionality within the public realm.

Of course, debates about desired aesthetic quality won't go away. Urban designers share many goals, but competing aesthetic philosophies persist, just as in other design fields, such as architecture, furniture and fashion design.

Boiled down, the debate is between those embracing historical continuity and those advocating innovation. The former generally want to be more prescriptive about both cityscape and architecture, while the latter, fearful that freedom of artistic expression could be stifled, seek to promote design flexibility.

But each community must engage in this debate, a necessary part of the process required to transcend conventional zoning.

No matter which aesthetic philosophy a community chooses, residents must remember that cities are at once permanent and organic, durable yet mutable. While laws regulating urban development should not be changed solely in response to rapidly shifting trends in taste, they nevertheless must change from time to time. For zoning, this is one of those times.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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