Shaping the City

New Year's resolutions for those shaping D.C.

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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 1, 2011

On this first day of 2011, I propose several New Year's resolutions for architects, urban planners and real estate developers, along with government officials and citizens, all of whom determine or influence the shape of buildings and cities.

Resolved: That creation of green architecture with reduced or zero carbon footprints will become standard practice. Achieving sustainability should no longer be an optional design goal or add-on marketing feature. In fact, as sustainable design and construction become the norm, comparable to ensuring fire safety or providing access for disabled people, the extra cost of making new buildings sustainable will be marginal.

Resolved: That we will pursue architectural sustainability by not demolishing aging or obsolete buildings, historic or otherwise, but instead by recycling them whenever economically and technically feasible. Even ugly, dysfunctional buildings can be transformed through creative re-configuration, technological modernization and adaptive reuse.

Resolved: That we will create sustainable urban and suburban infrastructure as well as sustainable communities. Being green should not be limited to buildings. To save energy, reduce carbon emissions and eliminate pollution, new policies and practices are needed for design, construction and operation of transportation and utility systems, civic facilities, parks and public open spaces. The location of new development or redevelopment should be predicated on existing and future infrastructure capacity and availability, access to employment and other public amenities, and preservation of valuable natural or agrarian landscapes.

Resolved: That Washington area governments, state transportation agencies and Metro will act regionally and collaborate to plan, finance and implement enhanced, regionwide, multi-modal transportation options. All city and suburban streets should safely work for cyclists, pedestrians, motorists and, in places, streetcars. All modes of rail and bus transit should be affordable, reliable and well coordinated. Regional transportation planning should even include the embryonic, privately operated water taxi service. To realize its full potential, more frequent trips and more stops will be needed along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, which will necessitate some public sector financial support.

Resolved: That states, counties and especially cities will substantially amend or get rid of out-of-date, obstructive and overly complex zoning ordinances. Let's abandon the basic zoning paradigm dividing counties and cities into patchwork quilts of single-use zones. Throw away overly generalized plans and undertake fine-grain urban design, street by street and block by block, taking into account not only localized physical conditions - topography, microclimate, views, access - but also social, cultural and economic circumstances.

Most conventional zoning has been at best a crude, counterproductive tool. Historically the primary goals of zoning have been to restrict land use and density; to mandate open space and parking; and, with maps delineating single-use zones, to protect property values by separating presumably incompatible uses. Rarely do zoning regulations proactively define a planning vision for a city and its neighborhoods, much less enable realization of a visionary plan or explicitly address issues of architectural quality.

Resolved: That the D.C. mayor, council, Office of Planning and Zoning Commission, as well as other agencies, will study and reconsider the height-limiting provisions of the D.C. zoning ordinance. As asserted periodically in this column over the past 26 years, there are numerous sites in the District, outside the area planned by Pierre L'Enfant, where taller buildings would make sense aesthetically, functionally and economically. Increasing height and density in such areas would not compromise the capital's historic profile and skyscraper-free character, nor would it open the door, as some would argue, to relaxing height limits citywide.

I could go on. But today is a holiday, and this is enough seriousness after last night's festivities. Happy new year.

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

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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