CNU Teams with Michigan Leaders on New Guide to Code Reform

Lisa Schamess, Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) has collaborated with the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to publish Enabling Better Places: Users' Guide to Zoning Reform, a how-to manual of practical, realizable steps for local governments to take to make their communities more walkable and livable for residents.

The guide culminates more than a year of work with five Michigan communities through the Project for Code Reform, CNU’s strategic initiative to support cities and towns as they reform outdated zoning codes to promote walkable urbanism. With financial support from allied partner organizations and technical support from nationally acclaimed code experts from DPZ CoDESIGN, Ferrell Madden, and PlaceMakers, LLC, CNU worked with its Michigan partners to create the new guide, focusing on downtowns and main streets in small and medium-sized towns and cities in Michigan. The lessons learned are easily translated to towns and cities in other parts of the US. 

"The Project for Code Reform has completely changed our expectations of what Michigan's local governments can do to reshape their zoning and improve their communities," says Dan Gilmartin, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League. "This guide encourages communities to take basic steps in a positive direction, rather than try to leap toward to a preconceived outcome or endpoint. That's really valuable when your town or city faces budget and staff constraints.”

Like most cities and towns in the United States, Michigan communities must work with antiquated zoning codes that favor the automobile and separate uses, making it illegal to build a truly walkable street, or to combine housing and business uses in a neighborhood. The cumbersome and costly process of overhauling a zoning code is out of reach for many local governments, particularly those of smaller or moderate size. The result is that codes that are sometimes more than fifty years old still govern local development, perpetuating sprawl and traffic.

“This is a guide to zoning reform that really meets local governments where they are, helping them change their zoning in a way that suits their particular capacity, needs, and vision,” says Lynn Richards, present and CEO of CNU. “With 42,000 jurisdictions with zoning code authority in the US, think how profoundly we could change communities for the better, with this fundamentally new and pragmatic way to break down regulatory barriers and provide a framework that makes great places possible.”

The guide focuses on the how of the process of code reform rather than the what, giving communities wide latitude to create solutions that are unique to their needs and circumstances. The emphasis is on incremental change to enable a community to adapt and digest an update in a single neighborhood or district before moving on to other reforms. This helps governments test approaches, build political will, and gain community support as they go. The guide also offers perspective on how local governments can acknowledge their own capacity and readiness for change, and explores the political dimensions of code reform.

Other project partners for Enabling Better Places include the Michigan Association of Planning, AARP Livable Communities, The Richard H. Driehaus Prize at the University of Notre Dame for Contributions to the Public Realm, and the Michigan State Housing Redevelopment Authority.

Enabling Better Places: User’s Guide to Zoning Reform can be downloaded free of charge from CNU.

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