New codes written for Gulf Coast

The Mississippi Renewal Forum provided one of the first opportunities to introduce an entire region to the SmartCode and the idea of Transect-based and form-based coding. In the weeks since the Forum ended, a number of officials along the Gulf Coast have shown strong interest in having their communities implement codes recommended by new urbanist planning teams.

Many of the region’s cities or counties have sent planners or elected officials to training sessions on the SmartCode or form-based codes. “We’re very excited about the SmartCode,” said Connie Moran, mayor of Ocean Springs, which sent an alderman, a planning commission member, and the city’s planning director to a workshop of the Form-Based Codes Institute in Alexandria, Virginia.

“The whole charrette process has elevated the consciousness of elected officials about how design impacts commerce and quality of life in our communities,” Moran said. “Before, we never really thought of it. We thought different uses were not supposed to touch each other.” Thanks to the Forum and subsequent discussions, municipal leaders such as Moran have had their eyes opened to the virtues of mixing commercial, residential, and other activities.

Nine of the 11 communities that participated in the Forum were advised by their planning teams to adopt the SmartCode, which is now available to municipalities in Mississippi and other states at no charge. In seven of the nine cities, the new urbanist teams made minor revisions to the SmartCode template, which has undergone continuous refinement since first being developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. The other two teams submitted an unaltered SmartCode template, albeit without the T-6 Urban Core zone. (Most of the coastal cities do not have a high-density downtown, the setting for which T6 is intended.) A tenth city, Biloxi, used the SmartCode’s key organizing framework — the Transect — to establish zones for various kinds of development, even though Biloxi did not use the SmartCode itself. Only the team for D’Iberville, population 7,608, did not offer a Transect-based plan.

The codes team, including Chad Emerson of the Faulkner University law school in Montgomery, Alabama, has written state enabling legislation that will be presented to legislators in Jackson, the Mississippi state capital. It would allow Mississippi municipalities to adopt the code as a mandatory tool. William Wright, a land-use lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, helped adapt the SmartCode to Mississippi law and to Gulf Coast conditions, including ecology; a table lists local tree species organized by Transect zone. Communities adopting Mississippi SmartCodes can customize them further to fit their own local vision.

Mississippians will find additional guidance in “A Pattern Book for Gulf Coast Neighborhoods,” the latest of a series of architectural guides produced by Urban Design Associates (UDA) of Pittsburgh. The Pattern Book draws on historical forms and styles of architecture in the region and offers instruction on how to design housing for many different densities and locales. UDA’s guides for Norfolk, Virginia, and other communities have been well-received (see June 2004 New Urban News).

Mapping the

five-minute walk

Most of the planning teams produced maps showing where neighborhoods are currently organized around a five-minute walk or where they could be developed in the future, allowing residents to reach a park, a store, a civic use, or another amenity within a quarter-mile. “For the existing neighborhoods, we used either an existing pocket park or corner retail as the center, even knowing that in many cases there are no sidewalks,” Sarah Lewis of Ayers Saint Gross Architects said of the plan for Long Beach. The team asked local residents to supply names of the existing neighborhoods and help create names — based on Long Beach’s history — for currently unnamed areas that the team believes should be redeveloped. “When we presented to the larger group, they loved the names,” Lewis said.

The five-minute walk (or “pedestrian shed”) diagrams attempt to anchor the concept of neighborhood, providing a shared space, even if, as Emily Talen of the University of Illinois observed, the shared space is only conceptual now. A virtue of the five-minute walk as a planning tool, Sandy Sorlien noted, is that it says “Look, this is the best spot for your catchment — what do you want in it?”

Geoff Dyer of Civic Design Group in Calgary, Alberta, noted that one way to enhance a center is to allow some multifamily uses to define a public space and also permit some limited commercial activities. The five-minute-walk concept was also used in deciding where to institute a “park once” strategy for shopping areas and to identify logical places where more density should be encouraged. Many of those places are at roughly half-mile intervals along US Route 90 on the coast. The regional planning and environment teams produced a pedestrian-shed map for all the parks and schoolyards in the 11 cities. This work spurred debate on whether planners can meaningfully plot a five-minute walk on the basis of an “as the crow flies” quarter-mile radius. When a street network is composed of right angles, people may make slower progress toward their destination than a straight-line measurement would suggest, said Eliot Allen of Criterion Planners in Portland, Oregon. Empirical research has found that different kinds of pedestrian destinations have a considerably varied “gravitational pull,” according to Allen. u