Thoughts on the Boards

A place for my updates and pseudo-ruminations  

My Summer in Utah

 A trek through Big Cottonwood Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City, UT.

A trek through Big Cottonwood Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City, UT.

This past summer, I became a Mormon-Catholic New Urbanist, and I did it all without putting on a nametag, going through a catechesis, or getting a degree from the University of Miami! How, you say? Allow me to explain:

From the end of May to beginning of August, I worked as a Planning Intern at the Salt Lake City office of Michael Baker International, a multidisciplinary engineering firm that houses an Urban Design Studio. Since the SLC office has only recently added a planning branch, I was essentially helping the director—who is, comically enough, also named Michael, and has a senior executive supervisor named Michael—to build a program and reputation from the ground up. To say I learned a lot would be an understatement of epic proportions. I was able to practice my graphic software skills daily, understand the nuances of the RFP and marketing process, schmooze with potential clients who are big name developers, get a sense of the culture in an engineering office, learn new ways of implementing design concepts in land use and entitlement packages, and learn about new programs, to name a few. But I think it is safe to say the most interesting thing I was able to do this summer was get into the mind of a supervisor/mentor who is a bona fide New Urbanist, committed to his principles, and is innovating within his paradigm.

When I say bona fide, I mean bona fide! So much so that when Mike was pursuing his Master of City and Environmental Planning at Arizona State University and saw that he didn’t have any teachers who knew or were willing to teach him about New Urbanism, he invented his own curriculum and then later taught the classes himself to undergrads. So much so that he is a CNU Chapter officer and has headed up a CNU conference. So much so that he will shout it from the rooftops in a toga if provoked. Okay, maybe not to that extent, but is it clear enough that he is a real New Urbanist and not just someone who vaguely likes the ideas? It’s a rare thing these days to meet someone so deeply committed to a design movement—I feel that, at least for the moment, the days of manifestos, charters, and theorists actually giving themselves labels are becoming a thing of the past, since my generation seems very averse to the idea of ‘being put in a box’—so I thought I should take advantage of that and really let him take me on a journey through the Smart Growth approach.

Here is where the Mormon-Catholic thing comes in. While there are some very well defined principles of New Urbanism in the CNU Charter, there are other places in which the actual practice of New Urbanism is left up for interpretation, and can therefore be seen as not sophisticated enough for local circumstances. Ironically, the people who point this out the most are often the New Urbanists themselves. No one is more aware of the need to update and calibrate things like the Smart Code than those who crafted it in the first place (which, as a side note, I think this fact is often overlooked by the critics of the movement). Mike’s response to this need is something he calls the Community Development Code or CDC, which is the project I worked the most on throughout the summer. 

Here is my quick and dirty synopsis of the CDC:

What is it?

The CDC is a zoning and entitlement code for building strong communities that are true to their local character. It sets context by looking to historical land use patterns of the region and municipality in question, organizes its development using an advanced version of the transect, and frames the submittals process around the concept of subsidiarity.

  • Historical Land Use Patterns
    • In the case of Utah, the precedent is set by the Plat of Zion, a concept for Mormon community building envisioned by Joseph Smith and implemented by Brigham Young in over 500 communities of ranging size throughout the Mountain West
  • Advanced Version of Transect
    • Instead of simply using the T1 to T6 designations from the Transect, the CDC looks to define land use context by establishing development areas, community types, block types, and lot types which vary in character and intensity according to local conditions.
  •  Development Areas map neighborhoods, infrastructure, sensitive lands, etc
    •  9 Community Types that vary in population and character
    •  6 Block Types that vary in intensity and form
    •  9 Lot Types that vary in intensity and form
  • Subsidiarity (based on the governance of the Catholic Church)
    • Submittals process attempts to push decisions down to the most local competence level as possible. This is to give developers more time and flexibility in their decision making—so that they may build incrementally in response to the market—while retaining the certainty that cities require.

Why did it come about?

While Mike Hathorne was making plans for a number of communities in Utah, he noticed some areas where the New Urbanist Smart Code was falling short in calibrating plans specific to the needs of cities along the Wasatch Front. While there were certain universal principles that were helpful in crafting zoning legislation based on the rural-urban transect, there were also areas where the transect was just too broad for New Urbanist lay people to tailor to the nuance in their cities’ circumstances. Some of these areas include developer-city relationships in decision making/submittals, scalability of the transect at the community, block, and lot levels to fit context, and adding density without diminishing neighborhood character.

How is it implemented?

The code can be delivered in a number of ways, some of the more common being as a land use chapter in existing legislation (usually for specific districts where cities want to “try it out”), as part of a new development (such as a PUD), or as a rewrite or overhaul of the entire zoning code.

Where can it be implemented?

While the prototype of the code has been crafted to work in the context of Utah communities, it is built for flexibility and can be calibrated to just about any community in the U.S.

Who is it meant for?

It is the hope that state, regional, and local governments could use the code to craft their legislation; but it should also be emphasized that one of the code’s strongest aspects is its ability to be used by developers to gain more flexibility for (best practice) innovation in their place making.

Parting Thoughts

So now that you know a little about the work, the question is so what? What are the biggest takeaways from this experience with the CDC and working at Michael Baker this summer? I would point out three:

  1. As designers, we really need to understand the policy implications of what we do, especially as it pertains to good community planning,
  2. Things like the CDC can be invaluable to communities that need to shape up their development practices but want to keep the character of their neighborhoods, of which there are many in Louisiana, and
  3. If we are to tackle the biggest problems facing our infrastructure and environment today, we must accept the reality that it behooves us to work across disciplines if we are to come up with cohesive solutions.

If you are interested in learning more about the code, I strongly encourage you to drop Mike a line. You won't regret hearing more about the code from the mouth of its author.

Phillip Fernberg