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Thread: Widespread adoption of the SmartCode

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    Cyburbian
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    Widespread adoption of the SmartCode

    Are there any legitimate reasons for not adopting the SmartCode?

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    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    There are several pragmatic reasons that would qualify as legitimate to some people. For example: the development field (especially financiers) isn't quite sure how to take the development pattern yet, save for a few savvy firms or individuals, and because of this, it has the potential to stifle growth. It's almost as if financing companies (banks, etc) trashed all of the records from before 1920 and wedded itself onto the concept of some form of Euclidean zoning as part of its feasibility evaluations.

    There's also a large subculture in most places that have a strong investment in the status quo. In such a case, a compromise Smart Code optional/parallel code might be useful, as it would promote it, perhaps even through incentive, but not mandate it, basically allowing the development community to opt which set of development codes it wishes to follow.

    If neither of these are a concern for your town, this argument becomes a moot point.

    Then there are folks (including many planners) who think it's just not the optimum regulatory environment, or don't care for the development patterns it creates, for whatever reason. It also wouldn't surprise me if some states had some statutory preclusion for form based codes. Texas, perhaps strangely, does not, and our state government is notoriously anti-regulation and anti-city.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    Are there any legitimate reasons for not adopting the SmartCode?
    Besides not everyone having the same ideology, I suspect that in the 1930s the same was asked of Euclidean Zoning in much the same context.

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I think also that form-based zoning has not been extensively used in many places long enough for others to see what the long term results are.

    Until one can see concretely that it will not result in some disasterous beast, many munis will be reticent to jump on the bandwagon.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by wahday View post
    I think also that form-based zoning has not been extensively used in many places long enough for others to see what the long term results are.

    Until one can see concretely that it will not result in some disasterous beast, many munis will be reticent to jump on the bandwagon.
    One case against local tweaking of a FBC is Denver, which definitely went waaaay off track.

    But it is easy to make a case that cookie-cuttering the code reduces local input and thus munis should reject it.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by TexanOkie View post
    There are several pragmatic reasons that would qualify as legitimate to some people. For example: the development field (especially financiers) isn't quite sure how to take the development pattern yet, save for a few savvy firms or individuals, and because of this, it has the potential to stifle growth. It's almost as if financing companies (banks, etc) trashed all of the records from before 1920 and wedded itself onto the concept of some form of Euclidean zoning as part of its feasibility evaluations.

    There's also a large subculture in most places that have a strong investment in the status quo. In such a case, a compromise Smart Code optional/parallel code might be useful, as it would promote it, perhaps even through incentive, but not mandate it, basically allowing the development community to opt which set of development codes it wishes to follow.

    If neither of these are a concern for your town, this argument becomes a moot point.

    Then there are folks (including many planners) who think it's just not the optimum regulatory environment, or don't care for the development patterns it creates, for whatever reason. It also wouldn't surprise me if some states had some statutory preclusion for form based codes. Texas, perhaps strangely, does not, and our state government is notoriously anti-regulation and anti-city.
    Agree with all points. Builders and financiers simply want to know what they can do with their property. With Euclidean zoning, the answer is pretty straightforward: you have a list of uses allowed, along with density/f.a.r. requirements. This itself would give them an idea of the property's value and a basic development plan. When assessing a property's value, quantifiable measurements are good. Form-based codes, while more prescriptive in design, doesn't offer a quick answer to the "how many units can I build" question. It can be argued that form-based codes offer a developer more flexibility, but innovation and creativity are qualitative measures and financiers haven't taken the effort to digest regulations that aren't quick and easy.

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    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by cng View post
    Agree with all points. Builders and financiers simply want to know what they can do with their property. With Euclidean zoning, the answer is pretty straightforward: you have a list of uses allowed, along with density/f.a.r. requirements. This itself would give them an idea of the property's value and a basic development plan. When assessing a property's value, quantifiable measurements are good. Form-based codes, while more prescriptive in design, doesn't offer a quick answer to the "how many units can I build" question. It can be argued that form-based codes offer a developer more flexibility, but innovation and creativity are qualitative measures and financiers haven't taken the effort to digest regulations that aren't quick and easy.
    and...does the community have the staff to work with developers on flexible codes?

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    Cyburbian
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    It may be too big of a leap for Staff to enforce and interpret it. Some cities can't get the very basics right, much less implement a code that is beyond the basics.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee View post
    and...does the community have the staff to work with developers on flexible codes?
    This was my implication with mentioning Denver. They do not have staff to interpret flexible code. So they basically re-wrote existing code and called it FBC.

    And who is to say that - really - this is the 'perfect' solution and is the way to go, such that everyone should jump on board in an era of staff cuts?

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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    The problem has been FBC has been adopted up until recently in small neighborhoods or areas, not city wide. Let's see how Miami21 goes as an example of implementing the smart code.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

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    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    The problem has been FBC has been adopted up until recently in small neighborhoods or areas, not city wide. Let's see how Miami21 goes as an example of implementing the smart code.
    My jurisdiction adopted FBC as part of its specific plan for our downtown. It's more acceptable for specific districts, or corridors, where there is a need for regulations that emphasizes form over use. A city-wide smartcode is difficult, when you have to deal with the existing fabric of the city... especially if those existing settings don't jive ideally with transect concept. I concur with needing expertise among staff. It takes a great amount of inertia (among staff, elected and appointed officials, and all other stakeholders) to accept something new over Euclidean zoning as the dominant land use regulatory tool.

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    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    We are looking at a FBC for a greenfield development near town. The education process for staff, the public and for our elected officials has been fairly difficult and time consuming. I think that one of the biggest hurdles to widespread adoption of FBC is the public's perception that uses should still be separate. Until the baby boomers who mostly grew up in the 'burbs, are not the majority of homeowners, no significant shift to using and adopting FBC will happen.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

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    Cyburbian
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    Ordinarily I'd say that cost and market product acceptance can be issues.. which is, if the effect of attaching the code at a whole town scale (as opposed to, say, a TOD, main street or subdiv scale) would be to greatly drive up psf rents, say, or otherwise influence housing (and other space) affordability or availability, you can run a risk of pricing out your own publics or harming economic development. If there's a big transition from single- to multi-family implicit in the code adoption that will definitely effect affordability... needs to be impact assessed. Even if this was not the case, you'd still need to reassure your stakeholders that it won't be.

    Personally I think this might be a big issue, since smartgrowth and NU development assumptions remain largely untested at a whole-town or -city scale. Ultimately, it'll have to be empirically tested, and who wants to go first until it is... Generally, advocates point out that smartcoded development commands a rent/value premium, as a key selling point to developers. Well... that's great for a single development and a developer but at a whole-town scale that's potentially an apocalyptic disaster.

    My personal view is that what most communities need is far short of the smartcode. They need increased horizontal use-mixing to cut away at older Euclidean assumptions. relaxing use restrictions, and encouraging people to live closer to the places where they work and get services. They need selective (and often opportunistic) infill densification. And they need a sustainability framework and action/adaptation plan of quantifiable performance targets, across a number of QoL- and environmentally-related resource sustainablity, economic and design dimensions to guide future, organic growth.

    For example, with respect to transport, setting targets and devising strategies for reducing the average miles one drives every day to get to and from work over time can be just as effective as trying to use urban form or land-use policy to force people out of their cars into walkability or into transit modes. Less sexy but as effective. People don't need architectural and infrastructural determinism in land-use.
    Last edited by Cismontane; 01 Dec 2010 at 11:15 AM.

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    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    Personally I think this might be a big issue, since smartgrowth and NU development assumptions remain largely untested at a whole-town or -city scale. Ultimately, it'll have to be empirically tested, and who wants to go first until it is... Generally, advocates point out that smartcoded development commands a rent/value premium, as a key selling point to developers. Well... that's great for a single development and a developer but at a whole-town scale that's potentially an apocalyptic disaster.

    For example, with respect to transport, setting targets and devising strategies for reducing the average miles one drives every day to get to and from work over time can be just as effective as trying to use urban form or land-use policy to force people out of their cars into walkability or into transit modes. Less sexy but as effective. People don't need architectural and infrastructural determinism in land-use.
    Sure, smartcoded development will command a premium at first, but as it becomes more pervasive, and inventory for this kind of development increases, I think it values would re-align closer to the norm. Ultimately, people wouldn't be able to distinguish smart-coded development from standard development. If built context-sensitive, the two should integrate well within a community.

    I do agree strongly with your other sentiments about a more organic approach and less determinism in land use. FBC sometime walks a fine line between flexibility and determinism. I think the intentions are to allow for greater flexibility, at least with uses allowed, but the implementation of FBC results in conformity. I think part of the problem is that most local developers simply want to be told what the density, f.a.r. and setbacks are. When confronted with FBC, they interpret the code with the least amount of effort, and it results in something less than intended. It takes some sophistication and creative will for users of FBC to create something of great architectural and design value. You see it more in more urbanized communities where more prominent firms have a hack at doing something cool. But, for most of suburbia, this isn't the case.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by cng View post
    Sure, smartcoded development will command a premium at first, but as it becomes more pervasive, and inventory for this kind of development increases, I think it values would re-align closer to the norm
    I have a hard time seeing how this can be the case. Setting aside the issue of land costs (which will increase as a result of smartcoding), there's physical construction. The cheapest SFD balloon frame construction is what it is because it can be done for around $50 psf in some areas ($125,000 for a 2,500 sq ft floorplate). Big box tilt-up (for retail and stuff) is what is it is because it can be done for as low as $35-$40 psf. Once you get into reinforced/improved steel-stud wood frame in expensive areas - needed for most multi-unit construction - you go to a minimum of $65+ and probably $80. Reinforced masonry, probably approaching $120 in many areas, reinforced concrete $150+ or $180, etc etc., $220 in cmany major metros. Density costs money. Scaling itself won't drive down these costs much.

    Developers like these things because they can increase returns, whilst raising costs overall. If this logic stops applying (because costs norm out), they will balk.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    Developers like these things because they can increase returns, whilst raising costs overall. If this logic stops applying (because costs norm out), they will balk.
    Ah. So things won't get built ever again. That's one way to slow human population growth, I guess.

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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    Ah. So things won't get built ever again. That's one way to slow human population growth, I guess.
    Nah. The "give" if you will is on unit size. Multi-unit housing preserves its affordability by simply giving consumers less house (or, theoretically, by leveraging tax credits, but let's not get into that option here). Your balloon frame SFD will be, say, 2,500 square feet, but your mid-rise perimeter block apartment unit will be, say 1,250 sq ft.. and for the same price. The question is.. can you persuade your buyers - who would otherwise move into a 2,500 SFD or townhouse - to go with half the house.. or, alternatively, to pay twice as much. Obviously this works well enough for a single project or a small district - which still preserves consumer choice - for a subset of the people who are willing to trade space for the advantages of living on top of shops and transit. All I'm saying is that upzoning an entire town is another matter altogether.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    Ordinarily I'd say that cost and market product acceptance can be issues.. which is, if the effect of attaching the code at a whole town scale (as opposed to, say, a TOD, main street or subdiv scale) would be to greatly drive up psf rents, say, or otherwise influence housing (and other space) affordability or availability, you can run a risk of pricing out your own publics or harming economic development. If there's a big transition from single- to multi-family implicit in the code adoption that will definitely effect affordability... needs to be impact assessed. Even if this was not the case, you'd still need to reassure your stakeholders that it won't be.

    Personally I think this might be a big issue, since smartgrowth and NU development assumptions remain largely untested at a whole-town or -city scale. Ultimately, it'll have to be empirically tested, and who wants to go first until it is... Generally, advocates point out that smartcoded development commands a rent/value premium, as a key selling point to developers. Well... that's great for a single development and a developer but at a whole-town scale that's potentially an apocalyptic disaster.

    My personal view is that what most communities need is far short of the smartcode. They need increased horizontal use-mixing to cut away at older Euclidean assumptions. relaxing use restrictions, and encouraging people to live closer to the places where they work and get services. They need selective (and often opportunistic) infill densification. And they need a sustainability framework and action/adaptation plan of quantifiable performance targets, across a number of QoL- and environmentally-related resource sustainablity, economic and design dimensions to guide future, organic growth.

    For example, with respect to transport, setting targets and devising strategies for reducing the average miles one drives every day to get to and from work over time can be just as effective as trying to use urban form or land-use policy to force people out of their cars into walkability or into transit modes. Less sexy but as effective. People don't need architectural and infrastructural determinism in land-use.
    I'm surprised by the apparent resistance to the SmartCode, and to form-based codes, more generally.

    I see tremendous value in standardizing form-based codes so that architects can design for each Transect Zone and so they can license their work in order to improve design quality around the world. The system is straightforward enough so that it seems as if it would be quite useful to efficiently re-establish rural-to-urban transects and reinstitute walkability.

    Regulating the Transect at every level, and placing a minimum of three Transect Zones in each pedestrian-shed should also be easy ideas for most people to grasp. The urban areas demand more discipline, except in regards to civic buildings, from architects, but the Code gives them much more freedom in the rural and sub-urban places where the urbanisms aren't as tight. I think it's also appealing that the SmartCode is being presented as an overlay.

    Considering that politicians, planners, engineers, architects, and landscape architects have turned most of the U.S. into crap over the last few decades, the SmartCode to me is a clever way for these professions to reverse all the damage as quickly and effectively as possible.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    I'm surprised by the apparent resistance to the SmartCode, and to form-based codes, more generally.
    I think many planners will admit that Euclidean zoning is outdated and not the best way to regulate land use. However, not everyone will agree that smartcodes is the way to go. I wouldn't call it resistance per se... more like hesitance. Also, the effectiveness of smartcodes will vary jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The transect concept is really a regional approach to planning. However, more often than not, our cities are not isolated, but rather, have boundaries that abut other cities. Some cities are built out, and really have no rural land uses. Others are rural in nature, and will never achieve the density as idealized in the transect. Also, you really can't implement the transect concept until you have jobs/housing balance. Achieving a job/housing balance within a region is hard enough, but even far more difficult within a city. People drive to wherever they can find work. Some cities do all they can only to accommodate industry and jobs, while doing little to accommodate housing. That leaves other jurisdictions becoming more like bedroom communities, with builders buying up cheap land to build tract housing. I guess what I am saying is that smartcodes will only be as successful as its ability to respond well to market conditions, as well as existing land use contexts. As much as I would love do planning in a way that is livable, sustainable, etc. etc... there simply is no one-size-fits-all approach to planning.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cismontane View post
    Obviously this works well enough for a single project or a small district - which still preserves consumer choice - for a subset of the people who are willing to trade space for the advantages of living on top of shops and transit. All I'm saying is that upzoning an entire town is another matter altogether.
    What are "the advantages of living on top of shops and transit"? Sorry, but I can't think of any, especially if it's going to cost twice as much as housing units on residential streets. While planners keep pushing "mixed use" projects, it seems that the public keeps expressing its preference to be "near" shops and transit not "on top of".

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    What are "the advantages of living on top of shops and transit"? Sorry, but I can't think of any, especially if it's going to cost twice as much as housing units on residential streets. While planners keep pushing "mixed use" projects, it seems that the public keeps expressing its preference to be "near" shops and transit not "on top of".
    When cheap energy goes away, these will be in demand (albeit not on the second floor of a two-story with a drug store below) and such ideas are about 15-25 years before their time. The built environment being durable makes such ideas problematic. All a matter of scale.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Linda_D View post
    What are "the advantages of living on top of shops and transit"? Sorry, but I can't think of any, especially if it's going to cost twice as much as housing units on residential streets. While planners keep pushing "mixed use" projects, it seems that the public keeps expressing its preference to be "near" shops and transit not "on top of".
    Linda.. I was being a little facetious, poking fun at some of the smartcode's more colorful proscriptions. My point is that what works for an individual project - including one where the developer might choose to integrate shops and homes into the same buildings, which does work on occasion and in very particular cases - simply doesn't work at larger scales. I simply do not think it is ever appropriate to smartcode an entire city. Rochester tried to formcode their entire urbanized area. What has that done for Rochester precisely?

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    Cyburbian
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    I don't know where people get some of these ideas. The SmartCode and the New Urbanism prescribes fitting a minimum of three Transect Zones within each pedestrian-shed, so this notion that these form-based codes institute a single housing typology, like condominiums and apartments in mixed-use buildings over which Linda_D continually obsesses, is patently false. And, Linda, some people are drawn to the street life and pedestrian culture of a city. Shops, restaurants, and other businesses in walkable places are amenities.

    Who are you to deny others this housing option, especially when you say that, on one hand, there is no demand for these places but, on the other hand, the cost of living in them is too high. So, which is it? If there is no demand, then the prices and rents should be dropping. Shouldn't they?

    Let's face it. There are significant moneyed interests that now feel threatened by the rise of the New Urbanism and smart growth, and the campaign to stop the movement is entirely predictable. I just question the reason that someone who seems so married to Joel Kotkin's ideal of homogenized suburban sprawl even participates in these discussions.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    some people are drawn to the street life and pedestrian culture of a city. Shops, restaurants, and other businesses in walkable places are amenities.
    Some, people. You just summed up why the smart code doesn't solve all of life's problem. Get your head out of academia and insert it back in the real world. People want their yard, fence, and land. It is inherent in the **cough cough** white man **cough cough**. It's American's manifest destiny. Until this changes, only some people by into the high density projects.

    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    I just question the reason that someone who seems so married to Joel Kotkin's ideal of homogenized suburban sprawl even participates in these discussions.
    wow... is that your arrogance or is it old spice?
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    I don't know where people get some of these ideas. The SmartCode and the New Urbanism prescribes fitting a minimum of three Transect Zones within each pedestrian-shed, so this notion that these form-based codes institute a single housing typology, like condominiums and apartments in mixed-use buildings over which Linda_D continually obsesses, is patently false. And, Linda, some people are drawn to the street life and pedestrian culture of a city. Shops, restaurants, and other businesses in walkable places are amenities.

    Who are you to deny others this housing option, especially when you say that, on one hand, there is no demand for these places but, on the other hand, the cost of living in them is too high. So, which is it? If there is no demand, then the prices and rents should be dropping. Shouldn't they?

    Let's face it. There are significant moneyed interests that now feel threatened by the rise of the New Urbanism and smart growth, and the campaign to stop the movement is entirely predictable. I just question the reason that someone who seems so married to Joel Kotkin's ideal of homogenized suburban sprawl even participates in these discussions.
    Yes, I do think some people are drawn to street life and pedestrian culture of a city. I also know that people like yards, privacy, and a quiet street. In other words, many people want it both ways. They want a pedestrian-friendly street with nice trees and parkways, but then they'll also want to travel quickly on it by vehicle. They like pedestrian amenities, but then will complain about traffic congestion or lack of parking.

    Like ColoGI mentioned, we may not move as quickly towards more compact development until we're compelled to do so, when energy costs hits a threshold and forces us to reduces our consumption of energy and resources, and ultimately make some hard choices about our transportation and land use choices. I know most of the planners already get this--but the masses haven't got it yet. Many still make the choice to have a one hour commute to work to have cheap housing out in the burbs. And since the masses still demand this, the builders will respond accordingly and push for these types of land use patterns.

    I'm not necessarily taking a Joel Kotkin apologist stance for sprawl. I am simply acknowledging the desires of most people, and general market forces. I will also admit that the tide is changing. Household demographics are changing. There's a need for a greater variety of housing stock; a greater variety of transportation choices. As a planner, I am often caught in between the desires of the community and planning ideals. Sometimes, the two overlap, and you tap into the sweet spot of providing for the community something they want, but is also good planning practice--something sustainable. Sometimes, it takes education to persuade community residents to think beyond the boundaries of their property and to consider the benefits of public amenities.

    Coming right out of college, I had the city planning ideals of what was taught to me in school. It gave me somewhat of a planner-knows-best mentality. I still have some of that, but it's been modified to planner-knows-best-of-what-community-residents-want. This is why we do community outreach for our General Plans... to get their feedback. And yes, we do some education along the way, too--some persuasion here and there, some asking of critical questions to make residents confront their opposing desires and to come up with some compromising tradeoffs. Such is the grand life of a practicing planner.

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