Historical buildings, city planning and form based code – sexier than you think.

A guest post by always entertaining and incredibly knowledgeable Belinda Crowson (Galt Museum educator and ghost story teller extraordinaire).

Of City Planning and Historic Buildings

Planning has dramatic long-term effects on a neighbourhood and a city – both planned and unplanned, both beneficial and not so beneficial. If planning is a significant factor in creating a city, can it be purposely used to create the types of cities that we want, especially in an age where we’re concerned about the loss of downtowns and urban sprawl? Form-based code is a relatively new development that could have a very positive long-term effect on historic building preservation and the development of our communities.

Form-based code is an alternative to zoning and focuses on the physical form rather than use. Under form-based code a city sets architectural standards, landscaping standards, signage standards, building form standards, public spaces standards and a regulating plan about where specific types of buildings forms are permitted.

Form-based code starts with a vision for what a community wants and then creates standards that help to achieve it. Each code is unique to its community and specific to certain areas within the community. Questions that are asked during the development of the code are “will the code produce walkable, identifiable neighbourhoods that provide for daily needs?” and “will the code shape the public realm to invite pedestrian use and social interaction?” Form-based code is a purposeful decision to require private buildings to shape public space and to be integrated into the larger community. Form-based code reflects tradition and community intent.

But how does this help protect historic buildings?

There are many ways.

Form-based code ensures that only complementary infill is allowed in historic places and that the standards are such that it maintains the existing historic character and quality of the area. Historical building preservation is not about no development; it’s about intelligent development and creating buildings that complement the vision of the community. The most beloved historic buildings are those that have survived the test of time – there is often something about their structure, material, or design that connects people to that structure. Why not build on the success of those buildings in designing new structures? Additionally, historic buildings were often designed as mixed use – with retail/commercial on the bottom and residential on top – a mixture of use that created vibrant, well-used communities. When building on tradition, see what worked and learn why it worked.

Historic buildings create a sense of identity that differentiates communities from one another. As form-based code has a role for architectural standards, it can help create attractive public spaces while at the same time protecting the architectural character of an area. This is not about one size fitting all but creating the codes that work within a specific community to meet the needs of that community.

However, form-based code also has other smaller, though no less important benefits. Walkable communities and neighbourhoods encourage people to get out and explore. People rarely care about and fight for something they don’t know or understand. As people explore their communities they learn about it. This awareness and understanding can also apply to historic buildings. People get out and look. They read plaques. They are around to take tours (self-guided or guided). The idea is to get people out more into their community. While this benefits historic buildings, it also enhances social interactions and builds communities. It is also good for commercial enterprises because the longer people spend in a neighbourhood or area, the more they spend. Something that benefits history, social interactions among citizens and the economy? How can that not be a good thing?

From what I was able to find on-line pedestrian friendly/walkable urbanism ended in the 1930s. The car became the new norm. Jay-walking bylaws were encouraged by motorists who wanted to ensure that streets were only for cars. Sidewalks were made smaller so roads could be made larger for automobiles. The way cities were designed changed. Zoning was first introduced in 1916 and eventually became the norm. All of this had dramatic influences on city development.

Now, though, people are wanting those old types of cities back – cities where your daily needs could all be met within walking distance; where the streets were alive with people from morning to evening; where the private spaces and public spaces melded into a coherent community. Form-based code seems to be an important tool in helping make that happens.

Let’s be honest. Form-based code won’t solve all of the problems. But it is an important tool for municipalities to have. It has been adopted by approximately 300 municipalities in the United States at some level or other (within a community or for the entire city) and is being considered by many places in Canada.

I encourage people who are interested in historic buildings and preservation of buildings and neighborhoods to read up on it. As the Lethbridge Historical Society representative on the Heart of Our City Revitalization Committee I have chosen to sit on the Design and Regulatory Planning Subcommittee as I have a sense that this is one more way we can make significant strides in promoting and protecting Lethbridge’s historic buildings.

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One thought on “Historical buildings, city planning and form based code – sexier than you think.

  1. Ross Kilgour says:

    Very well said. I am an urban planner based in London, UK. We don’t call it form based planning here but you basically describe a system similar to the UK one, which we adopted in 1947. Yes it’s slower (5-8 weeks for minor applications, 13 week target for major applications) but it’s so worth it. Horrible box stores still get built (especially when the Tories are in power) but overall we have managed to preserve our historic buildings and neighbourhoods and build more on the human, walkable scale than zoning based planning usually produces.

    I love lethbridge (my wife is from there) but I get so annoyed and perplexed when I see bad planning there – unsympathetic modern boxes next to old (for lethbridge!) downtown buildings, historic shop fronts ripped out to make way for plate glass, sprawl, lack of mixed uses, lack of mixed tenure housing, etc. This sounds like a really positive step for planning in lethbridge, I hope it takes flight. I’d love to help in any way I can, as we’ll likely move to lethbridge before too long and I hope to continue my planning career there so it’s something I’m passionate about.

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