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Obstacles to "Good" Urban Design

The subjectivity of urban design leaves it vulnerable to criticism. The compact, mixed-use developments advocated today are commonly incongruous – both aesthetically and philosophically – to the sprawling, rigidly separated land uses of the past 50 years. Critics often take issue with this compactness, citing fears that excessive density and traffic congestion will follow. A major draw of (and reason for) the conventional suburb is its promise of a private yard, free from the bustle of "downtown" districts. Mixed-use critics often point to the dense nature of the developments as reasons to avoid them. Like those who criticize compact developments in general, mixed-use detractors feel housing, businesses, civic centers, etc. each have their own separate place in a community. Consequently, many advocates of compact, high-density urban-design have been forced to focus much effort toward easing the concerns of the general public.

Other obstacles to contemporary urban design are economic. New projects often require vast tracts of land containing many parcels. Aside from the political controversy this may cause, it can also be cost prohibitive to most developers. Similarly, these large developments require a large and diversified market for their homes and businesses. The scale of such projects leaves them especially sensitive to market conditions that may not always make design standards a priority to developers, according to a local New Urbanism expert.

Another challenge to good urban design is traditional or Euclidian zoning. Euclidian zoning addresses only land-use and not the form of the built environment. The result is a patchwork style of development that keeps housing, businesses and industry separate, preventing the complex integration of structures that walkable communities require. This zoning has directly affected the way communities across the nation have grown over the past century.

In contrast to single-use zoning, communities are beginning to explore ways to better address the built form of their environment through mixed use zoning and form-based codes. The Form-Based Codes Institute defines a form-based code as "a method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban form. Form-based codes create a predictable public realm primarily by controlling physical form, with a lesser focus on land use, through city or county regulations." Unlike design guidelines, which are proscriptive, form-based codes are regulatory and clearly state what a community wants to see in the built environment. By concentrating on the visual elements of the built environment a community desires, FBCs draft a picture of the features desired by a community. These codes address features such as façades, height, and mass of a structure.

Increasingly, communities are looking to form-based codes to help achieve their development goals. The State of California has adopted legislation authorizing municipalities to use form-based codes. In northeastern Illinois, Evanston and Glenview are presently exploring the benefits. National examples include Columbia Pike in Virginia, and Peoria and Normal in downstate Illinois.

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