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Monday 21 January 2019
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The answer lies in the zoning code

Planning for Revitalisation (Part 1 of 3)

There’s an exercise at the gym that I struggle with. Not due to a lack of effort to work out that muscle, but due to uncertainty as to the correct technique. I’ve been given tips before, but this weekend I decided to ask a trainer to completely break it down.

Sometimes admitting what we don’t know can be difficult. As he concluded his demonstration, he said to me: “Good technique is more important than lifting a heavier weight. If you need to, lower the weight to improve your technique.”

There are intelligent, hardworking planners in this country who have devoted years, sometimes an entire career, contributing to the development of the profession. These contributions are not unrecognised. Advocating for a paradigm shift is not an attack to deny these efforts, but an acknowledgement that sometimes, hard work is only as effective as the underlying methods employed.

I previously emphasised a problematic fixation on British planning mechanisms and planning literature for two reasons. Firstly, the UK is one of the few countries in the world where development control, that is, determining permissible uses of land, is done on a discretionary basis. When an application for development is received, the main guiding document used to assess the application is a local development plan, which tends to be a somewhat generalised document.

In the American system, and in much of the world, that main guiding document is a zoning code.

Locally, we continue to implement the latter system. Planners here refrain from using the term zoning. It is referred to as land-use policies and site-development standards – a rather unwieldy and problematic way of defining it. By not calling it what it actually is, zoning, we perpetuate the misconception that we do not zone in TT.

A zoning code is a document of specifics. It consists of a zoning text and a zoning map. The map divides an area into sectors or zones, showing different categories of allowed uses that will include some breakdown of residential, commercial, industrial, recreational, civic, or other uses.

The text will then delve into specifics such as: minimum sizes of lots; the maximum number of housing units per lot (density); the minimum distance of buildings from lot boundary lines (setbacks); maximum building heights; minimum number of required parking spaces; and other requirements.

When an application for development is received, the planner refers to a zoning code to determine its permissibility. Since a zoning code is a highly specific set of regulations, the need and sometimes ability for an individual planner to make certain discretionary decisions is diminished.

Secondly, if we actively seek out planning literature from a place that has a very different system, and also different planning challenges, we will find ourselves trying to implement solutions not tailored to our problems and. worse, not being aware of this. While urban planning involves the creation of plans, from the national to the regional to the local level, it is not these plans, but rather the zoning code that ultimately determines the way that land is used.

The zoning code, in such systems, is a planner’s tool for implementing the goals and objectives of a plan. The reality is that locally, and in other places, there is a disconnect between the two.

Imagine that a plan is drafted and has all the right planning buzzwords of the day, including compact, walkable development; a revitalised urban space; a vibrant downtown with daytime and night-time activity; and a safe and inclusive city.

Now imagine that the zoning code does not permit or encourage the type or design of development required for those buzzwords to materialise. That is the easily-solvable problem that is not being addressed. And no, superficial tinkering is useless unless the specific problematic areas of the zoning code are understood and amended.

It is true, and understandable, that larger-scale projects often get the benefit of more discretionary planning decisions (though not always with positive outcomes). Some may bring social benefits, such as affordable public housing, or large economic benefits due to scale. However, locally, it is not the minority of large projects that truly shapes the landscape, but rather the collective effect of the majority of small-scale projects.

Consider the issue of urban revitalisation. One cannot expect Port of Spain to be revitalised through isolated large-scale government or private-sector projects. What is far more important is that the zoning code enables individual small property owners, who are often more creative and adventurous than large developers, to feasibly and beneficially develop their lots, for a combined and truly revitalised whole.

Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant (facebook.com/darmanieplanningdesign) with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation.

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