On March 21, 2018, I made a presentation to representatives of the TT Society of Planners and the TT Institute of Architects on the role of a zoning code (urban planning regulations) in fostering urbanism; a concept that I broke down into the defining attributes of complexity, density, intimacy, and fluidity.
The session, which was publicised through an official press release, set the context for the importance of urbanism in achieving socio-economic and environmental sustainability, by presenting a snippet of the countless supporting data sets and studies. And urbanism, (still) requires an overhaul of the regulations that dictate the ways we are permitted to use land and design buildings.
It was a formal introduction to a project – the Port of Spain Form-Based Zoning Code – that I had conceptualised and was working on for the Town and Country Planning Division. The project aimed to rectify a fundamental deficiency, starting with Port of Spain as a pilot area.
Our urban planning framework, through national and municipal plans, stresses the need for sustainability. However, this sustainable development depends heavily on a land use pattern, urban design, and a public transport system that is very difficult to achieve given our current built environment; itself predominantly a result of the intended and unintended consequences of planning regulations.
The Form-Based Code was meant to facilitate and encourage development and design based on the patterns in which Port of Spain, San Fernando, Arima, and just about every other urban area in the world developed prior to the mass production of automobiles. Before the profession degenerated into planning for traffic, parking, and gated communities.
The code aimed to: build complexity by reducing restrictions on the mixing of compatible residential, commercial, and light industrial uses; facilitate density by allowing for land to be used more efficiently; foster intimacy through design regulations intended to improve the quality of public spaces and the pedestrian experience, by focusing particularly on the relationship between buildings and the sidewalk and the treatment of parking and circulation infrastructure; and permit fluidity by allowing neighbourhoods to evolve and not stay frozen in time.
Charles Montgomery, author of the book Happy City, says that “code is to the city what an operating system is to a computer. It is invisible, but it is in charge.” There’s nothing sexy or flashy about a zoning code, but its impact on your everyday life, and the socio-economic processes driving the nation, cannot be stressed enough.
A form-based code is what the then mayor of Miami, Manny Diaz, ultimately decided on for his city. According to the online publication Governing.com, Miami’s haphazard and random growth pattern, where high-rise buildings were being located in neighbourhoods of one-storey homes; its poor urban design; and poor walkability were increasingly problematic.
The code, Miami21, was widely praised, and received awards in 2011 from the American Planning Association, and in 2014 from the American Institute of Architects. According to Governing.com, it also gained support from previously sceptical developers and architects, who now appreciate the increased transparency and predictability of the regulatory process.
Form-based codes, among other things, focus on regulating development to encourage lively, pedestrian-friendly streets and public spaces. The city adopted Miami21 in 2010, while simultaneously experiencing a construction boom, and saw its ranking increase from eighth (in 2011) to third (in 2017) most walkable large city in the US, according to Walk Score. The concept of form-based coding is quickly gaining popularity, not only in the US, but in places as far away as Gabon in Africa.
The presentation, and a subsequent full-day working session that also included the Port of Spain City Corporation, was intended to be followed up by further participatory sessions with other government agencies, and ultimately the communities within Port of Spain. It was a process that excited the professionals, and marked a new, inclusive approach to developing planning regulations.
It was intended for the code to coincide with a transformational and much-publicised iniative, Automation of the Construction Permitting Process. The idea was that the new automated system at the Town and Country Planning Division would be accompanied by up-to-date and appropriate regulations. Development applications would not only be processed more quickly and efficiently, but the resultant development itself would be more in keeping with the notion of sustainable development.
After 20 months of work, as of May 31, 2018, the Port of Spain Form-Based Code has an uncertain fate.
Here’s to the resurrection of the code, bringing much-needed benefits to planners, architects, developers, communities and the nation.
Ryan Darmanie is an urban planning and design consultant with a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a keen interest in urban revitalisation. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org