Grasping the Sustainable Northampton Vision: We Need Pictures

In all the 78 pages of the draft Sustainable Northampton Plan (PDF), there is only a single graphic. It’s the Future Land Use Map, an abstract, top-level view of the city. That’s unfortunate, because without drawings, pictures and illustrations, it’s difficult to envision how the Plan will change the look and feel of Northampton. James Kunstler, an advocate of New Urbanism, discusses this problem in “Home From Nowhere”, published in the September 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly:

The object of the charette [public design workshop] is not, however, to produce verbiage but to produce results on paper in the form of drawings and plans. This highlights an essential difference between zoning codes and traditional town planning based on civic art. Zoning codes are invariably twenty-seven-inch-high stacks of numbers and legalistic language that few people other than technical specialists understand. Because this is so, local zoning- and planning-board members frequently don’t understand their own zoning laws. Zoning has great advantages for specialists, namely lawyers and traffic engineers, in that they profit financially by being the arbiters of the regulations, or benefit professionally by being able to impose their special technical needs (say, for cars) over the needs of citizens — without the public’s being involved in their decisions.

Traditional town planning produces pictorial codes that any normal citizen can comprehend. This is democratic and ethical as well as practical. It elevates the quality of the public discussion about development. People can see what they’re talking about. Such codes show a desired outcome at the same time that they depict formal specifications. They’re much more useful than the reams of balderdash found in zoning codes.

An exemplary town-planning code devised by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and others can be found in the ninth edition of Architectural Graphic Standards. The code runs a brief fourteen pages. About 75 percent of the content is pictures — of street sections, blocks, building lots, building types, and street networks. Although it is generic, a code of similar brevity could easily be devised for localized conditions all over America.

See also:

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences; Come to the November 8 Hearing
The plan has the potential to transform the look and feel of the most built-up 15% of Northampton, roughly the same area affected by the newly implemented 10-foot wetlands buffer zones. It prioritizes compact growth. Homebuilders are to be encouraged to build within walking distance of existing urban centers, where substantial infrastructure already exists. This sounds reasonable, but it must be carefully managed to avoid harming the interests of existing residents.

Question: Do those who have crafted this Plan have model cities in mind that they would like Northampton to resemble? If so, knowing what these cities are will help citizens judge if this vision is appealing to them, and if the actions suggested in the Plan are likely to bring this vision about. Have the planners examined cities where Smart Growth ran into problems (e.g. political controversy, congestion)? How will Northampton avoid these problems?

…An objective of the Plan is to “implement ideas for maximizing density on small lots”. (p.16) It calls for the City to “consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback”. (p.69) It suggests the zoning laws be changed to “encourage single family homes in Urban Residential zoning districts by significantly reducing minimum frontage/lot width, for projects meeting form-based coding”. (p. 71)

These changes have the potential to reduce or eliminate the yards that separate homes from each other and from streets. This loss of greenspace may well entail a loss of privacy, attractiveness, flood protection (through an increase in impervious surfaces), and an increase in the heat island effect, noise and congestion. If fewer trees are shading homes, cooling costs are likely to rise…

The Plan calls for high and medium density housing in downtown and the “more densely developed areas”, 12-65 units per acre. (p.13)

Tailoring Infill and the New Urbanism to Northampton
…we should learn from the human-scaled success of places like Nantucket, St. Augustine, Georgetown, Beacon Hill, Nob Hill, Alexandria, Charleston, Savannah, Annapolis, Princeton, Greenwich Village and Marblehead.

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

The “performance-based zoning ordinance” means that instead of following any definitive rules, staff must merely convince five decision-makers, who are completely dependent on staff advice because they are too busy to read very much and are prohibited from talking with their constituents, that a development will not be “unreasonably detrimental”—whatever that means…

The Planning Department is well on its way to building a high-density downtown Berkeley that has almost no parking..

Renters and other high-density residents are expected to do without adequate living space, greenspace, quiet, and cars; and without cars, they lack the freedom, pleasure, and mobility taken for granted by average Americans. This is ethically unacceptable…

Gazette: “City planners under fire for decision making: Concern sparked by Hilton hotel project”
Just days after a national association praised city planners for helping create a Main Street of exceptional character, a group of city residents urged the City Council to create an ordinance calling for ‘good practice in planning and municipal decision making.’

The request from a half dozen residents, including Board of Public Works Chairman Robert C. Reckman, comes against the backdrop of the planned and controversial Hilton Garden Inn project downtown. Critics of the hotel say the process that led to its approval was flawed. They say the public was not included in the decision making…

‘We hope for a careful and open discussion of good practice,’ Volkmann said. ‘As elected representatives, our City Council, we need you to make this happen.’