Final Sustainable Northampton Plan Now Ready to View

The Northampton Planning Department has released the final version of the Sustainable Northampton Plan. This version includes pictures. You may download it here (PDF, 1.75MB).

While the pictures make the report look more handsome, we were disappointed that they don’t do more to clarify the text. The part of the Plan that would benefit most from pictures and illustrations is Appendix A: Potential Regulatory Actions (p.67-69). Illustrations and examples would help explain concepts like the following, and how they might alter the city:

  • Performance standards

  • Revise Transfer of Development Rights zoning

  • Incentives for LEED construction and modest/affordable housing

  • Consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback

  • Allow dimensional requirements for single family homes in URA to match that in URB

  • 40R Smart Growth zoning in select areas within Land Use Plan Traditional Neighborhood…with mandated design standards for increased density

  • Employ transfer of development rights to allow the transfer of the right to build residential units in the Conservation Development area into the right to build residential and commercial development in the Traditional Neighborhood, Mixed Use Commercial Center, and Business and Industrial areas. Development in these areas should occur at greater densities and with less restrictive dimensional and density standards.

  • Identify areas to expand or apply State regulations 43D, 40R/40S Smart Growth Zoning and Transfer of Development Rights close to downtown in conformance with the Future Land Use Map, and present for public review.

  • Rewrite the Open Space Residential zoning and Planned Unit Development using the model in the Northampton Community Development Plan.

  • Implement form-based code for dense residential uses, at least in urban core areas, with the potential to later expand to other uses and areas:

    • Use as minimum design standards/ form-based coding for any increased density or decrease frontage;

    • Encourage single family homes in Urban Residential zoning districts by significantly reducing minimum frontage/lot width, for projects meeting form-based coding;

    • Require same standards for townhouses and multifamily housing above single-family home density.

  • Simplify Site Plan and Special Permit criteria as appropriate, using smart growth point based system to approve appropriate special permits and site plan approvals, making permitting more predicable [sic], reducing permit review time, and allowing some reviews to be moved to staff level reviews. Create design standards and change criteria from fitting in with neighborhood to more concrete compliance with design standards.
An example of a useful illustration would be: Here is an existing Northampton street with side yard setbacks, and here is how the street would look with those setbacks eliminated.

As Hadley Conservation Commission Chair Alexandra Dawson observes (Gazette, 12/13/07), Appendix A is key, where actual new laws and policies are brewing. In its current form, much of this appendix is virtually impenetrable to the layman. As the Planning Board meets to discuss how to implement the Plan, we hope it will provide extensive visual illustrations so the public can give proposals a fair, thorough, and informed evaluation.

The final Plan also includes results from the 2006 opinion survey (Appendix B, p.71-80). As we have discussed before, a survey like this should be treated cautiously. Its findings may diverge from how people actually act in their personal lives. For example, 89% of respondents agreed that “Development Should Be Encouraged At Densities And Locations That Can Support Transit”. However, even the pro-Smart Growth “Growing Cooler” report from Urban Land Institute (PDF, 5.1MB, p.19) discloses that only “about one-third of respondents [to consumer preference surveys by real estate analysis firm Robert Charles Lesser & Co.] prefer smart growth housing products and communities”.

We are not calling for unrestrained sprawl or that everyone should live in a detached home on a large lot. We favor fostering a variety of living environments to respect the variety of people’s needs and desires. We also believe that existing neighborhoods that are working well should be respected. Change should be moderate and gradual.

Our concern is that the Sustainable Northampton Plan will excessively preference dense urban environments beyond what a majority of current residents (rationally) want. Many people live here because Northampton offers a more natural living environment than say, New York or Boston. Indeed, 90% of respondents told the Sustainable Northampton survey that “We Should Protect More Open Space and Wildlife Corridors”.

Planning disasters occur when people don’t behave as planners require or expect.

See also:

Grasping the Sustainable Northampton Vision: We Need Pictures
James Kunstler writes in 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.

Smart Growth: When Polls and Reality Diverge
…the survey went on to ask, “where would you prefer development to occur?” The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city.” Another question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?” Yes, said 76 percent. But when asked, “Would you be interested in living in such a development?” 65 percent said no…

Another hazard is that respondents might answer a question sincerely but be wrong. For example, one might assume that living in a large apartment building is more energy-efficient per square foot than living in a single-family home, but this is not correct

Planners must take into account how people will actually act when they make major life decisions for themselves as individuals. It is risky to rely on mere words and abstract propositions, especially when the “correct” answer is well known.

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
“…A city that was extensively planned would inevitably diminish much of the diversity that is the hallmark of great towns. The best a planner can hope for is to modestly enhance rather than impede the development of urban complexity…

“…[T]here is little doubt that [Jacobs] has put her finger on the central flaws of hubris in high-modernist urban planning. The first flaw is the presumption that planners can safely make most of the predictions about the future that their schemes require… Second, thanks in part to Jacobs, we now know more about what constitutes a satisfactory neighborhood for the people who live in it, but we still know precious little about how such communities can be fostered and maintained. Working from formulas about density, green space, and transportation may produce narrowly efficient outcomes, but it is unlikely to result in a desirable place to live. Brasilia and Chandigarh, at a minimum, demonstrate this…

“Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh inexorable. Cost effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in administrative time and budgetary cost…”

In Northampton, the simplification du jour appears to be a drive to segregate our open space to the periphery, while weakening greenspace preservation in the more urban districts where it is already scarce.

Photo Essay: 10 Reasons People Like Trees Around Them; Will the Sustainable Northampton Plan Put Urban Trees at Risk?
…trees around homes in Northampton’s built-up areas (where perhaps half the population lives) may be threatened by proposals in the Sustainable Northampton Plan, which encourages city officials to “implement ideas for maximizing density on small lots” (p.14) and “consider amending zero lot line single family home to eliminate 30′ side yard setback” (p.67).

Planning Board Adopts Sustainable Northampton Plan

Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences; Come to the November 8 Hearing

Vancouver Sun: “Call it EcoDensity or EcoCity –either way it’s a hard sell”