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Regulating the Good You Can’t Think Of
by Michael Kwartler, FAIA
Imagine an as-of-right city design and land-use regulatory system that encourages creativity
Not only is the city an object which is perceived and perhaps enjoyed by millions of people of widely, diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are constantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own. While it may be stable in general outlines for some time it is ever changing in detail. Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form. There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases. —Lynch, 1960, p.2

In this succinct paragraph, Kevin Lynch advances an existential and contingent view of the city, one which accurately characterizes the messiness of urban dynamics and how cities happen. At odds with this view are prescriptive over-determined zoning regulations (e.g., Tower-in-the-Park and the more recent form-based Quality Housing) that are perceived and experienced as a brake to individual initiative, changing needs, and creative response.

If the last forty-five years have taught us anything it is the difficulty of supporting as-of-right prescriptive land-use regulations, ‘the good you can’t think of.’ The simple fact that we could not anticipate the loft dwelling, new forms of households, the emerging implications of the electronic revolution on work, or new models of retailing require us to also rethink the nature of land-use regulations, what the public interest is in the use of private property, the degree of intrusiveness of that interest, and the modernist notion of universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ standards.

Planning, design and regulatory approaches have emerged that are decidedly more 21st Century: approaches that are dynamic and performance-based, that embrace complexity and change, and harness the flows of information in iterative feedback loops and have the ability to self-adapt to any site or condition. These realtime feedback loops make possible a fundamental change in thinking about planning and regulation, where demand (bottom-up) rather than supply (top-down) is the operative principle. Geographic Information Systems (GIS), where information is place-based, and emerging Planning and Design Decision-support Software (PDDS), provide scenario planning tools that enable cities and their citizens to be responsive to changing conditions and demands on how urban space may be used and configured.

Current urban dynamics argues for a method of planning, design, and regulation that is “just-in-time” rather than “not-in-time” and “just-in-case” while recognizing that some elements in a city are more stable (e.g. infrastructure, streets, blocks and lots, etc.) than others (e.g. buildings and how they are used).

Imagine an as-of-right city design and land-use regulatory system (e.g., zoning, historic preservation, Building Code, MDL, etc.) that encourages creativity – “the good you can’t think of” – by framing the problem to be solved, rather than prescribing the solution. By definition performance assumes that there are multiple “right answers” to a design or planning problem and where the degree of “fit” is the measure of performance.

Software built on a GIS platform supports a “just-in-time” performance-based planning, design, and regulatory regime. PDDS demystifies the intricate process of planning. It supports the creation of “what-if” planning scenarios integrating impact analysis (a moment in time), performance evaluation, and forecasting (change over time) in an interactive 3D/virtual reality environment.

This planning, design and regulatory paradigm would take advantage of the accelerating feedback loops provided by IT/GIS and scenario planning tools, where the information feedback regarding what is happening on the ground would be evaluated using indicators to measure a scenario’s expectation of performance. With the aid of GIS, performance becomes place-based, playing a critical role in locating common ground.

Performance zoning, which would describe the problem to be solved, provides guiding principles, and hence, has a longer shelf-life than the premeditated “solutions” often embodied in plans and regulations, such as the form-based Quality Housing. Performance indicators are measurable using either qualitative or quantitative variables. An example of performance measures would be an urban design analysis of the site’s context rather than the one-size-fits-all form-based Quality Housing or Height Factor zoning.

The commonly held principles and performance indicators would be weighted by citizens and planners to ensure that they represent the community’s values and sense of identity by bringing citizens together to determine the basis on which the as-of-right performance system will evaluate the performance of propositions and proposals.

Unlike static systems, this new planning, design and regulatory paradigm would “learn” from experience and providing the means to be undetermined, self-organizing and self-adapting to any site in New York City often resulting in a “good” that could not have been anticipated in a top-down overdetermined system. An example would be the process in which 19th Century industrial lofts in Manhattan were re-positioned after years of illegal conversions to live-work to highly desirable dwelling units. Facilitated by the fact that loft buildings are under-determined and “loose fit,” Lynch’s “builders” experimented with ways to adapt the lofts to the needs of living and working, resulting in group “learning” that ultimately led to their legalization.

Unlike conventional planning and zoning, which is episodic, scenario planning and GIS tools would be fully integrated into the public decision-making process to create scenarios, evaluate alternatives, and provide the basis for informed public discussion and decision-making leading to mid-course corrections to the zoning regulations in response to changing conditions. It is not unusual for the aggregates of incremental decisions, made over time, to lead to unintended and often unwanted consequences. Scenario planning tools can provide the forecasting environment which can suggest where the aggregation of incremental decisions may lead. For example, if we continue “business-as-usual,” what are the short, medium and long-term consequences of our actions and are they acceptable based on our commonly held values and identity? Further it provides the environment to calibrate values and when necessary re-evaluate their relevance and their relative and absolute importance based on feedback from prior decisions, changing conditions, and actions (a “good thing” one day might be the “bad thing” the next day and vice-versa, such as the Eiffel Tower).

Finally, the devolution of control made possible by information technology helps to loosen the tight reigns of over-determined systems of control and exclusion into an under-determined system of inclusion that harnesses responsible individual action and creativity and sustains the creation of social capital and democratic values.

Michael Kwartler, FAIA, is an architect, planner, urban designer, educator, and principal of Michael Kwartler and Associates. He is also the founding President of the Environmental Simulation Center.

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