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Zoning by-laws have existed for decades and, when somebody wants to make a change, people complain loudly. They seem like a good idea, since nobody wants a smelly, polluting factory to relocate next to a school just because the factory can buy the space for a low price. But, even good ideas can be manipulated.

So, is there a better alternative? A Urban Growth Seminar podcast offered by the University of Southern California reveals the experience of somebody who has decades of experience.

In place of zoning by-laws, Rick Cole advocates for “form-based coding” which, as opposed to focusing on how the building is used, focus on the stuff that people see as the exterior of a building.

His thoughts are provocative, in many ways. For example,

  • “Plan”, as in an “Official Plan”, is both a noun and a verb;
  • Cole’s portrayal of what goes on at a hearing asking for a change in zone (including something about the “end of Western Civilization”);
  • Did you know that an Official Plan can be award winning?;
  • His advocacy of people-based metrics to judge if community is liveable (also using outcome based metrics as opposed to good intentions or input-based metrics).

This challenge should interest all who think about city planning: how would you know if a neighbourhood is attractive? Can you measure it? Some people say that the “science” of urban planning is too complex to reduce to anything simple enough to be measured, but Cole dismisses such thoughts as being too defensive.

Attractiveness does not depend, first or foremost, on the technology embodied in a building or the rules which set out parking ratios. These things benefit from the fact that lawyers find them easy to write and they provide employment for other lawyers (or consultants) to find exceptions. People do not fit into such well-defined boxes, and that non-conformity makes it more difficult to design metrics which score how well a city achieves what its citizens want in the city.

Rules can influence behaviour but, unlike prescriptive rules, behaviour evolves over time according to its own rules as conditions change, as their taste changes from tacos to tapas to Thai to … So, maybe, instead of measuring some kind of average outcome, a more useful approach to measuring the effectiveness of a plan would be to create a metric which measures potential which results from a plan.  People can convert potential into what they want as their reality.