A number of high-profile decisions about land use and zoning frameworks in cities across the country have focused the spotlight on these often arcane processes.  By way of example, the decision by Miami, Florida to switch to a form-based code in 2009 (Miami 21) was perhaps the most dramatic move by such a large city.  More interesting, however, than a change from use-based to form-based codes is the increasing level of citizen engagement in planning and decision making about building and zoning regulations as part of municipal land use visions

In the last year, three very different cities – Philadelphia, El Paso, Texas and Norfolk, Virginia – embarked on significant efforts to reform and reframe the built environment.  New zoning guidelines will forever alter the look and feel of these cities over the next two decades.  Although each outcome will be unique and interesting in its own right, the unifying factor linking all three cities together is the aggressive drive to include residents as citizen planners.

What City Leaders Say about Engagement

In 2010, the National League of Cities (NLC) published a research report, entitled Making Local Democracy Work: Municipal Officials’ Views About Public Engagement, as part of a project on civic engagement and local democracy.  Not surprisingly, the report found that municipal officials regularly provide opportunities for public engagement and do so across various venues and media.  What proved to be most significant, however, was the response to a question about the effectiveness of existing public engagement activities.

NLC’s report asked city leaders whether they, their colleagues and their residents have the necessary skills and experience to carry forward what was described as “deliberative public engagement.”   In assessing the skills, the survey defined some characteristics of deliberative public engagement to include:

  • Framing the issues clearly;
  • Bringing people of different perspectives to the table;
  • Practicing active listening;
  • Providing facilitative leadership;
  • Conducting mediation and negotiation;
  • Summarizing points of view;
  • Hosting inclusive deliberations; and
  • Speaking in language that is free if jargon

What NLC discovered was that almost half of municipal officials believe that they, their peers and their constituents lack the capacity to conduct effective deliberative public engagement.

This finding was recognized intuitively by leaders in Philadelphia, El Paso and Norfolk.  All three cities were grappling with significant revisions to zoning and land use procedures and each was seeking a process that will yield a more sustainable community over the life of the plan.

Plan El Paso

Plan El Paso had been in development for two years before its unanimous adoption in March 2012.  Even before the unveiling, the plan received the 2011 Environmental Protection Agency Award for Achievement in Smart Growth.  While fully incorporating concepts to promote beautiful public spaces and a built environment which is both functional and attractive, Plan El Paso also included strategies to bring more of the activities of daily living within walking distance and a framework of transportation alternatives including transit and bicycle systems.

Citizen engagement and locally generated ideas are the hallmark of Plan El Paso.  As summarized by city manager Joyce A. Wilson in a news story for the El Paso Times, “Through one of the most expansive planning processes in a generation, Plan El Paso gathered the ideas and aspirations of thousands of El Pasoans.”   Over twenty citywide meetings were held in various neighborhood centers and libraries, nearly 150 stakeholder meetings involved many of the region’s most vital agencies, nonprofits and businesses in the process, and a website (www.planelpaso.org) synthesized the plan’s major ideas and policy recommendations.

In practical terms, city plan manager Carlos Gallinar became responsible for an eight-week public planning process of community exercises and discussions to generate the basic plan vision.  This process was followed by over a year of regular meetings with citizen advisory committees and the review of website discussion comments from over 30,000 visitors.  In addition, the city managed to facilitate engagement by residents for whom English was not their native language.

Norfolk 2030

Norfolk 2030, like Plan El Paso, needed to address the urbanized portions of downtown as well as the less densely populated residential neighborhoods.  In both cases there was recognition that design features matter, that close knit communities are worth preserving and that a one-size-fits-all approach was obsolete.

While not moving wholly to a form-based code, Norfolk is applying some of the New Urbanist approaches pioneered by Andres Duany; in this case, guidelines that adapt the concept of the urban-to-rural transect.  This model breaks down the range of development types into several groups defined by levels of density and urbanity.  In applying these tools to the city of Norfolk, the result is land use and zoning guidelines that classify neighborhoods as either downtown, urban or suburban.

Downtown is defined by higher density uses with limited on-site parking, transit access, pedestrian mobility and availability of shared open space.  The Urban zone is composed of early 20th Century development, having grid streets with small lots and mixed residential and commercial uses.  Finally, the Suburban category incorporates a greater separation of uses and is dominated by post-World War II housing on larger lots and longer blocks with curvilinear streets.

Frank Duke, the city’s director of planning and community development, embraced the concept of engaging people in their neighborhoods as part of the process for updating the zoning guidelines.  He acknowledged that Norfolk leaders were mindful of the fact that “you create problems whenever you have regulations that don’t match the character of the neighborhood.”

Technology supported public engagement in Norfolk, as was the case in El Paso and Philadelphia.  Website comments to the June 2012 draft plan generated 450 unique comments.  Social media tools (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) were used and initial public meetings attracted hundreds of residents.  More such engagement is planned for sites across the city according to Mr. Duke.


The zoning code in Philadelphia had not been overhauled in fifty years.  Critics complained about complicated and overly broad restrictions on building uses, outdated protections for favored industries and a set of review procedures that inhibited developers from investing in the city.

The new zoning code rolled out in August 2012 after a two-year process has been lauded both for its relative parsimony and for the extensive community outreach conducted among thousands of individual citizens and a broad spectrum of community institutions.  In fact, at the core of the new rules are key roles for community development corporations and neighborhood associations.

While the code now requires specific criteria necessary to qualify as a Registered Community Organization (RCO), it also explicitly states that a public neighborhood meeting must be held for projects requiring a variance and for all projects beyond a certain scale.  The new rules codify what had otherwise been an informal set of working relationships between community representatives and the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA).

On the issue of use restrictions and the need to seek a zoning variance, the changes in the code will likely allow greater flexibility in building reuse.  The city reduced the number of separate building use categories from over 400 to just 99.  While arguably still a large number, the smaller number of categories should facilitate the work of redevelopment by reducing the time and processing costs required from investors.

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Originally posted at the National League of Cities.