The SmartCode: A Weapon to Fight
the Sprawl War
"The SmartCode went off to the publisher today. It was a four-and-a-half-year
wrestling match between the American reality and the American ideal. It
was by far the most difficult thing that I have ever done." -- Andrés
Duany, Jan 31, 2003
The SmartCode by DPZ is now available as an alternative to conventional
zoning regulations. According to its lead author, Andrés Duany, the SmartCode
is based on the traditional neighborhood model as it varies along the
urban-to-rural Transect, "a natural law that can be observed anywhere,"
In keeping with the new urbanist principle that the neighborhood is the
basic unit of urban form, the SmartCode provides design criteria for streets,
blocks, open spaces and buildings based on their geographic location from
rural preserve to urban core. Municipalities can now adopt the SmartCode
as a replacement for the aging zoning ordinances often criticized by new
urbanists for perpetuating sprawl.
"Genesis states that God created the world in seven days. On about the
10th day He created the neighborhood model," says Duany. "Without the
neighborhood providing your daily needs, you die," he said. Duany describes
the SmartCode design criteria as based on empirical data: measured examples
of the best streets in traditional cities, such as Charleston or Alexandria.
In the SmartCode, regulations that control street design, zoning, preserved
and reserved open space, and building design are all allowed to work as
an integrated system. This is not the case in conventional planning and
zoning, he explains, in which the professional disciplines, land uses
and design actions are assumed to operate independently of one another,
generally at the expense of quality placemaking.
"The code reform war until now has been waged very slowly. ... In the
absence of a standard, the task of custom-fitting each component of zoning
reform must be repeated in each municipality, and each fight over the
really progressive content must be refought in place after place," says
town planner Victor Dover. "One gets drawn into the battle over parking
requirements, the battle over setbacks and build-to lines, the skirmish
over mixed land uses, the scuffle over street designs, and so on. Even
at its best, new urbanist land development regulation today is practiced
like Gothic cathedral-building -- it seems to take forever; the cost is
enormous; very few individuals understand how the whole thing is meant
to work; the result is a giant, one-of-a-kind thing. As a result, some
turn out wonderful and some fall down. So we hope that the SmartCode begins
instead a new era of plug-and-play usefulness, in which official implementation
of new urbanist plans can be more rapid, less expensive, and we also hope
a larger, more integrated package of regulatory change can be swallowed
by local governments as a credible ensemble."
In contrast to most regulatory codes, the Smart Code is a thin document.
Sparse in text, it is rich with graphics. One page illustrates a tier
system of land development based on hamlets, villages, and town centers.
Another page illustrates the spectrum from Natural Zone (T-1) and Rural
Zone (T-2) to overlapping gradations leading to the Urban Core Zone (T-6),
the most urban transect zone.
Planner Joseph Kohl adds, "Examining the SmartCode for the first time,
it is important to realize that the code is a template. The organizing
concepts, terminology, and layout are the important constants, but the
language in the text and dimensional requirements can all be tweaked for
the intended locale or existing conditions."
Kohl says the SmartCode will be a big success if it results in shifting
street design standards away from the typical suburban rules, which include
wide street dimensions theoretically needed for accommodating oversized
fire trucks. "It would be sad if a municipality only adopts the land use
regulation without the standards for specifics in neighborhood design
To that end, some new urbanist traffic engineers are concurrently working
on reforming national roadway design manuals to support the approach in
the SmartCode. Traffic engineer Rick Hall says the new work will use transect
criteria for street design, introducing a new functional classification
based on boulevards, avenues, streets, and roads.
Traffic engineer Rick Chellman describes traffic engineering as ripe for
change. "In Massachusetts, the new governor has ordered the DOT to rewrite
all of the state design criteria by October -- and to take more account
of pedestrians and bicyclists in the process. The ITE and Ellen Greenberg
at CNU are working with the EPA and other agencies to develop a new street
design manual supportive of new urbanism."
Naturally, the accumulating experience of users will bring to light areas
for improvement. "First we have to make sure the SmartCode is as smart
as it can be, for example, on parking requirements, visitability, and
the like," said Dover. "That is best done with comparable case studies,
so we should not be hesitant about deploying the code. Then we need to
be sure that local governments go into this process aware that there will
be a future need for upgrades and updates of the rules. Hopefully the
users will communicate with one another about their discoveries," he continued.
Duany says the citizens have the ultimate say in the future of the places
they live. To apply the SmartCode, he asks them, "Do you want to be a
city in 50 years or do you want to be a town?" "This awakes in the populace
the big vision," he explains. "With a SmartCode in place and pre-permitted
building types off the shelf, it will be easier for their big vision to
A summary of the SmartCode version 6.5, with supplemental essays and
diagrams, has been printed by The Town Paper and may be downloaded at
no charge. The complete file of SmartCode version 9.0 and other
resources may be downloaded at SmartCode Central.