An Encylopedia of Land Use Codes

Online depository highlights the best city codes throughout history

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Codes Project

Sometimes running hundreds of pages long, the modern zoning code may seem the ultimate in dense bureaucracy, but these documents play a major role in dictating the physical shape and feel of a place. Codes lay at the core of cities, determining their layout, look and form. They define the size and location of streets, how buildings relate to their surroundings, and how density changes across the city. An online collection of city codes dating back to the third century B.C. hopes to highlight how these codes can change cities for the better.

The Codes Project is a website featuring links to and information about dozens of city codes from throughout history. Run out of Arizona State University by professor Emily Talen, the project is intended to bring attention to the ways city regulations and guidelines can create attractive and livable places.

“I was trying to make it really explicit for people. What do these codes mean in your life, you as an urbanist, you as a city dweller> How does it really affect urban design?” says Talen. “We really were trying to separate out codes that would affect cities and the public realm as opposed to building codes. It’s kind of a hard distinction because there’s a million building codes but we only wanted to know the ones that you could see the effect of the code if you were walking down the street.”

The site’s been around for three or four years, but the idea had been in the works for about 10. Talen, along with colleague Andres Duany wanted to make an easily accessible collection of city codes for planners to be able to learn from. They’d considered a book, but opted for the website, where new codes can be added periodically and visitors can comment and critique the documents.

The site features recent codes, like a 2000 plan for the city of Winter Springs, Florida, slightly older codes, like a 1667 code for rebuilding London after the Great Fire, and even ancient codes like Code of Hammurabi. The slideshow below features a few of the codes available through the Codes Project.

As dry as it may sound, land use zoning can be a controversial topic. Some people argue that codes like these put too much regulation on the urban environment and limit the will of the market. Others worry that hard rules in these codes limit the legality of the increasingly desired concept of mixed use development. Talen says the Codes Project tries to address the controversy, but also to focus on codes that have a positive impact.

“Ultimately the goal here is to expose how wonderful codes can be to create the kind of urban environments a lot of us are hoping for, and also how disastrous they can be,” Talen says. “And everybody knows how zoning can be a total disaster, and how there are subdivision regulations that are just creating awful, perverse effects. But I feel that the translation, viscerally, could be helped along. We need some tools to make that translation for people.”

She’s hoping the website is used as a tool to emphasize the codes that work. But there are many that don’t, a subject of her new book, City Rules, coming out later this month.

“Codes to me are a really necessary thing, and I’m perfectly willing to judge them as good or bad depending on what they actually accomplish,” Talen says.

She says a key element in some of the best codes featured on the site is simplicity. Zoning as a concept emerged in Germany in the 1870s, and Talen says some of the best codes from that era were just three pages long.

“It seems like the more complicated the code, the worse it is,” Talen says.

Some of her favorite codes include plans for new worker housing in places like Bridgeport, Connecticut, during World War One, and some of the newer form-based codes, like the SmartCode.

“The key point about codes is they’re trying to find the minimal level of rule necessary to create what you want,” Talen says. “You want flexibility, you want openness, you want diversity in style. But where do you find that minimum level so that you get the quality environment you’re looking for? I don’t think anybody really wants to overregulate.”

But the fact is that in today’s cities these documents are complex. The zoning code [PDF] of the city of New York, for example, runs more than 3,100 pages, not including appendices. And though much of this can seem like heavy-handed lawmaking, Talen argues that there are some important rules within these pages that are responsible for shaping parts of our cities into places we desire and want to be. But, she admits, regulating your way to a quality place is a challenge.

“I think we’re all really searching to find that sweet spot of the fewest regulations and the best urban form,” Talen says.

Images courtesy the Codes Project.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.