3 Sizes Fit All: Norfolk's Downtown, Urban, and Suburban Designations

Easing revitalization by placing the city's neighborhoods into one of three groups.

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Flickr/matt.davis

It may be overly simplistic, but boiling a neighborhood down to its very basic characteristics is something we do all the time. If you're surrounded by tall buildings or Main Street shopping, you're probably downtown. If you're driving down block after block of single-family homes, you're probably in a suburban area. But in many cities, the zoning codes that determine land use are terrible at noticing and responding to these very different conditions.

This has long been the case in Norfolk, Virginia, especially when it comes to parking.

"I've got areas of our downtown that have not experienced any kind of revitalization, and part of that is because our parking standards require that the property owners in this area provide on-site parking. There is no place to provide on-site parking," says Frank Duke, Norfolk's director of planning and community development. "We need to have regulations that respect the character of a particular area."

To try to engender that respect in an otherwise disrespectful set of zoning guidelines, Duke has successfully led an effort to change the way the city's official rule books look at the city, mainly by looking at its neighborhoods the way real people do. Under new guidelines recently approved by the city council, all of Norfolk's neighborhoods will be classified as either downtown, urban or suburban. One-size-fits-all standards will soon be a thing of the past.

"It's ridiculous to apply suburban parking standards, for example, in a downtown area. And it's nuts to apply downtown or even urban parking standards in a very suburban area," Duke says. "You create problems whenever you have regulations that don’t match the character of the neighborhood."

The three-tiered guidelines are an adaptation of a concept known as the urban-to-rural transect, a model established by the New Urbanist planner and architect Andres Duany. It breaks down the spectrum of development types into six or seven different groups, going from more rural to more urban, and emphasizes the development of zoning and building guidelines that are appropriate to each level of density and urbanity. Duke says more and more cities are leaning toward this model, and he himself helped implement similar guidelines in previous positions in Palm Beach County, Florida, and Durham, North Carolina.

In Norfolk, a city first established in the 17th century, the range of development types is less diverse. "We're 98 percent developed," Duke explains. The actual guidelines for how to regulate each of the city's new character districts are still being crafted and will likely roll out within the next year.

Deciding exactly where the lines fall between downtown and urban areas, or between urban areas and suburban ones, has been contentious, Duke says. Some community members argued against including some properties downtown, while others thought their neighborhoods were too suburban to be called urban (the Virginian-Pilot has done some great reporting on this topic). Duke says ironing out all those disagreements has taken effort, but that there's been general agreement about the need for the designations.

But dividing the city into three neat groups raises questions about whether any part of the city really falls wholly into one category. Given the changing patterns of urban development, it's becoming more common to see urban-like elements in areas we might typically think of as suburban. But Duke says that the new designations won't cement any neighborhood forever and that a neighborhood's classification can change as its character changes.

"They should never be rigid to the point where this is absolutely the way it's going to be," Duke says. "That’s a recipe for disaster."

Adding a little more granularity to the city's zoning guidelines will hopefully help to avert that kind of disaster.

Photo credit: Flickr user matt.davis

About the Author

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