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C200: Busting Barriers and Achieving the Urban Balance

2011 March 16
by Chuck Wolfe

< The Seattle skyline from Lake Union; image: Chuck Wolfe >

Cities are the focal point of interaction between human and natural systems and are the laboratories of how best to live—call it “achieving the urban balance”. We all have pictures of what that balance should look like, both visually and in terms of environmental impact.

Of the many human systems that contribute to the urban balance, land use regulation plays an important part, as the consensus constitution for forms of urban development going forward. Traditional land use tools need to evolve in order to assure a sustainable urban balance and to better wed land use and transportation issues.

The question is how to achieve balance amid the implementation barriers common to presentation of new urban land use approaches.

Many examples of innovation exist, from form-based codes to sustainable development regulations, all designed to move away from increasingly disfavored separation of zoning uses, to approaches which facilitate less reliance on the automobile where possible, encourage forms of transportation which emphasize human health, as well as more clearly enable sustainable development tools.

There are positive signs in the Puget Sound region. For example, in the time since a report identified regulatory, political and fiscal barriers to transit oriented and urban center development in 2009, initiatives at the local and state levels have turned renewed attention towards issues of concern in the transit and infrastructure-funding arenas. Municipalities have experimented with types of zoning which focus more on look, feel and mixed use than hard and fast, traditional techniques. In addition, last Fall, on behalf of the region, the Puget Sound Regional Council was awarded $5 million in the form of a federal Sustainable Communities grant to enhance planning for urban centers along transit corridors.

However, fallout from recent midterm elections has illustrated the risks of backsliding—a reminder that “achieving the urban balance” and related inventories of best practices and regulatory enactments are more often than not inherently political—and often fall short of lofty goals.

Backsliding can be offset by “stay the course” non-governmental organizations, professionals and citizens who will survive political change, and who will continue to parlay an evolutionary urban agenda.

Let’s both grow the toolbox, and keep it open.


Charles R. (Chuck) Wolfe, M.R.P., J.D. is an environmental and land use attorney in Seattle, and an Affiliate Associate Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington.  He writes for several publications, including The Huffington Post and Crosscut, and blogs at myurbanist.