Sunday, November 22, 2009

What the People Really Want

A common argument by anti-New Urbanists and Smart Growth opponents is that form-based codes dramatically limit the freedom of property owners. Stylistic cues, height limits, porch requirements and build-to lines are stifling, anti-democratic, and downright dictatorial rules, or so the argument goes.

My parents just bought a home in a cookie-cutter subdivision in Vero Beach, Florida. As in virtually every South Florida gated community and in many neighborhoods throughout the United States, their new home falls under the jurisdiction of a homeowner's association. The avowed "free marketeers" who think that any form of centralized planning is verboten often praise these associations. They are local, responsive, and practically self-limiting, and the stakeholders have far more say in decisions than they would at a city or county level.

So you can imagine my surprise when I opened my parents' homeowners covenants and found the following statement:

The Architectural Review Committee does not seek to restrict individual taste or preferences. In general, its aim is to avoid harsh contrasts in architectural themes and maintain harmony between all residences to preserve and enhance values of the Properties.

In tamden with this succinct statement is a two page list of "architectural standards" that constitute a simplistic form-based code: materials lists, front door type standards, color choices, minimum roof slope, etc. Despite the freedom to do whatever they want in their small corner of the world, these homeowners continue to embrace a restricted architectural palette.

But to me, the true marvel of this code is its source. The vision of a unified yet varied community of homes came not from an architect or planner or from some top-down master plan. It came from the local developer and builder who set up the rules, implemented them in the homes it built, and passed them on to the homeowner's association.

So what's the deal? If categorically non-urban sprawl builders are freely imposing Smart Code-like limitations on themselves, and if homeowner's associations are maintaining and even strengthening these rules, why aren't NU and Smart Growth more universally accepted? To put it another way, why do the histrionics of sprawl supporters trump the tacit support for Smart Growth-like ideals already in place?

Is it a matter of an ad campaign? Connections to news media? Grassroots coalition-building and community awareness events? How do we quash those who rail against creating human environments that everyone already understands and loves?

1 comment:

  1. I think the difference is in the scale of the governing organization. A HOA is generally quite small compared to an entire city or county.

    Also, one could quite readily argue that people voluntarily move into and move out of a HOA controlled neighborhood. This is more a voluntary choice than deciding to live in a city (maybe their job is in the city, but they prefer not to be bound by HOA rules, so they don't buy in a HOA neighborhood).

    Your argument would be much stronger if you compared existing zoning codes to the Smart Code. The argument to put to those opposing Smart Codes on the basis that they "dramatically limit the freedom of property owners" is that existing codes do the same thing.

    For examples (of many): they prevent a property owner from building close to the front property line, live-work units, smaller square foot buildings on the same property, height limits, lot coverage limits, driveway width ... and so forth.

    To me, the smarter retort to the "freedom of property owners" argument would be ... So you don't like zoning? Would you like to eliminate zoning?