Over the past few years I have been researching ways to effectively integrate a systems perspective in local land use regulations. My desire was to find examples where new development was required by local regulations to consider ecosystem services in a holistic way. The intent was to get beyond the idea of green infrastructure to something more comprehensive, but easy to communicate. On this journey I hoped to find communities with a landscape scale understanding of the inter-related natural and built systems, and site level guidelines informed by this understanding. Unfortunately, most of the examples I located only addressed aspects of the existing natural environment. Innovative stormwater requirements, native landscaping standards, resource specific overlays, passive orientation requirements, or other aspects of building and site design are often addressed, but seldom together. There is still an underlying assumption that each land use change will result in some environmental degradation, and as we guide land use changes in our communities we continue to disrupt natural systems and reduce ecosystem services. We systematically disassemble and disrupt complex systems and create fragile places. In many cases this also undermines our community vision and long term sustainability in the process.
Meanwhile, Form Based Codes have become widely recognized as an effective approach to regulating land use change in the built environment that preserves and promotes a sense of place, defines the public realm, and encourages a mix of uses. This regulatory tool is calibrated to the existing land use pattern and the vision for the community. Its strength lies in its simplicity. With a greater focus on the location and massing of buildings this regulatory approach requires a systems perspective when considering the design of the structure, materials selection, and integration with the site and larger community. What a great idea! Form Based Codes use the concept of a transect at the landscape level to articulate the density of development being accommodated. As a result they tend to promote nodes of denser development and areas with lower density development within a community. The image below is an example of a typical Form Based Code transect.
So this is where it gets interesting. What if we resurrect this concept of a transect to promote an Ecosystem Based Code? The idea of a transect was originally developed to illustrate a cross section of a landscape showing a range of different habitats. Within the scientific community biologists and ecologists still use transects to better understand the complex relationships that contribute to ecosystems. The use of a transect in an Ecosystem Based Code would allow us to calibrate the site design
requirements to existing ecosystems so that future development does not unintentionally fragment and diminish these resources.Using transects to understand the complex natural systems within our communities will help inform our landscape level understanding. Then we can create site level regulations modelled after, and integrated with, Form Based Codes. Similar to Form Based Codes this new regulatory tool should include graphics and clearly articulated goals that can better inform the design of proposed projects while allowing for flexibility and creativity. Combining zoning and site planning requirements this way will promote a systems approach and greater integration of each element in the design while preserving and enhancing ecosystem services.
The devil is clearly in the details on this one and a variety of approaches are possible, but the need is clear. If our goal is community resilience then we need to actively guide all future land use changes in that direction. Future development can easily support existing ecosystem functions, provide habitat, process stormwater ecologically, promote food and energy security, clean our air, and meet the needs of the property owner if we coordinate these goals from the start. If this is something that interests you or is being worked on in your municipality please let me know! A paradigm shift like this will require ongoing collaboration and innovation. So lets get started!