Urban Planning and Design

How ‘pink’ zoning can jumpstart urban development

Cities can lighten the red tape. Technology can help.

By Eric Jaffe

City skyline from above

You might be surprised to find Detroit on a list of five leading cities for urban innovation. But the city is piloting a planning approach called the "pink zone" that should intrigue blighted and bustling cities alike. The idea, backed by a $75,000 Knight Foundation grant, is to simplify zoning and building codes so projects in struggling redevelopment districts can get going more quickly --- in other words, to make the bureaucratic red tape so light it looks pink.

Here's WSJ with the details (my emphasis):

Developers and designers complain that, like many cities, Detroit's onerous and outdated rules make it too difficult to rebuild or repurpose long-neglected retail areas. To try to reduce those obstacles without a time-consuming and expensive rezoning process, the city is proposing a handful of "pink zones," where red tape will be cut to help small developers and entrepreneurs open new businesses and revive aging commercial strips. The goal is not to eliminate zoning but to ease some of the constraints faced by new projects, like minimum-parking requirements or environmental-impact reports.

Urbanists have rallied against conventional zoning for years. (Anthony Flint once called it "downright sinister.") Originally meant to protect the public welfare, many of today's codes are decades-old planning relics locked into place by vested interests. They discourage mixed use, separate home and work, and frustrate infill projects. As a result, zoning rules reduce walkability, increase driving, worsen sprawl, and deter "missing middle" developments that can make housing more affordable.

Congress for the New Urbanism founder Andrés Duany has been pushing pink planning for years, even spotlighting Detroit as a place where it might flourish. Duany offered a glimpse of pink-zone regulations in a 2013 project called Ignite High Point, which aimed to revitalize a dying mall in North Carolina. That effort didn't get far, but it did outline several "pink strategies," including the use of performance standards, rapid permitting, and adaptable buildings.

On their own, pink zones represent a nice incremental policy advance, but it's really their potential integration with technology that can elevate their impact to the next level. Low-cost sensors give cities the power to measure --- and thus manage --- many of the original impacts that planning codes are meant to mitigate: noise, air quality, use mix, structural integrity, and crowding among them. The ability to assess such impacts in real time renders some of the original rationale behind zoning obsolete.

Consider a young Detroit entrepreneur who wants to open a dance studio. Conventional zoning might restrict where that studio can operate, making it harder to access. But in a pink zone with performance standards and a strong sensor network, this location wouldn't have to be prescribed ahead of time. Instead the city could simply demand that the studio meet certain decibel targets at certain hours.

Enforcement would be stronger, too. Again, in a conventional situation, local authorities don't do much about noise pollution unless someone lodges a complaint. But in a tech-enabled pink zone, you could imagine the sensor network reporting its readings to a city database and automatically triggering a warning, inspection, or fine based on the nuisance levels and the violation history.

The result is accountability for the developer, flexibility for the building, and adaptability for the city as a whole. And noise isn't the only example. Structure sensors should improve building techniques, crowd sensors can alert supers of potential occupancy hazards, pipe sensors can continually monitor water quality instead of never checking it after the design phase.

In other words, properly deployed, a pink-tech zone could fulfill the planning mandate of preserving public health without stifling innovative designs or entrepreneurial visions.

The idea of relaxing regulations with technology's help has its detractors. Writing this week in the journal Places, Shannon Mattern of the New School wonders if a zoning regime of sensors reduces "neighborly" behavior to a number. It's a fair concern. But neighborly behavior already has a number: 311. And it doesn't help much; New Yorkers log a noise complaint every four minutes, and noise pollution is now recognized as a legitimate health threat.

Again, the point isn't to eliminate zoning with sensors or pink zones. It's that their partnership can help to emphasize the vital regulations that truly protect the public and to retire the intrusive ones that prevent cities from changing with tastes, times, and technologies. By making it tougher to build in urban cores, static codes punish innovative development --- and, as a result, can ultimately hurt the people they mean to help.