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Decode the Codes

So you've got a brilliant idea to activate that vacant lot down the street. If you want to bring your idea to fruition, you now have to contain what in many cases is a Pandora's Box of zoning codes, policies, and regulations that stand in your way.

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Zoning codes and regulations manuals in major cities have become nightmarish textbooks that are so thick you'd need a team of lawyers to help you understand all the policies. The result that is a lot of terrific ideas are wasted without a clear path toward implementation, and ideas that are acted upon often run up against backlash by one city official after another. Online manuals that are intuitive enough for the public to grasp thoroughly are essential for grassroots urban interventions to thrive.

A brief example of current choke-points:

In Phoenix, Arizona, a pioneering group of downtown residents formed a non-profit partnership called A.R.T.S. (Adaptive Reuse of Temporary Space). After A.R.T.S. succeeded in striking a deal with a private land-owner that was willing to lease a vacant lot to them, the long process of determining what could or could not happen at the space began. Here's a rough breakdown of the highlights:

  1. A.R.T.S. wanted to set up a monthly arts market that would feature local crafts, food trucks, live music, and artists.
  2. City's response: the foot traffic of an arts market would kick up too much dust on a dirt lot. The lot would have to be paved or otherwise treated to cut down on dust pollution.
  3. A.R.T.S. realized that mulching over the lot would be a cheap solution that would meet the city's dust requirement. The lot was mulched and the several arts market events went off without a hitch.
  4. Months later, a city official observing activity on the lot noticed that the mulch was not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant and that a more expensive gravel would need to be purchased in order to for the arts market and other activities to resume at the space.

This back-and-forth was due in large part by a coding system that is so complex that very few people understand it completely - including city officials. In addition to streamlining codes and regulations, an intuitive online database would go far in helping citizens "do their homework" thoroughly and easily before implementing their ideas.

This concept proposes a streamlining of city codes/regulations into an easily accessible and user-friendly Web manual.

The public can access the website to find out exactly what steps should be followed to realize their goals for temporarily activating vacant lots or leasing space in city-owned buildings.

Imagine a framework that is inviting, supportive, and easy to follow; the idea is to make code feel less like code and more like an interactive guidebook that helps enable visionary citizens to act on their ideas.

Signs could be placed at all city-owned vacant properties that advertise the website and invite the public to join together with their neighbors and get involved.

UPDATE 12/29**
Consulting local experts:
In order to help scale this concept into an actionable design plan, I've been consulting with locals on both ends of the dialogue: entrepreneurs and the city officials they work with. Here's a few insights that will help in the prototyping stage:

Entrepreneurs: What have been your biggest policy-related obstacles in getting your visions off the ground?

  • "Not having a directory and/or org chart of City Hall to help me figure out who to talk to or how to contact them."
  • "Getting city employees that are trained to be intellectually conservative to adopt, accept, or even explore creative policy solutions & changes."
  • "Not having user-friendly access to the city's codes and ordinances."
  • "Just about everything is an obstacle. When you solve one problem the city has with your project, they always find another reason why it can't be done."

City employees from Tempe and Mesa, Arizona have also shared insights on how we might achieve our goal:

  • "Start small, maybe even just limit the code manual one kind of project. The codes are extremely complex and anything large-scale could take you years to develop."
  • "Find case studies that show how projects on vacant lots can be revenue generators for the city. As you know, we're pretty broke right now."
  • "All the [vacant] lots we're talking about are slated for big-investment projects in the not-too-distant future, so anything happening on a lot must be temporary."

UPDATE 1/9**
Chatting with entrepreneurs at Roosevelt Row CDC:
To help us put together an effective prototype, Chris Grasso and I went to downtown Phoenix on Friday, Jan 7th to learn from two community builders at the Roosevelt Row CDC. Here are a few key insights they shared from their experiences:

  • Focus less on the sheer quantity of codes and more on leading entrepreneurs to the most vital information, assets, and people that will help them achieve their goals. For example, organizations offering grants, key individuals in the city that manage the lots you are trying to activate, and necessary permits for popular interventions (and the cost for each one).
  • There are dozens of helpful city programs that many people aren't aware of when starting a project like this. One that Roosevelt Row brought to our attention was the City of Phoenix Tool Lending Program which could help save a grassroots gardening project lots of cash that they might otherwise spend needlessly.
  • Codes were less of a burden to Roosevelt Row than obtaining the proper permits for their vacant lot activation projects. A list of required permits for certain types of popular interventions (like farmer's markets, urban gardens, concerts/events, or art venues) and the cost for each would help an entrepreneur or community organization understand more clearly what their start-up costs will be.
  • Connectivity is key: knowing who in the government to talk to is as important as knowing what community groups in the city can help get your project rolling or find a source of funding, materials, volunteer help, etc...

    UPDATE 1/10**
    Chatting with legal team at Tempe zoning and land entitlement law firm.
    In order to scale a prototype into something that can be supported and implemented by city governments, I met with a legal team to discuss our product so far. We got a lot of terrific advice on how to refine our prototype going forward:

  • Having four specific types of temporary project ideas laid our for people in the prototype is great, but it should be taken one step farther before a city can really support it. For example, "Farmer's Market" is one of the icons included in the prototype, but in Phoenix there are at least four different kinds of farmer's market permits - so you need to make sure your prototype is extremely specific. The city wants to know exactly what is going to happen on their property.
  • Future prototypes could include images of already completed projects, as well. Setting up a concert venue means one thing if you're wanting a band to play on a stage with a band shell and another if they're on the ground.
  • Have lots of people on your side; city governments respond when they've got lots of residents clamoring for the same thing.

UPDATE 1/11**
Check out our new prototype video demo in action.

Our prototype explores a Web-driven approach to integrating the insights of the OpenIDEO community as well as local interview participants in city government, community building, and zoning law.

Additional inspiration:

Desert TULIP (Temporary Urban Lab Infill Project) at Phoenix Urban Research Laboratory:

Roosevelt Row CDC (community development organization working to galvanize the downtown Phoenix arts community):

Kimber Lanning - local business activist and slasher of red tape:

Emily Talen and Nan Ellin - Phoenix Urban Research Lab:

Darin Sender and Jennifer Krieps Boblick at the Law Offices of Sender Accociates, CHTD.

What resources (money, time, people, technology, etc) will your concept need to be successful?

A more efficient means of delivering policy information to the public would pay dividends for both entrepreneurs wanting to make a difference in their community and the city officials that then have to deal with them. An investment by a municipality (in this case, the city of Phoenix) would be needed in order to transform the online zoning manual from this: into an intuitive guide that provides users with clear steps to actualize their visions. A municipality would likely need to hire a consultant to create a user-friendly Web experience for its residents to access and understand city codes. The service would need to be continuously updated to conform to the latest policy changes.

What steps could you take to implement this idea today?

1. Chat with local experts to determine what policy-related obstacles are shared by many grassroots initiatives and entrepreneurs. 2. Include input from the city government - planners and zoning experts can help scale the concept into a feasible and manageable product. 3. Develop a pilot online "How-To" manual (starting with temporary interventions on vacant lots) for the public to help get visionary concepts off the drawing board and into reality as seamlessly as possible. Signs placed at vacant lots would direct locals who want to transform the space to the online manual and also the city officials that can help. 4. Expand the manual to include a variety of projects that directly contribute to local revenue generation and community building.

How can your idea be scaled so that it's implemented in cities around the world?

Many large cities share the issue of confusing/contradictory zoning manuals and regulatory red tape. Streamlining these processes would open the floodgates to entrepreneurs that are already trying to make a positive impact in their city. Unique, goal-oriented manuals for entrepreneurs would need to be developed that are tailored to city-specific ordinances. As with our current prototype, these manuals can start small and focus on project types that are most applicable the city they are designed for. For Detroit, the focus of the manual could expand beyond empty lots to include food trucks or abandoned buildings - because setting up a food truck downtown shouldn't take 60 trips to city hall just to snag a 6-month special use permit:

My Virtual Team

Everyone's responses, inspirations, and concepts have been extremely informative... thank you so much and keep 'em coming! These folks have been especially insightful: Johan Löfström Meena Kadri Vincent Cheng Rebekah Emanuel Prototyping partner: Christopher Grasso -


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Photo of Edmund Ng

It's never easy to negotiate for land for art purposes. Most government has zoning already done up and unless it's in places like Detroit where there are a lot of abandoned factories and buildings, it's never easy getting a permit.

It's way easier to work with large corporations to source for places that could facilitate the art programs. That would be a productive use of time as you will probably be wasting too much time engaging the government where they are highly unlikely to approve it on a long term basis.

Edmund Ng

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