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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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Written by DeletedUser

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: http://geoplan.asu.edu/node/4582

Roosevelt Row CDC (community development organization working to galvanize the downtown Phoenix arts community): http://www.rooseveltrow.org/

Kimber Lanning - local business activist and slasher of red tape: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxPhoenix-2010-Kimber-Lanning

Emily Talen and Nan Ellin - Phoenix Urban Research Lab: http://design.asu.edu/purl/

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: http://www.codepublishing.com/az/phoenix/ 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: http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20110717/FREE/307179990/mexican-grill-paves-road-for-legal-food-trucks-downtown-it-took-60-trips-to-city-hall-to-snag-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 - http://www.openideo.com/profiles/cjgrasso/

Evaluation results

15 evaluations so far

1. How well does this concept restore vibrancy to cities and regions facing economic decline?

This concept will definitely restore vibrancy to struggling cities - 46.7%

This concept has potential to restore vibrancy to struggling cities - 53.3%

This concept will not restore vibrancy to struggling cities - 0%

2. How scalable is this concept across struggling cities and regions worldwide?

This concept could be scaled for impact across multiple locations - 53.3%

This concept will take a fair bit of work to build and scale - 46.7%

This concept is not particularly scalable - 0%

3. Does this concept require a lot of resources (time, money, people, etc) to achieve impact?

Not really – few resources would be needed to get results - 33.3%

Somewhat – significant resources would be needed to get results - 33.3%

Yes – considerable resources would be needed to get results - 33.3%

4. How easy would it be for our community to design an early prototype of this concept?

Easy – we could start prototyping this today - 46.7%

A bit tricky – but we could figure it out - 40%

Not at all easy – we'd need help from outside experts on this - 13.3%

5. Overall, how do you feel about this concept?

It rocked my world - 60%

I liked it but preferred others - 40%

It didn't get me overly excited - 0%

78 comments

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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
http://www.CeoConnectz.com

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DeletedUser

Although all of these ideas are great, what bothers me is the fact that it seems acceptable to yall that the codes are so complicated in the first place. Shouldn't we seek to encourage cities to significantly trim down the codes that seem to be choking innovation at every level.

I wonder why the codes have become so complicated in the first place. What we need to do is have a web page that attacks these codes, destroys them, trims them down, or something. Having these codes controls and limits freedom. Someone a long time ago probably complained about dust and now there is some sore of code about dust. This is the major problem with government. It feels that it has been elected to do something. The people who have been elected want to be re-elected. So, they do something without fully considering the ramifications. Moreover, few politicians can think for themselves. Pop-trends and culture tell them what to think. They do something-anything to solve the problem currently facing them. The cheaper the better.

Cities end up clogged, choked, stagnant because of these types of codes (not to mention other things that also kill activity). Instead of embracing these codes and getting everyone hip to them. Knowledgeable about them. Obeying them. What we need to do is to show these codes for what they are. It is great to educate but even better to free. I vote for freedom. (and i don't mean anarchy).

Remove these codes and give all of us room to breath. Again, the poorest of us will not have the time, inclination, or ability to fight these codes. So, they will do as you suggest and learn them, obey them. But then they will not be walking proud but walking cowed. If they do this and do that and this then they may (i.e. be allowed because they have been good little boys and girls) open a business, start using space in a new way, etc.

Of course this is not a site dedicated to activism of the sort that I am discussing. So, we look for ways IN the system to make what we see come to fruition. The problem is that this or that will make it appear to work, and it may for a while, but in the long run only changes that remove the burdens, controls, and oppression will work. After their removal, people can begin to embrace this or that as theirs. They did this. We did that. We thought of it and acted.

In the end, it is nice to know the codes. But it is not enough. Code light, or even better, code free zones. Now this might work.

Code free zones where anything is possible. Limit the codes to only 5 things. Each thing has to be germane to itself, of course. Because government never solves anything. People do.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Perhaps the process of decoding the codes may even be seen as a first small step to approaching the provocative, large scale change you are suggesting, Kevin? Interestingly I've spoken to a number of social entrepreneurs here in New Zealand about this concept in the past few days and they have been loving it. Your idea about code free zones sounds interesting – maybe you'd like to post a fresh concept on that? Your revolutionary approach may contrast with this evolutionary one – but all ideas are welcome!

Photo of Johan Löfström

Kevin, society and government have all these rules and standard codes to try to make the public places in the world for anyone, and shared. Imagine how much differentiation, and isolation many citizens would get if you closed off parts of your city for people that are in wheelchair or are hearing or sight impaired or even above a certain age?

There is no true possibility for any real integration if you create a zone where there are no rules. I fear that it is a step backwards for our relatively free and open society, and towards a more "the rich wins" or "survival of the fittest". I hope you understand what I am trying to say here.

What bothers me is that there is different clerks in different departments at the government that create conflicting requirements and just painstaking obstacles for citizens. If you got an errand to some authorities you could end up like Kafka, and be sent around from clerk to clerk to hear conflicting info, different absurd rules at every counter.

I think that the Decoding could make these authorities talk to each other more before constructing a new rule or law. And perhaps we could make them reduce the number of forms, permits, stamps, licence fees at the authorities. Making bureaucrats more user-friendly, to make them understand each of our requests better, so they can prioritize which is most important to abide by in any specific question.

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DeletedUser

Johan, my wife said the same thing. It seems that too many people don't trust people to do the right thing. This saddens me that people feel only the government can ensure that people behave. I choose to believe that freedom should be paramount. If a problem arises, people should sort it out without relying on Government. There are very few examples of where government is a positive force. Of course we need a back-up system when we encounter recalcitrant individuals. But to look to the Government before trying other methods first seems to say to me that we can't work out our issues by ourselves, and that we need "big daddy" to come and stop the children from fighting. Lack of education could be a cause of this. I choose to not fear my neighbor.

I also understand that some regulations will be necessary, but they should be kept to a minimum, and only if they are really important. Take for example the handicapped regulation that said mulch was not AADA. Would it not be better to say, "Hey neighbor, I see that you are trying to improve the lot of these afflicted people by doing something creative in this open area of town. I can't wheel around in this small lot with my wheelchair when there is mulch on the ground. Can we do something so I can participate in this wondrous event?"

Now the austere, cold, dominating hand of government has been kept out of it. The negatives that come with government intrusion are not present. In fact, people are talking and interacting. Had there been no regulation or enforcement of this AADA code, then the people would interact with each other. So, was that reg necessary? Probably not if you believe that people want to help each other, talk to each other, interact with each other. If you don't then what's the point of trying to help these cities anyway.

I know that this post seems off topic, but it is a discussion of the heart of the problem. Regulations and reliance on government when we should be relying on each other. After all, isn't that what OpenIDEO is about?

Photo of Johan Löfström

Yes, but I live in a democratic nation, the people have voted on the politicians, to make every law according to will of at least 50% of the people (there are of course always a minority that do not like some laws, but they need to accept those wishes of majority of other peoples)

Of course I have trust and faith in people. But at the same time I do not trust all 7 billion inhabitants, I know that there are always some percent crime, alcohol & drug abuse, in any society, and at a party it just takes one or two to ruin it all for the rest of us. So I cannot always be sure that all the people are having the same idea and general standards of staying safe and thinking about our common good all the time.

Our modern government exists just because people tried to live in other ways first, under a King as a dictator with a feudal system with slavery and so on. But we changed and created our government as a step up, towards a better system for all humans.
Government is always a positive force if it is transparent, democratic and uncorruptable. Because they try hard to look out for all of us in the best way they can think of. For the common good.
And that is giving us the freedom to go on with our lives, with codes, regulations and standards.
Your version of "absolute freedom" creates only room for opportunistic behavior, which can lead to anarchy at anytime, and potential abuse from the powerful multinational corporations.
If our government hadn't been very strict in environmental reasons we would for example still have had industry that built refrigerators and hair spray cans emitting freon... Was it freedom to burn a hole in the Ozone layer?

There's this libertarian candidate running for presidential election in USA, that wants to shut down the whole department of education. What good would that do for all future generation of kids?

thanks for this mini-debate!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Ok guys – interesting discussion but maybe it's about to drift off the topic of Mike's concept here a tad? We're all for healthy dialogue, though perhaps you'd like to figure out somewhere else to to carry on the conversation if you are keen to debate further. As suggested earlier – Kevin – maybe you could outline some of your thoughts in a fresh concept and discuss it there?

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DeletedUser

Very interesting points for sure! I'm hoping to add something new to the discussion after reflecting on some local conversations... I'm taking a bit of time to chat with some activists/entrepreneurs in the Phoenix area about this concept in order to see if I can identify some patterns in the stories they tell. So far it's been extremely helpful!

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DeletedUser

Maybe, I am being naive. If majority of the population actually want the codes and would choose the codes over entrepreneurship, which problem are we exactly addressing? Are we trying to solve the problem of archaic and complex codes for that small minority who are interested in entrepreneurship?
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to examine why the city went dead in the first place. What if the codes had something to do with it?
How about this solution: for parts of the city that its citizens have decided as worth rejuvenating, maybe they can simply scrap the existing codes from a given date and define simplified ones. Probably it is cheaper than trying to build an expert system.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Interesting user-case for Decode the Codes: http://reason.com/blog/2012/07/26/city-shuts-down-kids-hot-dog-stand-befor

Photo of Meena Kadri

Hey Mike – I've just cross-pollinated this concept as an analogy over on our new Web Start-up Challenge:
http://www.openideo.com/open/web-start-up/inspiration/simplifying-the-steps/ Hope you'll be joining us there :^)

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DeletedUser

Awesome, thanks Meena! As a direct beneficiary of the new challenge topic I'll certainly be involved :)

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DeletedUser

I love this idea. I think it has a lot of potential to develop into not only a manual, but an interactive portal. I would encourage project leaders and/or consultant to engage the actual workers in charge of permit processing and approval. Maybe before the roll-out of the product there could be a summit or conference. Government jobs can be thankless and if the people behind the paperwork could feel more excited and inspired about the impact of their work, it would also help break down some of the red-tape barriers that prevent good work from happening in high-need areas.

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DeletedUser

I love this idea! The approach you took to more widespread transparency and understanding is really interesting.

I'd be curious about whether any similar tools around information access have been built for journalists and citizens interested in finding documents that have been released under Freedom of Information Act requests (which sounds as challenging to navigate as city zoning).

Besides policy people, might you try to engage attorneys per the obstacles you mentioned?

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DeletedUser

Thank you everyone again for sharing all your insights and helping to build this concept! I'm excited to see where Steelcase takes all the ideas generated in this challenge, and how we might further refine our prototype and implement it locally.

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DeletedUser

Hi Mike. This is a brilliant idea. A user friendly website is a definite must, but have you thought about what people should do if (and when) they get stuck on the website. Sometimes you really just need a person to talk to. Some ideas to augment your model could be:
- A one-stop-shop where businesses can take care of different obligations with different authorities at one local point. The location and hours of this office should be advertised on the website under the ‘help’ or ‘contact us’ tab.
- A less intensive version of this would be a phone help line linked to the website. This could be manned by local government employees or contracted out, potentially to the same firm that develops the website.
- An even simpler innovation would be to establish a directory desk and location map at the entrance to City Hall. Some helpful and friendly staff could significantly cut down on hassle by directing the public to the exact offices they require.

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DeletedUser

Hi Kelly - I completely agree with you. Several of the people involved in projects on vacant lots in downtown Phoenix that we interviewed over the last few weeks told us that one of their main complaints was simply not knowing who to talk to in the city government and that there was not simple way of seeing how key departments interact with one another.

Our website (and mobile version as shown in the prototype video) would ideally serve as the one-stop-shop you mention - where all the key people involved in maintaining a specific vacant lot would have their contact information displayed in addition to info on all the city departments that might be involved.

You definitely hit a great point that deserves to be highlighted better in the project concept description (I'll add your insights and credit you asap).

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DeletedUser

Hey Mike, this is a really clever idea, and great way to maneuver the bureaucracy that can often overwhelm and discourage getting new initiatives going.

I just was wondering about a few things: 1) would the web manual belong to the city to administer, update, etc? Or would it be managed outside? I'm asking because if the city is in charge of it, then I assume it would require city resources, to be incorporated into the budget, and even possibly having a point person to manage and address any questions and issues that might arise. Do you think they would have the resources and the political will to do that? Also, how involved would the city be in the whole process, from concept to implementation? Again, I'm thinking about the possibility of constraints of bureaucracy which could slow down the process. But regardless, I think it would be great to have the city involved, to ensure things can be brought to scale and be sustainable.

Again, this is really a great idea.

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Great questions, Sonia! After interviewing a few local entrepreneurs and a team of zoning lawyers in the Phoenix area, it seems that involving the city in the decoding process from square one is a good idea (you have to deal with the city eventually no matter what your intervention plans typically are). It ultimately depends on what aspect of city policy you're tackling, however.

In our prototype, we decided to deal only with city-owned vacant lots, because several grassroots initiatives in the Phoenix area have been stymied by all the red tape they've had to deal with in order to get their projects moving forward. Detroit also shares the issue of an abundance of vacant properties, so it seemed a great place to get started.

We envision our prototype evolving into something small and specific enough for a city government to adopt and maintain as long as the demand remains justified. When there are no more entrepreneurs clamoring to get food trucks, gardens, or temporary arts venues on vacant lots (hopefully because all the vacant spaces have been effectively re-purposed), the decoding needs will likely be elsewhere in city policies and permitting.

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Mike, this is such a simple, powerful idea. If you’re not already familiar, there is a great example of a streamlined/simplified entitlements process that was developed in San Francisco. It used to take years to create any kind of sidewalk extension into the public right-of-way in SF due to the hoops one was required to jump through in order to get multiple permits from multiple city agencies. It was also quite expensive. But, about a year ago, the city introduced a far simplified permitting process (http://sfpavementtoparks.sfplanning.org/images/Parklet_Call_for_Projects_110711.pdf) for sidewalk extensions (aka “parklets”) like this: http://sfpavementtoparks.sfplanning.org/divisadero_parklet.html. Since then, they’ve been popping up all over the city, converting underutilized streetscape to public realm and drastically improving the pedestrian experience in many neighborhoods of the city.

Another thought: I have heard that in Detroit there is a lot of guerilla urban revitalization going on (sans city-approval), because the Planning Department just does not have the resources to enforce the code and people don’t want to bother with the complicated entitlements process knowing they can get away without. I wonder how a streamlining/simplifying the permitting process might discourage this guerilla practice (which the Planning Department would certainly like) since getting the cities blessing would no longer be such a arduous process.

Photo of Paul Reader

Sounds like SF has bitten the bullet, at least in part - Brad do you know what sparked the change? That could be inspirational for repeating the process both within SF and elsewhere.

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

This is a great idea. Everyone needs a guide on a new adventure. I wonder if it could spark something even more powerful: simplifying the tangle of local government and urging departments to create great plain language materials. As an example, the NY City Zoning Handbook was redone a few years ago. The print version is designed so that you get to know a type of neighborhood like a persona. The online version is clear, but not as well designed.

Online: http://tenant.net/Other_Laws/zoning/zontoc.html
Print (look inside pages) http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/pub/zonehand_inside.shtml

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Thank you for all the great insights, everyone! Brad, there's a lot of guerrilla-style gardens and vacant lot projects going on in Phoenix, too. In some cases they are actually quite successful and can get completed much faster than doing things by the book - the downside to that obviously is that if the wrong people get wind of your project it's likely over just as fast.

There's actually a great paper on this sort of small-scale urban intervention called "Tactical Urbanism" that you all might really dig: http://patterncities.com/archives/175

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Whitney - That NYC Zoning Handbook is pretty interesting and a really great precedent for this concept!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Mike, congrats on this fab idea joining our Top 20 shortlist! The advisory panel especially enjoyed the video mock up you did to demonstrate your concept in action. For Refinement, we wonder what we might learn from talking to the kinds of folks who'd use a system like this. Do people who currently run coding & approval have insights to add? Could we mock up a page or two of what this might look like?

Photo of Meena Kadri

Congrats to Christopher Grasso too! Looking forward to where your dynamic duo can take things over the next week – with a dash of collaborative input form our community.

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Thanks Meena - we're excited to get rolling on this! We took a field trip today to speak with vacant lot entrepreneurs from a downtown Phoenix community building organization called the Roosevelt Row CDC:http://www.rooseveltrow.org/

They shared stories of their efforts on each vacant property, the roadblocks they've had to overcome, and loads of insights on how they might use the kind of system we're proposing. We'll go through all our notes and update the concept with some of the key insights soon.

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Thank you Meena, it was very insightful to talk to a team that has done community projects on both private and public lots, and to see firsthand that people who have been through this arduous process feel it is a good and usable idea (and hoped that it could be implemented in our community as a case study).

Photo of Vincent Cheng

Great job Mike & Chris on refining through local stakeholder/expert interviews!

With your current visualization iteration, I'm also seeing more potential synergies with the OpenCity concept as well.

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Thanks Vincent! I agree that these two concepts together would create a really powerful solution. The OpenCity concept would add a collaborative aspect to our prototype, while ours would add the local resources, information, and government connections needed to take those collaborative ideas to the next step.

Photo of Vincent Cheng

Exactly, you put it perfectly =)

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

Thanks for your input Vincent, after reading your comment I posted directly onto their concept about it.... We had thought about including a PHPbb bulletin board integrated to the web interface to try and bring people with similar ideas together, but didn't have the time to include it in our prototype. Their geo-taggging and social networking ideas are great for community involvement... there would still be permitting, zoning and legal issues if selling goods or erecting structures was going to happen on the land. We feel our concept meshes well with theirs, and like ours the city's municipality should be involved at some level. Thanks!

Photo of DeletedUser

DeletedUser

I love this idea! I hope that when the codes have been reviewed that there might be thoughts towards not only decoding them but streamlining them by composing and proposing new code that looks at economic potential and neighborhood revitalization. For example, Greywater Alliance, an adhoc initiative in California mobilized organizations that had an interest in implementing greywater and water recycling systems for household, but the code was so disjointed and antiquated because some were made independent of each other that deciphering the code wasn't enough. Policy had to change and they worked with the government to rewrite it based on the economic and environmental benefits for the state/county/city. Greywater Action of which I am a team member, now works with government officials to help the officials decode the code. Now that the code has changed, many of the organizations who were part of Greywater Alliance can take the kind of actions they have wanted to take for years because they changed the code. Perhaps mobilizing organizations and companies that have existing maps (open space, public space, abandoned space, etc), categorizing the kind of spaces that have potential for a variety of uses and working from there. Identify the code that applies to each space and listing the potential at each space can open up opportunities for temporary and permanent activities. You might even be able to generate some income from companies/owners that have interest in making use of vacant space by having a site that features spaces that have meet code, and then help other spaces that have a harder time meeting the code to make adjustments to meet it.

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DeletedUser

Gemma - this is fantastic input. It sounds like Greywater Action takes this concept to the next level by forming the partnerships needed to get things moving. I agree that an integral step in the big picture goal here will be to get different organizations that all have one piece of the solution working together.

Also, great job on decoding the codes with Greywater Action to get your mission accomplished!

Photo of Mamta Gautam

Dear Mike, this is indeed a very functional and much required idea for any city, irrespective of whether the city is shrinking or growing. Great thinking, hitting the nail at right place ! cheers .

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DeletedUser

Agreed, Whether I was starting a restaurant in AZ, or a real estate development in FL, the codes and regulations were always labyrinthine.

Even a simple document like "how to start a restaurant" would be great! there were 7 different government agencies that we had to contact as we got started, and each one didn't know about the other. Websites that we looked at were often incomplete.

The lack of code clarity is a huge barrier to entry and a very large time-sink for new businesses.

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DeletedUser

Thank you both for the comments! Shyam, our goal with the prototype was to address the issues you raise about having a goal-oriented manual for getting a project completed. We just posted a video outlining our first mock-up of a system that has the potential to achieve this for temporary projects on vacant lots. As someone who has done similar projects in the past, I'd love to get your feedback!

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DeletedUser

This is a great idea! I like how decoding the codes takes a practical approach to taking the red tape out of government interaction for regular citizens. For some added inspiration check out my friend's company, Case Commons: http://casecommons.org/launch/ . Case Commons is implementing a similar concept in the social sector to help child welfare services navigate government silos in areas like adoption services, child neglect, juvenile justice, health/mental health, etc.

The big innovation with Case Commons is that it looks at social services at a family level, rather than case by case (which is usually what leads to dead ends and roadblocks).

If we apply this concept to Decoding the Codes, I like how your idea takes a goal oriented approach rather than just a per zoning/code basis. Maybe going along with your idea for city employee insight, you could implement a feature like "find an advocate" or someone who has tackled the problem before in your area and is available to discuss solutions.

Congrats on the top 20!

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DeletedUser

Thank you for the insights, Kevin. Your thoughts are right in line with the two entrepreneurs we spoke with in downtown Phoenix during our field trip last week - almost verbatim, in fact. Both had a lot of experience starting temporary projects on vacant lots and lamented not having any kind of clear path to the finish line when they were getting started. They also spoke about how easy it is to get lost when trying to communicate with multiple city departments and how a goal-oriented manual like you suggest would have made their lives a whole lot easier.

We're developing a prototype along these lines that allows a user to pick a few "standard" interventions like a farmer's market or a garden and then see all the permits and regulations that you'd need to follow to make it happen. This would allow entrepreneurs to work backwards from the finish line and see all the major steps in the process so there aren't any big surprises as far as policy is concerned.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Way to go, Mike & Christopher! And great weigh-in, Kevin. We've been loving the people-centered updates here. It's these kinds of rich, contextual insights which make good ideas into truly impactful solutions.

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Dear Mike , check out this link , its an online portal which allows any common man to write complaint, give suggestions, meet the minister . A lot of small and big (infrastructure) based problems have been fixed here due to this participatory approach, our govt bodies are also people, we need people in govt and outside of govt who care and commit to implementation, we need more and more tools and methods that bridge the gap and thats what your concept does http://www.gujaratindia.com/.

I feel the solution should also come from people, depends from city to city, whether people are educated enough to read through manuals , or is everyone well versed with using web tools, or do we need a person who can decode the codes for us -who is available on telephone ....... there is no one solution, but we must start with something simple and build on that,specific to the city . Cheers .

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DeletedUser

This website is terrific, Mamta - so much information in a very accessible format! I agree that this concept is just one piece of what should be a city-wide effort to engage citizen participation and collaboration in government activity. Thank you for sharing!

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Hi-fives on this great concept, Mike! Every community in America faces this issue, super relevant. It's clear we've got the resource and supply side of things covered with space, and I'd like to see a piece of this concept focus on making visible the demand side of things. Is there an interactive way to help community members express how they'd like to see the space used? I like the visual you have above outlining the project on a board at the site. What if people could text to "like" while walking by or spread the word in some other way that sends a signal to the city that this would be a popular change? I think policymakers are interested to hear this kind of thing early in the planning process--somehow bringing the town hall meeting on the issue to the streets. Rooting for this one! Really like where it's headed!

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The Neighborland sites being rolled out across the US this year are very good at encouraging citizen input to ideas for new or re-purposed facilities and developments. It would be good to complement the efforts for this database with their initiatives.

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DeletedUser

If city codes were user friendly then city citizens would be competing with each other to repurpose spaces and continually reinvent their cityscape. This is a key factor for why vacant lots stay vacant. I hope this idea makes it to the real world.

It seems like it would be time intensive to translate the city codes into a user friendly format, but well worth the effort. Simply knowing who to contact about a vacant lot would be incredibly helpful for the cities citizens. Also a timeline for how long the lot will be vacant would also help people plan for what to put into the vacant space. If the city has a planned project for the vacant space in two months or two years makes a difference for what type of revitalization can happen in that space.

I hope one day this is a much more streamlined process. It would enable so many social entrepreneurs to help their communities.

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DeletedUser

Thank you Peter - we're with you in our hopes to develop a product that comes to life and is an asset to entrepreneurs.

You're right that it would be extremely time intensive to translate all the codes in a user friendly way, so we're working with some local experts (Phoenix, Arizona in our case) to try and focus on the critical need-to-know codes, policies, permits, and people to contact for issues shared by most projects. Zones and policies will be different in Detroit, so we're also looking into ways that our system can be adapted to meet the needs of other communities without too much headache.

The timeline is also a great idea and certainly something that should be on our minds while we work on a prototype. Thanks again for your thoughts!

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DeletedUser

Mike, I've got a man power/free skilled labor idea for you.

Have you thought of involving local graduate programs (I am getting my MBA in Phoenix) or other pro bono consultants? As an MBA candidate, I know we are always seeking out ways to both gain experience to enhance our academic learning and to get involved in the local community. I'm sure other grad programs would be interested in jumping on board, too. Public policy (MPP and MPA programs) seems to be the area that would best fit this concept. Also, organizations like the Taproot Foundation: http://www.taprootfoundation.org/ and LinkedIn for Good (still in the growth process) provide skilled pro bono teams to nonprofit groups. I'm not sure if that would fit with your needs, but might be worth checking out.

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DeletedUser

Thank you Susannah - these are all great suggestions! This concept is actually inspired in large part from a 2009 graduate studio at ASU's Phoenix Urban Research Lab - I just posted the links above if you're interested. The studio proposed several design solutions for vacant lots (including what ultimately became Valley of the Sunflowers) and started a dialogue with the city as to how we might enact them.

That said, we never reached out to business/policy students and I agree that those insights could be extremely valuable (law students would help, also!). I'd be happy to help get that dialogue started if you or anyone you know would be interested in working with PURL, Roosevelt Row, or any of the other organizations championing revitalization downtown.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Way to go, Mike – we're digging the video and updates to your concept! Great to see you putting the Concepting phase to good use and iterating your initial idea. I think Santa is going to bring you something extra special for being so good ;^)

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DeletedUser

Thanks, Meena! I'm thinking of ways to make the concept more refined for a city to develop into a pilot, so further iterations are on their way. Happy Xmas to you as well!

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I like the idea !!! Here where I live (Argentina) there are many public places "free" without anything. I like the idea !!!

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DeletedUser

Excellent stuff Mike. I wonder if you've considered playful ways of packaging the decoding process. Tackling zoning laws can be daunting and exhausting, so maybe there is an opportunity to frame it as a scavenger hunt or another type of exploration? I was thinking of 7 Scenes, which is an opensource platform to construct stories in your city: http://7scenes.com/
Perhaps this kind of approach can help make the decoding process feel 'win-able' and adventurous, and it also may be a fun way to integrate the physical and virtual layers of your project.

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DeletedUser

Thank you for sharing this! I think their motto pretty much says it all: "We believe that making engaging location-based experiences should be easy and fun." Word.

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DeletedUser

Mike, I wonder if Seattle's Neighborhood Matching Funds might be a funding prototype for your project? A community provides the sweat equity, donated materials and professional services and is matched with a cash award from the city. This type of partnership could include volunteers from appropriate city agencies as well as community volunteers. Here is a link: http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/nmf/communitymatch.htm

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DeletedUser

Whoa, that's a very cool program! The city has embedded a few videos to showcase completed NMF projects, too - like the 1950's Hat and Boots revival (which is totally sweet). It definitely seems as if they'd be amenable to funding a project like this in Seattle if a neighborhood there would support it.

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DeletedUser

Mike: I like the idea. It seems like this is aimed toward the long-term permanent fix. What about supplementing it with a "quick-win" style game plan? For example if the city declared spaces that were "unoccupied" for 2 months to be free for a wider range of uses, and those uses were a) easy to understand b) flexible c) widely publicized. The city would need to maintain an online list of eligible spaces so citizens could easily know what spaces qualified without doing extensive investigation.

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DeletedUser

Rebekah - this is a great idea! Focusing on specific parcels could allow cities to develop an intuitive set of guidelines for reuse on vacant city-owned properties.

As you suggest, I think this is a good way of zeroing in on a "quick-win" solution that complements the broader goal of a streamlined system for both public and private properties. Thanks for your input!

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Mike, LOVE it! Its not that people dont care, its not that people dont want to make the change, nor that they are "selfish, stupid or lazy". Its that the structure for social change is designed to keep most people out of the process. Participating, becoming active in one's society, has to be made much, much easier. Your idea is a powerful example of how it could be done.

I think this TedTalk will have great resonance with your concept.

http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html

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Yes of course, good points Carlos. Most People do things just out of habit, follow the most convenient paths and patterns, staying inside their safety zone and known networks, and only a few try new things "early adapters".


However it is a too short 2-month-period suggested by Rebekah. Most office and industrial space can stay empty for up to 6-12 months in wait for new tenant. It takes time to advertise and find business and sign contract and so on.

Lets start with those that already been empty and unused for 3-4 years or more (since 2008 depression).

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DeletedUser

Thanks for the comment, Carlos. Dave Meslin's TED Talk echoes this concept wonderfully. I think a good next step for this concept is to brainstorm with some local activists and pinpoint key areas in policy that gave them headaches when trying to get their ideas off the ground. That said, I think the discussion here has been wonderful and am thrilled to see so many people add their insights - keep 'em coming!

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DeletedUser

There could also be a big benefit to having a monthly webinar component to this. It would be great to have an open forum where people could submit their questions to be answered by zoning officials.

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DeletedUser

I like this proposal. It seems ripe for a grant-funded prototype to determine how much it would cost to design and maintain the online/offline manual. It reminds me of CUP's "Making Policy Public" work: http://www.makingpolicypublic.net/

Are there any economic development folks on OpenIDEO that can give us an equation that quantifies the impact of something like this for cities that we can play with?

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DeletedUser

Dan - "Making Policy Public" looks like a fantastic program and is right in line with this concept. Thank you for sharing!

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Congrats on this post being today's onsite Featured Concept!

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DeletedUser

Thank you!

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Wow Mike – this is really brilliant! We are big fans of solutions which are enabling and empowering. I thought you might like to check out this inspiration from an earlier challenge: http://www.openideo.com/open/amnesty/inspiration/making-policy-public/

With 3 weeks left in the Concepting phase – we're anticipating discussions to flourish here and your ideas to evolve. You can make updates to your entry at any time using the Update Entry button up there on the right. Here's an example of how built up ideas can get over the course of a challenge: http://www.openideo.com/open/localfood/winners-announced/public-kitchen/ Let's bring on the builds!

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DeletedUser

Now that's what I'm talkin' about! Thanks for drawing the connection there, Meena!

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At my first read, when you posted it, this sounded like an excellent smart packaged ready concept. But now, with these comments, it seems like your idea is evolving into something larger, more complex, growing closer to some previous concepts, like http://www.openideo.com/open/vibrant-cities/concepting/opencity-bringing-open-source-princi/ or my own Brownfield-eliminator

I am open to any merging of ideas or concepts, if it will make them better. But I thought that your Code-Book was such a simple and yet potentially very effective (if designed in collaboration with the authorities).

Think about what is best scale of your idea.

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Just to clarify my comment above – I wasnt suggesting that things need to get more complex and tend to agree with Johan. More that you might take learnings from folks like Making Policy Public or show an image of an existing code doc and a sketch of a proposed one, etc to make the concept as compelling as possible. But of course – its an open playing field so anything goes in regards to iteration ;^)

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DeletedUser

@Johan - This idea is quite similar to yours and the OpenCity apps (which are both fantastic). Where this concept differs is that I'm assuming that someone already has a great idea for a vacant lot or dilapidated building in their community, but doesn't know what the next step is to bring their idea to life. If they were to search online right now, most city websites bury their codes, permitting, and regulations policy in very unfriendly and disjointed databases.

What I'm thinking of is a website that guides the user through a step-by-step process to make their ideas real - highlighting the "need to know" parts of the code and omitting the rest.

@Meena - Good call. I'll hammer out a mock-up!

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Nice one, Mike. I like the idea of it being available as a booklet/offline as well – like they do at Making Policy Public. I know loads of folks, here in New Zealand for starters, who would use a localised tool like the one you are proposing that are not as web connected as OpenIDEO-types ;^) If we think of one key mission of your concept as enhancing accessibility (to information) – then offline access would follow?

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DeletedUser

This would be an integral component to get the Open City or Change a Space Overnight Projects. If the roadblocks are identified early on by having access to a tool like this, it could make the execution seamless and possible! Great Work!

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Another piece of the puzzle which can sometimes prove problematic is finding who the vacant piece of land belongs to in the first place. In NYC, there are a few successful community gardens and compost projects which have sprung up in disused land. The city actually has a web-map-enabled resource where you can find all of the details (including ownership and contact info) on any piece of property, and I think it will may tell the history of the property and outstanding issues.

Might be an interesting piece to add to the concept.

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You should look at my concept, and please if you can add details (that I have missed) to it in the comment section i would appreciate it a lot!

http://www.openideo.com/open/vibrant-cities/concepting/brownfield-elimination/

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DeletedUser

@Josh - This is spot-on with Johan's concept... and also a great idea!

Photo of Angeliki Angeletou

Hi Mike, your concept is great! We need usable policy- and law- infographics to make laws and policies fun! Imagine what would happen then - I would expect a boost in entrepreneurship. Licenses for stores, for freelancers, for street artists, for vacant spaces are so complicated that it's often easier to bypass the law. This unfortunately happens in Greece.:(

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DeletedUser

Exactly! Thanks for the encouragement... and you're right that one method of getting things done is the "just do it" approach. It's risky - but actually can work out in some places.

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DeletedUser

Layer the codes into the Cities GPS and make them publicly available. Why the Cities could even make an App for that. Then with the click of a property, all the necessary code limits could be provided. This is the first thing that any architect or landscape architect does anyways. They find the FAR, the Setbacks, and underground limits, and on and on and it's a resource draining, inefficient process. Instead, let's just lay out the limits, and map them to a location. From there, we'll see the problems and the overlaps, and over time the complexity should be reduced.

Imagine --
Enter an address, get a map, click on the property, up comes the limits. Yes to retail, no to light commercial, FAR = 4, 4 onsite utilities with 20' setbacks, school zone limits apply since school is within 500 m. Bang, you are off and running.

ps.
Plus if you get into an argument with City staff, you pull up their Maps, with their App and show them. Whereas now, you have to go through the whole zone book and explain line by line why you have made this or that decision, and they come back with different zone limits and together you argue, unless of course you are rich and have lawyers, in which case you threaten to sue, and then they write an site specific allowance, that says essentially - forget the zoning details, you get to do whatever you want.