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The SmartCode

By Buck Abbey, ASLA

Perhaps most importance to landscape architects is SmartCode Article 5, which pertains to building sites in each of the transect zones. Design standards are quite detailed, somewhat similar to traditional zoning, but centered on design themes like architectural standards, environmental standards and standards for landscape and "visitability."

"The form of our built environment needs a 21st century correction."--SmartCode & Manual, New Urban Publications, Inc.

Nature of the Code

Principles of the New Urbanism are largely responsible for the design and creation of village-type developments, mixed use neighborhoods and planned unit developments. The SmartCode is a relatively new design code that is the basic organizing theory of several forms of New Urbanism community design and planning.

Landscape architects need to understand New Urbanism and add its content and theory to their quiver of community design skills. New Urbanism is bringing new attention to clustered land development, where automobiles are discouraged while pedestrianism and social interaction are enhanced. Landscape design is a critical element and integral part in the structure, character and visual quality of these more urbanized and urbane built communities.

The New Urbanism has roots in the American new town movement of the mid-1920s and a code-based design philosophy developed since the 1980s, best expressed through the work of Miami architectural firm of Duany, Plater-Zeberk. Their design for the coastal town of Seaside, Fla. exhibits many of the open space qualities of towns like Radburn, N.J., Greenbelt, Md. and and Lake Vista in New Orleans. The SmartCode created the design of Seaside, which is noted for its mixed use, pedestrian-friendly compact neighborhoods and warm beachside dune and inland cove environment. Principles used in the design of this project and the SmartCode have spread across the nation over the last 25 years. In all of these communities, open space and public landscape play a central role in the livability of the place.

The new urbanist code creates community patterns consisting of clustered developments--neighborhoods, villages and towns--all central components of the New Urbanism. The SmartCode helps designers create site plans of different scale including communities, neighborhoods, blocks and individual building lots. This code is implemented through the use of incentives, prescriptions and prohibitions and is directed through a review and approval process by municipal planning departments.

Code Details

The SmartCode divides the city into six different community categories known as transects; within each, various land-use types coexist. Transects range from the natural, suburban to the urban core; within each are private, public and civic land uses. The code provides for the design of streets and building sites for residential, public and commercial development. Town centers are always featured.

Article 1 sets forth requirements for all site plans, including authority, applicability, warrants, variances and incentives. Incentives that make this zoning work more efficiently include administrative review, priority, review fees reduced or waived, increased density, transfer of development rights, delayed property tax increases and tax relief. These are all developer supportive ideas.

Articles 2, 3, and 4 of the code pertain to the design and development of plans for sectors, new communities and existing communities. Sectors are equivalent to area, regional or comprehensive plans. New communities include traditional neighborhood development (TND), clustered land development (CLD), regional center and downtown redevelopment (RCD) and transit oriented development (TOD). All of these are new zoning categories. Perhaps the traditional neighborhood development (TND) is the most well known because it creates neighborhoods that remind us of small town America. In the TND community people know their neighbors and can walk to the store, local school or church along shady streets. Citizens also socialize together in the neighborhood park, playground or on accessible public greens.

Design is a central part of the New Urbanism. In general, lot sizes are decreased, frontages are reduced, and density is increased.

These are all developer-friendly ideas that make the new urbanism attractive to builders. Within Articles 2, 3 and 4 are found important design criteria for density, environmental requirements, streetscape design and civic functions--all help the designer tailor the design for more social interaction.

New Urbanism is largely responsible for the creation of village-type developments, generally designed around civic spaces and where residents can walk to the store, park or playground. Here, the village green is used this weekend for the town's "garage sale."

Design Standards

Perhaps most importance to landscape architects is SmartCode Article 5. This section of the code pertains to individual building sites in each of the transect zones. Design requirements vary from T1 (rural) to T6 (urban core) zones. Design standards go into considerable detail, are somewhat similar to traditional zoning but are centered on several design themes, such as architectural standards, environmental standards and standards for landscape and "visitability."

There are no landscape standards for T1 and T2 areas other than applicable local, state and federal regulations. Standards vary and increase in number with density and proximity to the urban core. To help users understand the SmartCode, it is accompanied by 16 tables of design code graphics. These easily understood tables present specific design requirements and dimensional aspects of buildings and sites including parameters for frontage, street-side parking, thoroughfares, lighting, special districts, building type, configuration and function. Of most interest to landscape architect are Tables 6, 7, and 13--they describe public planting, private and public street frontage, and civic space designed as parks, greens, squares, plazas and playgrounds. Surprisingly, there are no design standards in this code for parking lots, buffer yards or replacement of the urban forest, all which are common within traditional landscape codes.

Finally, the SmartCode provides as Article 7 132 technical definitions to help designers understand the many complexities of the code. A very useful tool to further help is of the SmartCode and Manual (Version 8). This tool consists of written and graphic design guidelines. It is available from as a hard copy or as a digital copy. It is also accessible online at the Duany-Plater-Zyberk & Co. website ( The manual and the websites carry introductory commentary, information about the code, and calibration instructions. In addition, the manual contains an expanded appendix that provides outlines, sample plans, a model enabling legislation, a sample enactment ordinance.

The genius of the New Urbanism is that it is a "code-based philosophy" that leads to highly architecturally efficient communities that are walkable and pleasantly landscaped.

D.G. "Buck" Abbey, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, is LASN's Associate Editor for Ordinances.

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October 20, 2019, 5:38 pm PDT

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