Great power to effect change in cities resides within local development codes. The era of the single-use factory, the cul-de-sac, and the avenue-as-traffic-funnel are fading as factors from demographics to economics to climate change push communities to attempt more progressive development models.

New adherents to form-based urban planning are adopting principles for livable places, engaging citizens on matters of design, development, and transportation. Some of the cities that are leading the charge may surprise you.

Southern Progress
Memphis has broken with Tennessee’s code-agnostic, home-rule tendencies to advance Memphis 3.0, its first strategic plan in four decades. The plan, in public review through 2018, is expected to work in tandem with Memphis’ new Unified Development Code (UDC), formalizing a commitment to mixed-use, infill development, complete streets, and transit in a decentralized city.

Aerial of Memphis, Tenn.
Sean Davis Aerial of Memphis, Tenn.

The smart growth–informed UDC eschews single-use Euclidean zoning and encourages site-specific mixed uses for the first time since Memphis’ postwar boom and sprawl. Moreover, the UDC is a hybridized approach to use- and form-based zoning made palatable through balance and restraint.

Memphis didn’t get here by accident. A 2014 state law forbidding municipal annexation helped it along. “For years, Memphis’ practice was to absorb as much sprawl as possible,” says Josh Whitehead, planning director for the city and unincorporated Shelby County (of which Memphis is a part). “The city wanted new growth, so we would extend utility lines into unincorporated areas and annex to bring that tax base into the fold.”

Elastic growth has disguised the reality of the city’s clinging to a stagnant population—just a 4 percent increase since 1970; meanwhile, it has added 55 percent more land mass. The state’s turn against annexation prompted introspection by city officials and staff. To compete with the tri-state area for jobs and residents, Memphis embraced urbanity through a reinvention of its street life.

Progress is evident. In the blue-collar Crosstown neighborhood, a 1920s Sears distribution center listed on the National Register of Historic Places is being redeveloped into a 600,000-plus-square-foot apartment and office complex. And with the building industry’s shift toward multifamily construction, several mixed-residential projects are giving Memphis its infill.

Proposed Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tenn.
Looney Ricks Kiss / Courtesy Crosstown Concourse Proposed Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tenn.

Memphis owes a debt to Denver for demonstrating how to flip the script on sprawl. Denver addressed sustainability and transit-oriented growth through Blueprint Denver, its 2002 comprehensive plan that helped reverse the city’s own history of annexation. By designating “areas of change” and “areas of stability,” bolstered by a major, voter-approved rail transit expansion, Denver has been able to direct new development where it wants it.

And to the northeast of Memphis, Nashville has adopted NashvilleNext, a plan to manage its ongoing boom. By 2040, the metro region is expected to add a million residents—nearly 200,000 in the city itself—and issues of neighborhood preservation, affordability, resource protection, and integrated transportation are at the forefront.

Riding the Rails
Few cities have as much underutilized land proximate to mass transit as Chicago. The neighborhood “L” stations used to have high residential and employment density around them. But rather than concentrate people and jobs around transit nodes, city officials allowed fast food drive-thrus and big box plazas to infiltrate the urban fabric, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. This was compounded by the loss of dense housing through demolition and the de-conversion of classic two-flats in some gentrifying neighborhoods.

Market forces in the last 20 years brought scores of new residential towers to the Loop and points north, but antiquated zoning bylaws brought another thing entirely: parking podiums, with all the charm of a Potemkin village. Chicago’s municipal code required new multifamily residential buildings to supply one parking spot for every dwelling unit, regardless of their immediate built environment or transit access.

Affluent, hyper-developed neighborhoods like South Loop, River North, Lincoln Park, and Lakeview are now flooded in car traffic. As rents rose, new multifamily construction ventured into historically low-rise, medium-density areas like Wicker Park, Edgewater, and Logan Square. But an absurdity was laid bare: some of these schemes called for dozens, if not hundreds, of new apartments to be located right beside mass transit. What if Chicago tested the notion that millennials prefer a car-free lifestyle with urban convenience?

1611 West Division, in Chicago
Tom Rossiter / Courtesy Wheeler Kearns Architects 1611 West Division, in Chicago

An alderman and a developer, receptive to a neighborhood association's statement of support for TOD and density, set about designing a car-free, 99-unit building beside the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line in vibrant, walkable Wicker Park. The 1611 West Division project, by developer Rob Buono and Wheeler Kearns Architects, opened to great fanfare in 2014, a harbinger of the impact Chicago’s first transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance, adopted in 2013, would have. With strengthened guidelines in 2015, the TOD ordinance allows developments within a quarter-mile of a mass-transit station, or a half-mile on “pedestrian-designed” streets, to opt out of the mandated parking ratio. (Typically, these TOD projects provide reduced on-site parking, but even this has been shown to exceed demand.)

Buono and Wheeler Kearns moved on to an even splashier project 3 miles northwest in Logan Square. Their twin towers, dubbed MiCA, recently added 216 apartments to the busy but underdeveloped intersection of Milwaukee and California avenues, 100 yards from a Blue Line station. MiCA has 56 parking spaces total.

Rendering of the MiCA towers on Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago
Courtesy Wheeler Kearns Architects Rendering of the MiCA towers on Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago

TOD is an easy sell to developers and their lenders. “It costs $35,000 to $50,000 per space to build a new parking structure,” says Thomas Kirschbraun, the Chicago-based managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle in the Americas. “Given the chance, builders would rather fill that capacity with more dwelling units and direct further savings to renter amenities.”

And they are. Since 2013, more than 1,000 housing units have been completed or are under construction along the 5-mile stretch of Milwaukee Avenue. Development was inevitable in this part of Chicago but TOD, emphasizing design for walking and biking, accelerated it.

In large swaths of the city’s south and west sides, it will take more than TOD to enliven the streets and rebuild the tax base. Kirschbraun, who sells sites to developers, says distance from Chicago’s Loop and the perception of safety—or lack thereof—hinder commercial and residential development along a number of train lines. The removal of several L stations in these neighborhoods as jobs and population shifted didn’t help, but where the city has begun building new stations again, a rush of development often follows.

Blueprint for a Mill-Town Turnaround
Claremont, N.H., is a 250-year-old mill town of 13,500 located two hours northwest of Boston. Like nearby cities Manchester and the smaller Dover, Claremont was able to retain much of its historic character and human scale through the urban renewal years of the 1960s and 1970s—though the collapse of the textile industry ensured a gradual population decline and a benevolent neglect.

Downtown Claremont, N.H.
David Wilson Downtown Claremont, N.H.

Hemmed in by rivers and topography, it never made sense for Claremont to grow outward. “Over half of the city’s population lives near the center of town,” says director of planning and development Nancy Merrill. These residents exercised patience as the city gradually assumed control of many vacant properties by tax deed, recognizing that the tide would eventually turn.

Indeed, the recent economic recovery aligned with widespread interest in urbanity and adaptive reuse among millennials and startup companies has led to a perfect storm for reinvestment in Claremont. Through requests for proposals, the city invited redevelopment—but then faced snags in the outdated zoning laws relating to mixed uses, parking, and setbacks. “We did it backwards,” Merrill admits. Her office was inundated with requests to work around the codes. With the help of a Sustainable Cities HUD grant, Claremont modified and simplified its zoning in 2012, easing the setback requirement and fostering a centralized mixed-use area that reflects the historical dynamic. “It never made sense that we imposed Euclidian codes on our city center,” Merrill says. “We’re still at the beginning of people looking at these structures and their possibilities under the new zoning.”

To help support its renaissance, Claremont sought state and federal money and struck up public–private partnerships to rebuild water and sewer lines. Community development block grants and brownfield funding helped build a municipal parking structure and propelled many private investments forward. One downtrodden mill building recently reopened as a maker space, a community hub where members can access 3D printing and other design technologies.

Some 125 jobs have been added within the central cluster of mill buildings, and new restaurants, eager for rehabbed historic structures, have opened downtown. The 2010 Census showed a gain in population, a first for Claremont since 1970. “We have a parking problem now,” Merrill jokes.

But what are the revitalization odds for communities lacking an urban center or historic character? “It helps to have what we have,” Merrill stresses, “but I’ve seen plenty of small cities finding ways to create density and sense of place through smart growth.”

Correction: this story original stated an alderman and a developer took a gamble against the wishes of vocal community groups, but leading groups largely supported the Chicago train development. ARCHITECT regrets the error.