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Form Over Function

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | November 2, 2017
Economies change quickly, and some of our purpose built structures (gas stations, banks, video stores) have a difficult time withstanding adaptations in consumer fads.  Housing is changing, and entire blocks can suffer when a design that is inconsistent with the architecture in the immediate area is introduced.  While modern zoning and codes are based on use (what goes into the building), form based codes hybridize design form with more limited overtures to the function of the building.
The concepts behind form based code systems aren’t new.  Form based designs were actually how most communities (including Emporia) used to function.  Businesses, industry, housing and organizations were pressed together in compact community designs.  Walking to work, entertainment, school, shopping, and home was a normal activity.  Everything was “close” and communities were built into neighborhoods.  As industries grew, community planning became more segmented.
Now, large scale job areas are often separated from housing.  Major shopping areas are often only accessible by vehicle.  Our homes are located in areas surrounded by other homes, and nothing else.  Our planning process has created pockets of different types of building functions that are disconnected- by design.
In some instances, separating a building function from the general community is good.  You don’t want to put a chemical factory next to a school- for example.  However, planning overreach can lead to community sprawl and a type of engineered cognitive dissonance that fails to comprehend that PEOPLE drive both economies and communities.  For example, we know that housing adjacent to downtown areas creates customers for downtown businesses, helps facilities extend hours, and improves the sustainability of entertainment venues.  We also know that entrepreneurs thrive in areas where they are in close proximity to other entrepreneurs with a built environment that encourages a free exchange of ideas.
New ways of looking at development were encouraged within the Community Initiated Development plan for downtown, and early drafts of the joint City of Emporia/Lyon County Land Use planning also place a premium on form based concepts.  The reasons for changing planning tactics are numerous:
1. We spend more on fuel than most parts of the country because of our physical disconnect between necessary entities (home, work, shopping, entertainment, etc.), and the increase in fuel cost per household reduces disposable income- thus hurting the local economy.
2.  A lack of “mixture” between different types of areas means that we lack exposure to recreational, social, or other types of economic based activities.  Isolation doesn’t just impact personal happiness- it can impact volunteerism, membership in social organizations, entrepreneurship and more.  Citizens are generally happier AND more productive in communities that are better connected.
3.  Segmentation of building types is a reflection of hierarchical thinking.  This older model of management and development viewed a single machine, a single person, or a single building completing a single task or providing a single function.  We know that newer organic thought processes (and corresponding development processes) emphasize flexibility and multiple functions.  Your “phone” isn’t just a phone.  Your home may be your office.  Your retail business may also function as your production facility, warehouse, and shipping station.  Your local coffee shop may serve the dual purpose as an extension of an office or meeting facility.  Organic thinking requires more organic development.
4.  Separation hurts retention.  Ask a local industry what happens during severe weather when their employees (separated by a significant distance from their place of employment) can’t get to work.  When people move to jobs in other areas, factors like wages play a part, but many community residents cite their reason for moving as “I didn’t feel connected to the community.”  Segmentation is a design choice that can negatively impact the sustainability of a city.
Development models evolve as economies change.  We have good folks trying their best to enforce current rules and regulations, but by looking at alternative methods, we may be able to better utilize existing infrastructure and create a more livable community.  It’s at least worth a discussion…

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.