ReCoding our Cities

Building codes and zoning bylaws can often be a major barrier to sustainable building and planning. If they don't block a project completely, added costs and red-tape can deter all but the largest or most determined developments. While I was in Portland last week, I discovered an interesting group called ReCode Portland. Their aim is to review the city's zoning and building code and to identify and remove barriers to sustainability. But surprisingly, perhaps, they are not based out of a municipal office...

Nestled in the buffer zone that runs around Tryon State Park there is a small farm. The people of Tryon Life Community Farm grow some of their own food, raise goats and chickens, run a kindergarten and an ecological education centre, and live communally in a variety of quirky artistically designed structures. Like many alternative communities it is equal parts hard work, idyllic dream, and zoning nightmare. Simply trying to combine so many different land-uses (residential, agricultural, educational, commercial...) on one small plot put them at odds with state and municipal regulations.

Thanks to support from the community and the city, the farm got a variety of site specific permits to allow them to do what they do. But that didn't satisfy them. Other attempts at creating alternative communities are often based on a certain amount of escapism and a desire to start from scratch (Paolo Soleri's beautiful project is back in the news, for example). Often they get marginalized as a result. Tryon Life went in another direction. Aware of that existing codes and regulations blocked new forms of sustainable urbanism, instead of trying to escape the code, they decided to help change it.

Since being set up a little over a year ago, the ReCode Portland project has attracted a broad base of support beyond the farm, including the local green builders guild, consultants, planners and community members. With a core membership of 14 council members and various other partners, they have successfully applied pressure and worked with the State to begin legalizing greywater use (already permitted in other States like Washington and Arizona). Their sights are now set on State and local codes that block homeowners from adding secondary dwellings, or using sustainable design principles or new materials like passive ventilation or AirKrete walls.

More fundamentally, they are looking for ways to shift codes to support innovation and experimentation. This includes putting in place experimental and owner-builder class permits that would allows greater freedom to chose and test new materials and designs. All of this is geared towards making increased density and efficiency accessible to individual homeowners, so that we can begin to transform the housing stock we already have without depending entirely on major new redevelopments.

The city has recently given ReCode a grant worth close to $10,000 to support their work. While I was there, some joked that it might seem a bit odd for the city to be funding people to be their critics. From what I saw, it was money well spent.

More here.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.