One of the things that Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City impressed upon me is how much the narrative of cities as blighted, troubled, or hopelessly corrupt environments was simply the product of serially poor policy making. City Lab illustrates how to effectively deal with policies that inhibit growth:

Comes now Andrés Duany, the cigar-chomping, Cuban-born architect who was a founding member of CNU, with yet another addition to the planning lexicon: lean urbanism. Funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation, Duany is currently on the lecture circuit in an attempt to raise awareness about the red tape that so often stands in the way of even modest projects to improve urban neighborhoods. …

The lean urbanism concept, he says, is like a software patch, or a workaround – ultimately a guide or a tip sheet to navigate the complicated, and often very expensive, maze of working in the built environment in the U.S. “It’s about knowing that with certain building types, under a certain threshold, you don’t need an elevator. Or a sprinkler system. A lot of developers know that, and we want to daylight that. We want to present that thematically.”

A sort of public policy Wikipedia for people who want to improve their properties or their neighborhoods. Duany makes his point by comparing the lack of sophisticated city development policy with the sort of latitude frequently granted to private, suburban developers:

“The master developer of a planned unit development in the suburbs – all of that has been pre-negotiated,” to bypass all kinds of rules. “We don’t do that in cities,” Duany says.

And an illustration of who is really served through policy “modernization:”

“Infrastructure has become so gold-plated and extraordinarily expensive,” Duany says. “Now, they will say the rules are necessary to protect health and safety. But we’re going to do the empirical studies to show that’s not the case. Take the electrical code. Most of us are living with the old electrical code, and we’re just fine. Electrical wires run in tubes, originally 30 amps, then 60 amps. You could pull it through the same tubes. Now it’s 120 amps, and the wires don’t fit in the tubes anymore. If you have an apartment or an apartment building and you want to renovate, you have to rip up everything. How many are being burned alive under the old code? Nobody. The rationale is to require things that are gold-plated. And the people who show up at the hearings are the electricians.”

Public policy matters because it shapes our neighborhoods and towns and cities. It shapes our civic identity. If Duany can help demystify some of the policies that complicate smaller-scale development, we’ll be better for it.