If he were to be dropped off in almost any major American city, chances are that A. Lawton Langford would look around and recognize his handiwork. “I’d recognize the set-back requirements, the run-off systems, the water-holding facilities,” he says.
Langford is president and CEO of Municipal Code Corporation (MCC), in Tallahasee, Florida. The company is, for all intents and purposes, a publisher – the significant bread-winning arm of its operation is a printing and binding business. But it is what the company publishes, and the process by which it does so, that gives MCC such influence over the way American cities look.
“Out of that company emanates more sheer architectural control than any other place on earth,” says Andrés Duany, principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk, and a founder of the urban-planning thinktank the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).
MCC is arguably the largest of the roughly two-dozen “codification” companies currently operating in the United States. It compiles, reviews, and publishes the codes and ordinances of American municipalities: everything from zoning codes to police procedures. MCC has published codes for more than 2,600 cities and counties in 49 states. Among these cities are Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, and San Antonio, and some clients have been with MCC since its founding, in March of 1951. Its influence is not simply wide; it is also deeply engrained over time.
MCC’s innocuous-looking promotional literature – with photos of stern people in business suits paging through enormous three-ring binders — describes the company as “the nation’s leading publisher of local government Codes of Ordinance.” In other words, MCC’s staff of 16 attorneys consults with cities, counties, or any local political body to create the documents of governance – books of local laws and codes, city employee handbooks, and procedural manuals — and to ensure that existing and proposed laws and codes do not conflict with state or federal laws. Most of its clients commission MCC to review and compile all of its ordinances at once – from electric codes to sanitation.
To the average American citizen – even to the average American architect – MCC’s work might seem mundane. But when one begins to consider how much of the American urban landscape has been touched by its work, one realizes that the company’s influence seeps from every emergency exit and every sidewalk.
MCC is an extremely modest company – it does not market itself as anything other than a publisher. Even when pressed to ruminate on the enormity of his company’s reach, Langford remains humble. “We don’t consider ourselves a planning firm, or specialists in urban design,” says Langford simply. “We publish codes of ordinance for local legal bodies.” As evidence of MCC’s lack of pretense, the company’s web site, alongside its startling list of clients, provides a downloadable 300-page cookbook – Codin’ and Cookin’ – with recipes culled from five decades of staff gatherings.
In 1926, the landmark supreme-court case Ambler Realty v. Village of Euclid determined that a zoning ordinance is constitutional provided it reasonably relates to the public health, safety, and welfare. R. John Anderson, a self-described new-urbanist developer and architect in Chico, California, finds his work regularly frustrated by zoning codes. The Ambler case, he says, happened at a time “when American cities were straining under the mills, and you had to divide tenements from where they smelted iron or slaughtered hogs. Now that we’ve learned more about making industry work, we have a hangover from this era.”
The hallmark of mainstream zoning as it is most often applied today, Anderson explains, is a set of guidelines which regulate every new site and new development in the same way. “Most zoning has to do with what happens on a specific piece of property,” Anderson says. “The current system is a lowest-common-denominator approach, built into each parcel of land as it comes in.” The result, Anderson says, is that “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”
Zoning spreads by imitation, and American zoning has grown more and more homogenous over the years. Most municipal codes – zoning included – are adopted by cities in a process of casual mimicry.
“We’ve come to realize that codes spread primarily by xerox machines,” says Duany. “Whenever a code is adopted by a municipality, it enters the public domain and other municipalities are free to copy it.”
“Your average planning guy, working on parking, calls up the next town, and asks what their minimum parking requirement is,” Anderson says. “Pretty soon, everyone’s got the same parking requirement.”
It is simply cheaper and easier for a city to emulate the guidelines of other cities than to invent them from scratch, and MCC has inadvertently grown into an enormous clearing-house of such guidelines.
From city to city, MCC’s role varies greatly – sometimes acting as an active consultant, sometimes as a passive compiler of existing codes. But the company is always a treasure trove of information, says William Kearns, municipal attorney for Willingborough and Florence, New Jersey. MCC is “a resource for sample ordinances that have been adopted by other cities,” Kearns says. “They’ve got an incredible library of ordinances that have been implemented elsewhere.”
“We deal with about 3,500 ordinances a month,” says MCC’s Langford. “All the topics have been covered. They may have local variations, but the extent to which cities are trying to find something new – that’s usually pretty limited.”
When a city or county decides that it needs to either review its codes and ordinances, or begins to suspect that its codes and ordinances are insufficient to account for the changing times, it is then a potential MCC customer.
Charlotte, North Carolina is mid-way through a three-year, ground-up review of its codes. MCC is being paid roughly $80,000 for its role – helping the city rewrite its codes, chapter by chapter. Jan Shekitka, one of MCC’s 16 staff attorneys, reads every existing Charlotte ordinance – identifying obsolescence, conflicts with state or federal law, and gaps in the law. For each chapter, Shekitka sits with a different team of city officials, and it is in those conversations that the company’s influence, communicated in the most humble of terms, takes place.
“When we start every new chapter, they do an analysis memo,” explains Mac McCarley, Charlotte city attorney. “The memo points out inconsistencies, and they show us the best practices from other cities they’ve dealt with.” Charlotte has not yet begun its zoning chapter, but in other areas of code, MCC has played a significant role, and the zoning chapter should be no different. “A code company is in a unique position to help us out with new ideas,” says McCarley. “MCC showed us the polices on email restrictions and Internet use that other cities are using. We went with their idea, because at that point, they had done those ordinances for hundreds of other cities.” Charlotte will be implementing a wide range of MCC suggestions – from how to handle rave parties to methods of disposing solid waste – and McCarley has nothing but praise for the company’s services.
The CNU deems the company so powerful that it has forged an alliance with MCC to help proliferate a CNU-written zoning code, called the Smart Code. “Once we discovered what MCC was,” says Duany, “our strategy was to make use of it as one would a transmitter.”
The Smart Code was written initially as the zoning code of Sarasota, Florida, but it is intended as a model code – a prototype to be copied by other cities. It is based on the concept of what CNU calls a “transect” – a taxonomy of zones which extend from wilderness areas to the urban core of a city. This taxonomy allows for a more specialized and diverse set of development areas than the industrial, residential, and commercial zones into which traditional American zoning codes divide a city. The transect, in the words of the code’s authors, enables “environmentalists to assess the design of the human habitat and the urbanists to support the viability of nature.” The Smart Code gives equal attention to both the repurposing of existing developments, and the construction of greenfield projects. In this way, CNU argues, the smart code seeks to increase the range of options available to developers and architects from city to city, as compared to the same-rules-for-every-development idea inherent to conventional zoning codes.
“The United States is coded to the hilt and these codes create sprawl.” Duany says. “But they sound so objective that you wouldn’t know it until you try to build something other than sprawl.”
“I was doing a charette in Atlanta about four years ago when I ran across that Koolhaas piece from the Harvard GSD magazine extolling Atlanta’s architects for all the freedom that they have,” he says. “It was ironic that I was just then counting the couple of dozen variances that would be required to build the traditional community we were designing. For the first time I realized that Koolhaas was making sprawl acceptable by reconceptualizing it as the avant garde position. It was utterly irresponsible.” MCC has been Atlanta’s codification company for decades, and Duany and his colleagues hope that by providing the Smart Code to the MCC, thousands of cities like Atlanta will have it suggested to them as a possible alternative to the status quo, at the moment of greatest potential influence.
Duany talks about mainstream zoning as if it were a virus of sprawl, raging through the country in an invisible wave of infection. But rather than blame the virus’s vector, the CNU, perhaps very wisely, has chosen to spread its own contagion. Langford, meanwhile, seems to consider the CNU just another partner, and their Smart Code just another product. When asked whether he’s considered how influential his company’s work is on American architecture, Langford is silent a moment, and then he reveals a startling statistic. “We have the names and address of 15,000 people who use the information we write, and probably a third of them are architects,” he offers. The number is an afterthought, however. “They’re not paying our bills, and they’re not our primary customers,” he says. “But the connection is there.”