Taking on code reform to improve public health in Atlanta

This post originally appeared on the CNU Atlanta website as part one of a three part series leading up the the Healthy Communities Summit, which will be held September 20-21 in Atlanta, GA.  The summit is co-produced by the Atlanta Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Community Design Initiative, with additional support provided by the Georgia Tech Student Planning Association for the Thursday kick-off event. More information about the summit and registration details can be found at the event page.


Most of the development and building codes today were originally created to improve public health. During the 19th and early 20th century, they were used to address infectious diseases and other health risks associated with pollution and poor working or living conditions. While they were effective at addressing the health concerns of the time, many of today’s codes are contributing to the public health challenge of the 21st century: obesity and its impact on chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. At its heart, the New Urbanism movement is about making communities more walkable, more bikeable, and ultimately healthier. If we are to create communities that are no longer auto-oriented, but rather, encourage physical activity, then we must tackle the complex challenge of code reform.

More than almost any other factor, zoning, building, subdivision, public works, fire, and similar codes collectively shape how our communities function for decades. Codes directly and indirectly determine whether or not we can safely walk or bicycle for our daily trips; our ability to stay in our communities as we age; our access to parks and green spaces; the ability of our communities to evolve over time to changing community need; and much, much more. Each of these factors, in turn, affects our physical and mental health by either supporting or discouraging physical activity and socializing opportunities.

CNU Atlanta believes that the reform of our local codes will play a central role in improving the quality of life in our region for years to come. Although other forms of local planning initiatives can remain influential for several years at a time, codes often remain in effect for decades. This allows them to fundamentally reshape the way communities develop or redevelop at little to no cost to public coffers. This also means that fundamentally over time, we can reshape the way we live and the way we move about in our communities.

For New Urbanism to be successful in the Atlanta region, code reform must tackle seven fundamental issues:

  • Transportation, which regulates the design and use of streets and other public ways;
  • Zoning and land use, which affects the development of private land and the character of new buildings on it;
  • Subdivision, which shapes the way that land is subdivided;
  • Emergency access, which impacts community design and public safety;
  • Environmental, which broadly impacts all scales of place making from the building to the region; and
  • Building Codes, which control how buildings are built and renovated, and can directly impact decisions to renovate or demolish existing buildings.

Fortunately, dozens of communities across the region have been working on code reform in recent decades. One example is theCity of Woodstock. For nearly a decade Woodstock has been a leader in implementing progressive codes aimed at legalizing the development of new urban communities. This includes its Downtown Code – a form-based district for the city’s core – and more recent initiatives in the Riverwalk area. Through its code reform efforts, the community has demonstrated how progressive codes can enable the thoughtful, market-responsive development of our communities.

Another community at the forefront of reforming codes to serve the current and future needs of their residents is the north Fulton County City of Milton, which recently became the first city in metro Atlanta to adopt a locally-calibrated SmartCode and Transfer Development Rights ordinance for its historic Crabapple area. Among other things, this flexible code legalizes the community-based Crabapple Visioning Study, preserves open space, and expands the mix of uses in the community. It also supports the creation of new sidewalks, bicycle facilities, off-street multi-use trails, and even equestrian trails so that residents of Crabapple and nearby neighborhoods can access the community’s businesses, schools, and civic uses. Over the long term, this will provide opportunities to incorporate physical activity into the daily lives of residents; expand opportunities for socialization; and improve the area’s quality of life.

The first session of the day at our upcoming Healthy Communities Summit will focus on code reform and actions we can take to bring about a change in the way we live. Click here to learn more about the upcoming event to be hosted by CNU Atlanta on September 20-21, 2012.



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