How to learn to interpret zoning code?

technical manual

When I interned as a planning intern for the Town of Moraga, I learned about current planning and the development review process.

Part of a planner’s role is to help applicants (i.e. homeowners, business owners, developers, etc.) who want to build a new project or open a business in the city know what is permitted in a particular parcel or zoning district.

Usually, the city council or planning commission had passed these zoning regulations, so these regulations are a result of a public process that took place when the city first incorporated. Any amendments, additions, or changes to the zoning code after the incorporation of the city also have to go through this public process.

So, essentially, if a person wants to do a project that may not necessarily meet the zoning code: (i.e. the design of the building is too high, the business might attract too much vehicle traffic, the business is not a permitted use stated by zoning code), a planner’s job is to work with the applicant to help meet the code, or if the applicant wishes to keep their project, have it go through the planning commission (a very lengthy process) for approval.

Berkeley’s undergrad urban planning program is known to be very theoretical. There are no courses for undergraduates on development review (you might get know the process exists, but that’s as far as we go). Meaning, this is a topic that is never covered in our classes. I just discovered a few days ago that Cal Poly CRP has a undergraduate course just on Land Use Law:

CRP 420 Land Use Law – 4 units

Public controls protecting natural environmental systems. Land use and environmental controls. Review of control mechanisms. State and federal legislation. Legal implications of controls, public planning and policy issues. 4 lectures. Prerequisite: CRP 212 and upper division standing, or consent of instructor.

Having a course specifically on land use law helps a lot. For me, I had to learn all about municipal code and zoning all on the job, and thus had a higher learning curve. Cal Poly CRP students have the benefit of getting this exposure in school, and once they start working in municipal planning, can easily get their feet wet. 

However, for those who did not graduate from a program like CRP, how do you get better at interpreting zoning code? One shouldn’t spend their time memorizing code. Some tips I gathered, and am still working on:

  • Draw an example of a development that meets or does not meet municipal code: This is a skill that does not get emphasized in planning school, for some reason. Because urban planning deals heavily with the built environment, I think one should practice drawing a project so they can practice communicating what is permitted and what is not in a particular land use.
  • Explain a particular zoning application process to a friend: A lot of times, friends assume urban planning is equivalent to playing SimCity. You can help debunk this myth by talking about a development review process that you or a co-worker took on with your friends. This will help people understand simple things like, “Why can’t we build more housing in San Francisco?”
  • Practice writing emails to applicants helping them understand what aspect of their project needs to be modified to meet the zoning requirements: Much of zoning has a strong legal basis to it. Thus, it’s really important to be good at writing and communicating zoning law – this practice will make it easier for you to talk about municipal code as you build up your career in the planning profession.

Land use law can seem very archaic to most of the public. By practicing this process, it will help you become more knowledgeable about zoning law, and will help you get better at interpreting complex projects over time.

Assistant planners usually start out with the simple projects (i.e. home remodeling), because they are still getting their feet wet over the local city’s zoning code. As you gain more experience and become more comfortable interpreting local zoning code, you will be able to take on more complex projects (housing developments, new office buildings, etc.).

Why big data firms are missing out on a potential market: urban sustainability

ImageThe City of San Francisco has mapped all the trees as part of an effort to map and illustrate the health, water, air quality, and economic benefits of trees. One such site showing these benefits is UrbanForestMap (

Here’s a video explaining what they do:

One thing it should work on is the communications, public relations, and social media, because as an organization which prides itself as a medium for citizen participation. 

  • The Facebook page only has about 900 followers, its Twitter page has about 730 followers, and its Google Plus has only 15 followers, while the City of San Francisco has 825,863 people. In addition, as of today, the last time the FB page was updated was in April 2012.
  • Getting me to go outside to figure out what tree is growing outside, mapping the tree on the website, while a simple easy task, is not a priority for some people, and you need to sell its importance to people in a way people can understand, relate to, and empathize with. 
  • Communicating to the right audience means that you know how to target the people with the right skill-set to improve urban sustainability. For example, big data firms and tech-savy entrepreneurs have barely scratched the surface in terms of tackling urban sustainability. This is a potential market that they are missing out on.

Currently, cities pay consultants to write reports which guide economic and community development (in other words, how cities will look like in 20 or 30 years):


Planning consultants write in large 90 page reports about how a city and particular area will be, how many people will be living near BART, how many people will be working in an area, or where to put parks or plan for open spaces where people will hang out.

First, a majority of people (urban planners even admit this) don’t read these reports.

I argue that big data can empower a generation of people, because by data, you have a medium and are able to tell a story and communicate to a larger audience. Reaching out to this scale means you can influence and create new experiences, inspire others, and change the way we see the world. Big data can be as much as an art.

With big data, as well as a improved communications and public relations strategy, we can empower consumers, and inspire them to take action that improves the quality of life not only for themselves but for the planet.  Imagine impacting 820,000 people in San Francisco.

As one commenter to this video states:

 While many countries publish some of their data to public, it is mostly in document, web page, reports format which is also not linked to other set of information coming even from their own source next time.

What is needed that this is provided as raw data having linkages to other known data sets at least in ministry/ department with a provision of adding new linkages by other departments/ ministeries/ public at large.

This has power to trigger new questions connecting different fields of studies and allowing us to see how new solutions can be built with combined knowledge of many.

Dr. APJ Kalam (Ex-President of India) has proposed to buld a World Knowledge Platform to leverage combined knowledge of all nations to solve world most challenging problems.


Can big data guide city planning?

datasfThe City of San Francisco has released a open data platform where techno-savy  users and firms can use the data to create stunning products and visualizations that help inform the city about how to improve urban issues in the city.

I believe the key is that th(at) cit(ies) should aggressively market to big data firms, as they have the expertise to use technology to better understand how cities work, and guiding better city planning that improves the quality of life of citizens and the planet.

At the same time, big data firms (and big data like projects such as the Urban Tree Map) can communicate with their audience about how to improve the quality of life of the planet, because a better planet means a better quality of life for individuals in the world in the long run. 


Mapping Morsels | A Day In the Life of Linda

Mapping Morsels Draft Map

One of the pieces I’m working on right now is creating a map highlighting how food businesses (grocery stores/restaurants/cafes) create destinations where people come and bring communities together. The above is a draft of a map I’m working on right now,

Through Mapping Morsels, I visualize these themes through the context of Oakland Chinatown. Our main character is Linda, who runs Phnom Penh House Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown.

Every day, to stock up on vegetables and meat, as well as other sauces and herbs, to cook for her customers, she makes a daily grocery trip throughout Chinatown!

For example, one dish is composed of several ingredients purchased from one, two, or three grocery stores throughout Chinatown. Linda has kindly allowed me to map out which stores she goes to as well as which ingredients make up the dishes she buys.

In other words:

Let’s map the ingredients and stores she goes throughout this map:

By showing these connections, viewers/readers will begin to see how food is an integral part of bringing people together. Without these places to purchase or eat food, there is one less place in a city for people to come together, meet up. In fact, I argue restaurants/cafes/grocery stores contribute to a unique identity to a community, as well as bringing economic vitality to a community.

If you think about it, you have to go to a grocery store to purchase your weekly groceries. You go to a cafe or restaurant to bond in an informal setting with your friends and family. These atmospheres are places where you can get away from the daily grind of work. What I wish to accomplish is that we should value these sort of places.

As I work more on these future projects, I hope to create a portfolio of work that bridges the public participation process between government agencies and local community members.

Building a New China Dream

April 29, 2013 — Today China has over 300 million middle class consumers – but that number is expected to grow to more than 800 million by 2025. These changes will put unprecedented pressure on our Earth’s limited natural resources. In this thought-provoking presentation, Peggy Liu, co-founder of the Shanghai-based nonprofit organization JUCCCE and a Time magazine Hero for the Environment, explores efforts she’s leading to re-imagine prosperity and reshape consumerism in China by building a new “China Dream” that preserves resources such as energy, food, land and water for future generations. She also discusses how myth-creation, mass media and collaboration will be keys to transforming lifestyles in China, and around the world.


Peggy Liu is one of my biggest role models in the world, and is doing so much in the environment, in sustainability, in trying to create a vision for the China Dream.

The key thing she uses is that language, how we communicate, tell the story about sustainability is sooo important. You can’t expect to change sustainability own your own: you need to leverage the skillsets, the personalities, and motivations of every person in order to change the way we live our lives.

I’ll edit this post to write a review of some key points she said later in this week.

TEDxTaipei 2013: City of Heartbeats

The TEDxTaipei page recently created a page on a TEDxTaipei event in Daodecheng: City of Heartbeats. A lot of talks are in English, and explicitly tackle with issues related to urban development, environmental sustainability, and design issues. Here’s a bio of the speakers.

Never heard a TEDxTalk that summarized my interests in city planning in Chinese so detailed.

But at the same time, I believe a lot of city planning is still backwards in terms of thinking about cities like this. They are too wrapped in policy, regulation, and property development and profits (as the first video shows) that we forget how to spark imagination about how to make our lives better.

My rationale to go to Taiwan is simple: I want to get a different perspective of the world, meeting other people. In other words, can traveling give me an opportunity, some reflection time, on how to approach city planning in an alternative way?