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?

Advice for aspiring urban studies undergraduates

Wurster Hall, CED

Now that I’m graduating from CED, with a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies, I’d like to give some few tips of advice (very urban studies specific) for those who are going to come to Cal.

1) Don’t focus too much on networking with as many people as you can, but focus on creating strong relationships with people you can click well with as well as people that will help you grow. 

I think people get really tempted to want to meet as many people as you can. However, the most interesting experiences I’ve had have been through establishing strong mentors that have helped me grew for several years as I went through my undergraduate studies at Cal.

How to determine if you have a right mentor? Can you relate to the person you are communicating with? Can they empathize with you as a student? Do they have a lot of years of experience and have great insight in a particular industry? Do they also know a lot of other people that can help you in the future? Can you develop long conversations about them professionally, academically, and (sometimes) personally?

One way to find mentors is to attend networking events, and then strike some conversations, light talk with several people. Get their business cards, then identify one or two people you want to have coffee with. Then, you can get a sense of their personality; do you feel comfortable with them? Is there anything you can learn from them?

Also, don’t get too stressed about this process. It’s not that scary as it seems. Employers know that you guys are just students and are just learning about the profession.

2) Do not specialize too early (i.e. I’m going to be a housing guy, versus I’m going to be a transportation guy), and take a variety of classes in different specializations, as well as do internships to get a sense of how you feel about specializations. After working at least several internships (in the real world) then you can start narrowing down what makes most sense to you.

For example, I once enjoyed transportation planning, but after talking to some professionals and friends, dabbling into some internships, taking and practicing drawing courses, that I prefer urban design. However, I need to work for several years to decide further.

3) Get comfortable, drawing, sketching, as soon as you can. 

Regardless of if you do urban design (or not), you are planning for places people live, work, and play. You need to know how to communicate your ideas visually to a larger audience, or different stakeholders. You don’t have to be artistically inclinations like these guys, but be comfortable sketching your ideas.

4) Do not feel pressured to get into graduate school immediately.

Life is better if you take your time and really make your decisions based on your experiences in the real world.

5) Don’t also feel compelled to immediately get into a really kick-ass position early; this takes a lot of time. 

6) Study abroad as early as you can, preferably your sophomore year. Do an entire year.

Go outside your university study abroad office as you will get a better variety of choices. See this article on Americans and why we don’t travel enough for more details

7) If you are interested in international urban planning, start studying a language ASAP. 

This is especially true if you want an overseas position in urban planning; fluency in a foreign language as well as internship experiences in your home country will be key in securing a job after graduation.

8) Make friends with your fellow urban studies majors! They are awesome, cool, chill, and really kind. 

What I really enjoy about my program is that you meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds. The smallness of our program makes it really easy to know everybody closely. Develop strong relationships with them; in the long run, they’ll be great people to lean on when times are tough, or you need advice, or you just want to hang out with, or maybe potential job offers.

It’s time to change the way we talk about sustainability

Sustainability is dead. Or at least the entire language we use to talk about it should be buried.

Sustainability messaging must shift hard from a focus on abstract responsibility to one that helps people make subconscious choices that make them feel good about themselves. We need to speak to the heart, not to the head. From Peggy Liu, JUCCCE (Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy) (link)

So, I have a question for you guys:

How can you talk about saving the planet in a way that relates to the people you are talking to?

For example: getting people out of cars, walking/biking to work, living close to transit in order to reduce greenhouse gases, is not only too abstract, but it creates a very negative vision, a sense of fear, a very unrealistic vision (at least in the US) that may not work and seem idealistic.

What about…

Creating a lifestyle that allows parents more time to spend with kids, save money for the experiences that matter such as vacations, exercising/playing in the park, hanging out and watching a movie nearby.

Sustainability needs to connect with the emotions, people’s actual needs, not abstract concepts that come from our professions simply that is based on us telling what people should do.

As a city planner, I think we could learn something from the field of marketing/advertising; unfortunately, we’re so far off from people’s lives, focusing on really abstract concepts such as “urban design”, “transit-oriented development”, “form-based codes”, “getting people onto transit”, without really painting a picture of what sort of lifestyles that people can aspire to that is healthy to the planet and ourselves in the long run. 

The question is, what does a sustainable lifestyle really look like?

From the article:

Suzanne Shelton, an American pollster and behavior change specialist, talks about how humor may be more effective than education at breaking habits. She says, “Knowing a thing doesn’t mean you will do a thing.” Perhaps the biting wit of TV comedians Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert could be used to make fun of shameful unsustainable behavior.


In pointing out what makes a successful movie, Phillip Muhl, a major movie executive formerly of Disney, says that no one wants to watch a movie where the world is going to end and we’re all going to die. But we all love a good drama that shows us how screwed we can be, and yet the human race still perseveres. We go to movies for hope. How can environmentalists move from climate-weary white papers to magnetic box office–style stories?


The team behind the new Battlestar Galactica was brilliant in the way it allowed glimmers of hope in the midst of so much despair. Similarly, the human drama of everyday life on an Earth being stripped of resources must be told in a compelling way. Instead of the drama of polar bears or rising PM2.5 statistics, we must tell the story of us.

It’s time to start questioning not just what world we will leave behind, but what dreams we will shape for our children. To do that, we need to leave sustainability jargon behind and take up the language of hope.

What does a sustainable lifestyle really look like? How can we visualize it, understand it, and connect to it to start making small decisions today?

We have to be very craft-ful with our language, how we craft a story, that people can relate to and connect with. If anything, let’s start changing the way we can communicate sustainability.

Let’s start talking about lifestyles that is healthy for us as well as the earth.