FrameWORK: Urban Form and Neighborhood Design - Part Deux

on May 19, 2015

In Part 1 of this article, we familiarized you with Urban Form and Neighborhood Design Chapter (Chapter 5) of the General Plan Framework. The purpose of the chapter is to promote design excellence in communities throughout the City, while maintaining neighborhood form and character. However, the Framework does not directly address the design of individual neighborhoods, but instead embodies design policies and implementation programs to guide the City’s Community Plans. This second part of the article presents several plans, guidelines, and other documents the Department of City Planning has produced to further promote design excellence.

The Urban Design Studio of the Department of City Planning has been central in assisting in development of good urban form and neighborhood design. Since founded in 2006, the Studio’s mission is to guide change to build a better, more livable city. In fact, some of the documents we’ll describe below were produced by Urban Design Studio.

Urban Design Studio has compiled ten Urban Design Principles for 21st Century Los Angeles as an extension of the framework, intended to link policy and the built and open environment. The Urban Design Principles addresses the space between buildings and not just the space within property lines. They enhance the connections between buildings, Modes of Transportation, and the Public Realm. As a key factor in the planning process, they assist in understanding the vision for the City and were the first step in drafting design guidelines for the City. As we present the several documents below, you’ll see that the three overarching themes of the principles (movement, health, and resilience) tie the documents together. Many of these guidelines serve as suggestions, allowing the flexibility to choose those which are applicable and relevant to individual projects. Incorporating Guidelines into a Project’s design encourages design that fits with the neighborhood, as well as a pleasant street environment and “sense of place.”

Citywide Design Guidelines

The Citywide Design Guidelines are comprised of three documents: Residential, Commercial, and Industrial Guidelines, aiming to preserve neighborhood character and scale, and promote urban design excellence in buildings, landscape, open space, and public space. These guidelines carry out the common design objectives that maintain neighborhood form and character and promote creative Infill Development solutions. All three documents prioritize pedestrian activity by focusing much less on the automobile-centric aspects of developement and site planning. Pedestrian-oriented design considers landscape and open space, among other factors, as essential concepts in order to highlight the visual attractiveness of the existing neighborhood as experienced by those using the sidewalks.


Streetscape scene of multiple-family residential with building articulation and street trees

The Residential Citywide Design Guidelines help to maximize Sustainability in multi-family developments and establish building height and massing transitions from higher intensity uses, for instance multi-family or commercial uses to lower Intensity uses such as single-family residential. The Guidelines prioritize pedestrian–oriented design, rather than the automobile, as the cornerstone of design. Landscaping and open space are established as essential design concepts from the outset of a project, highlighting the role that quality building design can play in creating visually interesting and attractive multi-family buildings. These focus points contribute to existing neighborhood character, creating a “sense of place.”


High density multiple-family residential

The Commercial Citywide Design Guidelines aim to enhance the quality of the pedestrian experience along commercial corridors. It nurtures an overall active street presence and protects and conserves the neighborhood architectural character. These goals are manifested by establishing height and massing transitions between residential and commercial buildings, maintaining visual and spatial relationships with adjacent buildings, and optimizing opportunities for high-quality infill development. This, in turn, strengthens the visual and functional quality of the commercial environment within the context of our neighborhoods.


Cover of Industrial Citywide Design Guidelines with loft style industrial buildings

The Industrial Citywide Design Guidelines aim to minimize and screen nuisance and unsightly appearance of industrial activity, improve the safety of pedestrians along industrial corridors, and promote adequate and safe vehicular access and maneuverability. The guidelines help protect and conserve the neighborhood architectural character while promoting functional connectivity between buildings. Establishing height and massing buffers and transitions between industrial and non-industrial buildings helps accomplish this, thereby strengthening the visual and functional quality of the industrial environment.

Designing a Healthy LA

Designing a Healthy LA cover with image of a scale with the city on one side and "Designing a Healthy LA" on the other side.

Designing a Healthy LA addresses the potential of the physical environment to contribute to significant improvements in the health and well-being of our residents. This document targets specific strategies addressing the way we move, eat, and think about our communities. It also includes strategies to improve the design of our streets, buildings and neighborhoods in relation to our personal health and the overall well-being of our city.

Downtown Design Guide

Downtown Design Guide cover with aerial image and streetscape scenes

The Downtown Design Guidelines is comprised of both standards and guidelines crafted by our Department in coordination with the (former) Community Redevelopment Agency, Board of Public Works, and the Department of Transportation, providing guidance in creating a Livable Downtown. The document focuses on the relationship of buildings to the street, including sidewalk features, character of the building as it adjoins the sidewalk, and connections to transit. Projects that do not adhere to this document, but demonstrate a clear alternative approach that achieves all the objectives of the Design Guide, are recognized as valid alternatives. The successful integration of these features, coupled with particular attention to design in the first 30-40 vertical feet from ground level, forms the basis for providing high-quality, human-scale development.

Downtown Street Standards

Downtown Street Standards cover with aerial of city and street scenes

The Downtown Street Standards assist in updating the Central City Community Plan street designations based on a more comprehensive street hierarchy that balances traffic flow with other equally important functions of the street. The standards address pedestrian needs, public transit routes and stops, and bicycle routes. Other design functions include historic districts with fixed building street walls, the public face and “front yard” of business and pedestrian environments, and open space.

Small Lot Design Guidelines

Small Lot Design Guidelines cover with scenes of modern small lot buildings

The Small Lot Design Guidelines address the spatial complexities of constructing fee-simple housing on compact multi-family and commercially zoned lots. They promote the design of a specific building type while maintaining neighborhood compatibility. Neighborhood compatibility for small lot design consists of a series of recommendations for single-family homes developed without the typical setback, open space, passageways, building transitions, parking and driveways, building design and materials, access, and urban form requirements. Space constraints for this development type require innovative design solutions that emphasize walkability throughout the subdivision, with pedestrian-friendly walkways and minimal driveways. For instance, challenges of neighborhood context and adjacent structures helps to address thoughtful design concerning building mass, height, and transitional areas. These guidelines help decision-makers ensure that a project is compatible with the surrounding community.

Walkability Checklist

Walkability Checklist cover with image of person walking

The Walkability Checklist provides strategies that projects should employ to improve the pedestrian environment in the public right-of-way and on private property. Aiming to “enhance the streets from the inside and out,” the checklist addresses: public sidewalks, crosswalks, building orientation, street and on-site parking, landscaping, and building features such as lighting and signage. While the Checklist is neither a requirement, nor part of the Zoning Code, it provides a guide to help implement the General Plan policies in the Framework.

Transportation Neighborhood Plans

Transit Neighborhood Plans logo

As suggested in the Framework’s Urban Form and Neighborhood Design Chapter, the Department of City Planning has been developing Transit Neighborhood Plans along transit corridors. Currently, the Transit Neighborhood Plans are being produced for areas surrounding ten transit stations along the Exposition and Crenshaw Light Rail lines. These Plans are implementation tools to encourage increased development intensity within a half-mile (or a 15 minute walk) of the transit stations, also called Transit Oriented Developments. Transit Oriented Developments are a mixture of housing, retail, and commercial uses, and amenities integrated into a walkable community. The Plans require new development to include pedestrian orientation and improve the street configuration to better promote pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular circulation. Metro’s First Last Mile Strategic Plan provides further detail on infrastructure improvements for transit neighborhoods.

Complete Streets Design Guide

The City has developed a few programs that rethink and reimagine the street grid environment. Mobility Plan 2035, an element of the Los Angeles General Plan, provides a roadmap for achieving a transportation system that balances the needs of all road users via six main goals: 1) safety first; 2) world class infrastructure; 3) access for all Angelenos; 4) collaboration, communication, and informed choices; 5) clean environments; and 6) smart investments.

Among the initiatives in Mobility Plan 2035 are Complete Streets Design Guide, which discuss and lay the policy foundation for interaction with Los Angeles streets. The Guide provide safe and efficient transportation for all types of users, ranging from the most vulnerable such as children, seniors, and the disabled to bicyclists, transit riders, cars, and truck drivers.

The Guide will encourage the City to begin “to live within its means” by working within existing roadway widths to accommodate a balance of all modes of transportation, and to meet the needs of all users (pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and motorists) within the right-of-way. The standards found in the Complete Streets Design Guide represent “best practices” across the country and are a launching point for the City’s implementation of a Complete Streets program.



The new Downtown Code and Citywide Zoning Code will be key policy implementation tools. re:code LA will incorporate existing regulations, standards, and key guidelines into provisions which accomplish these same goals. The Downtown Design Guidelines will be the first of many to be incorporated into the new Zoning Code. An example of how the new Downtown Code will integrate existing documents is the absorption of Downtown Design Guide 4.A.(4) which states that “Where retail streets intersect other streets, the ground floor retail space should wrap the corner onto the intersecting streets,” thus, influencing a new Form Typology that is tailored to the unique site conditions, which in this case is a potential "shopfront" frontage standard. This type illustrates the direction re:code LA is going by drafting the new Downtown Code, expected to be released for public comment in Fall of 2015.



Density: The average number of families, persons, or housing units per unit of land.

Form Typology: Building types that have regulations on dimensions, parking locations, and design features which are influenced by geographical designations based on scale, character, intensity, and form of development.

Infill Development: Development of new housing or other buildings on scattered or vacant sites in a built-up area.

Intensity: A measure of the degree of development on a site.

Livable: Safe streets, stress-free places for all ages and all modes of travel. A place people enjoy spending time in their local community.

“A livable neighborhood is one where you need not fear that your children will be hit by cars.” - City of Los Angeles Mobility Plan 2035, page 38

Modes of Transportation: Transportation network that meets the needs of all users of streets, roads, and highways, i.e., bicyclists, children, persons with disabilities,  motorists, movers of commercial goods, pedestrians, users of public transportation, and seniors.

Public Realm: All land owned by the government.

Sustainability: Development that maintains or enhances economic opportunity and confers well-being while protecting and restoring the natural environment upon which people and economies rely. Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Transit-Oriented Development: Focusing redevelopment and new construction around transit nodes, enhancing access to mass transit options, helping curb car usage, and encouraging mixed-use neighborhoods.