Beyond Boundaries: imagining a new communal typology with Peter Yi

From good fences, to good spaces, architect Peter Yi presents a reimagining of suburban space allowing people to customize their living and recreation space to meet their family’s needs. Single family zoning has been prevalent in 20th-century planning, shaping a large portion of the buildable land in the U.S. Peter Yi’s project, Courtyard Block, proposes a denser and community-focused urban design, integrating shared green spaces within residential areas.

Key Topics

  1. Zoning’s Impact: Zoning significantly influences city development and equity in neighborhoods, dictating what can be built and where.
  2. Understanding Zoning: Zoning is a set of regulations governing the built environment, crucial for architects and builders in designing and constructing buildings.
  3. Single Family Zoning Dominance: Single family zoning has been prevalent in 20th-century planning, shaping a large portion of the buildable land in the U.S.
  4. Negative Consequences: Single family zoning has led to issues like social inequity, housing affordability, and environmental problems due to suburban sprawl.
  5. Redefining Housing Freedom: Eliminating single family zoning is about offering more building options to meet diverse family needs, not about abolishing single family homes.
  6. Courtyard Block Concept: Peter Yi’s project, Courtyard Block, proposes a denser and community-focused urban design, integrating shared green spaces within residential areas.
  7. Historical Context: The project draws from past housing models like Los Angeles’s bungalow courts, blending old and new design philosophies.
  8. Zoning Reform Movements: Various cities are exploring zoning reforms, like reducing parking requirements and allowing more flexible land use, to foster diverse and responsive urban environments.
  9. Design and Policy Integration: Courtyard Block illustrates how design can visualize and test the potential of zoning reforms, offering a toolkit for innovative urban living.
  10. Future Vision: The conversation emphasizes the need for continuous dialogue among residents, builders, and officials to evolve urban planning and zoning policies, reflecting a collective vision for sustainable and inclusive communities.

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Show notes & links

Guest Bio

De Peter Yi is the founder of the research and design practice Rebuild Collective, and an Assistant Professor in Architecture at the University of Cincinnati. He is a first-generation immigrant to the United States, where his experiences growing up in low-income and cooperative housing communities continue to inspire and inform his work. His research uncovers how individual acts of building scale to collective social and environmental impact through both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. His recent work includes writing, workshops, and design projects that engage the public with municipalities to advance material reuse, zoning reform, and new housing models. Previously, he was a co-founder and co-director of 1+1+Architects in Detroit, the Sanders Research Fellow at the University of Michigan, and a designer with Studio Gang Architects in Chicago. He is the author of Building Subjects, a book on resident-adapted collective housing typologies in China.



[00:00:00]Journey With Purpose: FAR, ADU, setbacks sidewalls, side yards. Height restrictions. No, it’s not some secret code. It’s zoning. Zoning are the rules and regulations, which constrain or allow you to build. Or not build. On your land. It’s a hidden force, which deeply impacts how we live in cities, how equitable our neighborhoods are and what we can even do in our own homes. Welcome to journey with purpose episode 19. I’m your host, Randy Plemel Today I speak with Peter Yi, an assistant professor of architecture at my Alma mater the university of Cincinnati. Peter’s work deals with my favorite quasi obsession building typologies and zoning.

Typologies are groupings of buildings, which are based on their characteristics, how they function or how they look. Peter has a new way of looking at the single family home. [00:01:00] Peter welcome to the pod. Please introduce yourself and where we are speaking to you from.

Peter Yi: I’m Peter Yi. I am calling from Cincinnati, Ohio, where I currently teach as assistant professor of architecture at UC

Journey With Purpose: Speaking to you today about zoning reform. And this can be a, nerdy type thing. The New York city zoning code is like a giant book. But it’s really important because it shapes our cities for people who don’t know what zoning is can you give us a thumbnail of what is zoning and why is it important to you and your colleagues?

Peter Yi: zoning is the underlying protocol that governs how our built environment is built. And I think most homeowners don’t encounter zoning code. It’s really the builders and the architects who read it, interpret it and determine what could be built on your lot and translate that [00:02:00] into design building and an architectural proposal.

For example, zoning code could include regulations such as setback requirements. Maximum building envelopes, maximum height density, even aspects such as the style of architecture and what it looks like.

Journey With Purpose: So it’s, seems like it’s the underlying rules and regulations that, help construct our city.

Peter Yi: Correct. And zoning also dictates what uses of program can go next to each other’s. So in the single family zoning research that I’m looking at, one of the main issues is it has. Restricted the type of housing construction and activity that can be utilized in a certain given area of.

Journey With Purpose: Talk to us about single family zoning. There’s a lot in the news around, Say California or Minneapolis or other localities getting rid of single family zoning. [00:03:00] So what does that mean to us who might not be, steeped in this day to day?

Peter Yi: Single family zoning is a land use regulation that I would say has dominated a majority of 20th century planning and construction. In fact, large quantity of buildable land in the United States it’s currently still used for a single family zoning. And when we talk about getting rid of single family zoning, it’s not as black and white as just simply outlawing it or erasing it. It’s more of an incremental series of changes that cities have undertaken to rewrite or ameliorate some of the harms that single family zoning only land has inflicted upon our built environment.

Downside of single family zoning

Journey With Purpose: according to the census in 2021 70% of all housing units in America were single family homes, [00:04:00] almost 90 million homes. Peter, can you share with us what the downside of single family zoning might be?

Peter Yi: So the downsides of single family zoning range from social to ecological questions. On the social side, there’s restrictive covenants redlining, and exclusionary zoning, which has exasperated some of the social equity concerns around housing and housing affordability that we still face today.

And then on the environmental side, single family zoning is often associated with suburban sprawl, which has perpetuated a car dependent form of living that has also led to other environmental issues.

Freedom isn’t the SFH

Journey With Purpose: I always remind people that getting rid of single family detached zoning isn’t about getting rid of single family homes. But rather giving people more freedom to build different types of homes, which matched their family’s needs. Maybe they need [00:05:00] another unit for their elders to live nearby. Maybe they need a workspace. Isn’t getting rid of single family zoning more about returning us to a level of freedom we had until very recently.

Peter Yi: Yes, I think that is a fair characterization. It’s more about creating additional options. I think our imagination of what housing could be. Has been stifled in some ways by a dominant narrative of what the American dream is and what that looks like in a form of housing. So there’s a term that has been popularized in the recent years called missing middle housing and broadly it defines the range of housing types that exist between the single family house and a larger apartment block or condo building.

And these types. In many cases were actually popular in earlier years and centuries of American history, but over the course [00:06:00] of the 20th century, they have been slowly erased from our urban and also ex urban fabrics.

Wisdom from our elders

Journey With Purpose: I’m speaking to you from Queens New York, which you might think of in your mind’s eye as lots of really high rises, which they’re around us, but I’m actually in an accessory dwelling unit in ADU, in the back of an apartment building. My contention is that by rewinding the clock back to a time right before the wars, and reinstituting and a land use policy that we used for generations. Isn’t really a new thing, but more of a rediscovery of wisdom from our elders. Am I far off on this.

Peter Yi: I like to see it as a continuum between the past, present and future. So as you mentioned, there are past models and typologies of housing that are.

There’s also the present, which is if you really look at our [00:07:00] neighborhoods and our cities, there are very unique ways that residents, individuals and organizations have reconfigured the existing bill environment and there are hidden forms of living and socializing tucked away into our backyards.

And then in terms of the future, what I’m really interested in is the wave of zoning reform policy that is manifesting in different ways in different cities. This ranges from eliminating parking requirements in cities like Austin, eliminating single family zoning in cities like Minneapolis, and also in California where I have been focusing a lot of my research, where the state is now allowing homeowners to split their lots and build two units on each split lot. So it’s a really fascinating merging of the past, the present and the future and thinking about how all of this can work together to [00:08:00] create better, more diverse and responsive built environment.

Courtyard Block

Journey With Purpose: I love for you to share with us your project courtyard block. Which I think is a great example of situating the past, present and future in a speculative design artifact.

Peter Yi: Courtyard block is an attempt to imagine what housing could look like through merging the past, present and future. In terms of the past, it revitalizes some of the courtyard housing typologies that were more popular in Los Angeles in the early 20th century called the bungalow court. Looking at the present, it Reimagines a typical R1 single family zoned block in Los Angeles and analyzes the ways that backyards, front yards are configured and thinks about if we were to introduce more [00:09:00] density into the block, what that could look like.

And in terms of the future, it utilizes recently passed data zoning reform legislation called Senate Bill 9 that allows residents to split their single family lots into two lots and build more housing on each lot. So the design itself takes all these components and creates a denser interior of an entire single family zone block and organizes this density around shared patches of green space. courtyard block makes the observation that currently every single house has its own private backyard demarcated by fences. So the design proposes that when we densify the backyards, the screen space becomes more precious, and there’s an opportunity to combine shared use of green spaces, hence why they’re called courtyards. [00:10:00] And these green spaces could be based on mutually beneficial agreements between neighbors. So this is a proposal essentially for erasing the private fence and replacing them with other types of uses, other types of green space.


Journey With Purpose: Part of this proposal rests on assuming that you can get along with, or perhaps even your friends with your neighbors. What are the potential downsides or complications or barriers to this proposal?

Peter Yi: You bring up a really good point especially in how you say this is dependent on individual agency, a homeowner or two neighbors saying, Hey, this looks like something that I want to try. The design is proposed as a tool, as an option for homeowners to think about new ways to use SB9 as opposed to only adding density on their own lot.

And this is something that I’m really fascinated by, which is how [00:11:00] can zoning reform policy that impacts individual lots scale up to create collective impact. So you’re absolutely right that the design is not a fixed proposal. It’s more of a provocation for different ways of engaging with the policy and building new density.

So it might look different from what the design proposal that I put together It could look like small courtyards or big courtyards. Maybe a neighbor builds a courtyard on their lot and it’s still private, but it invites use from other neighbors in agreed times. So it’s really a flexible framework.


Journey With Purpose: I’m interested in this framework because I think it starts shifting us away from a one size fits all solution in the [00:12:00] detached single family home to more of a kit of parts, which people can take ownership of and customize it in concert with their neighbors, according to their needs. I like the ability to add the variation back into our housing stock. Which it seems we lost when we shifted to basically only building single family homes. Is that a fair characterization of our block?

Peter Yi: yes, that’s a fair characterization. And it also brings up the question that it’s not just focused on the built form or the housing typology itself. It’s also focused on empty space. So when you build a unit such as an ADU in the backyard of a house, it already reconfigures what the backyard is used for, and the relationship of this ADU to the backyard.

What Courtyard Block is proposing is, SB9 already allows for even more density [00:13:00] than the ADU, which adds a single unit, SV9 allows the addition of two units on both split lots. And if you think about how these added units begin to relate spatially not only to the house, but also to other units and other houses around it, it requires a radical rethinking of the concept of the backyard in itself.

And all the kind of many little pockets of space that can now appear on the interior of the block. So this is a precursor for some of the diversity of uses that you’re talking about. I’m interested in what cannot just happen in the built forms, but also the void spaces in between.


Journey With Purpose: I’m reminded of the old pattern books and the old Sears home catalogs, which dominated housing throughout the turn of the century. And there really does seem to be a return to some of this pattern-making. As municipalities are offering a pre-approved designs. Most notably Los [00:14:00] Angeles in accessory dwelling units, ADU’s, and even whole homes in areas as diverse as south bend, Indiana and Portland, Oregon. So I’d be really interested if another iteration of courtyard block could become a pre-approved set of interventions, which allows people to customize to a high level of variation.

Peter Yi: that’s absolutely right, and it goes back to this question of where it all started, which is zoning code. What you’re describing for me could be a vision for what zoning code could start to look like. It’s more visual, it’s more imaginative, and it inspires different forms of building rather than dictating limitations of what you could build.

So there is a aspect of this that is about design imagination and building interfaces between the public and municipalities. that makes working with [00:15:00] underzoning code feel like a feedback loop or collaboration rather than fight or a battle to build.

Potential criticisms

Journey With Purpose: I do a lot of work with cities and states especially around land use. And one of the things I thought of right away to a potential criticism of this is I instantly think of somebody saying, what about the traffic? Where are some of the potential downsides that you could imagine that this framework a tool might be.

Peter Yi: So parking and car usage is definitely one of those areas. under the SB9 regulations, when you add additional units, you Are only required to provide one parking spot per unit, and that’s already a decrease from prior regulations. Additionally, if the block is located close to transit, or to a car share, it eliminates and further decreases the parking requirements. There is a strong [00:16:00] relation between adding density and providing more public transit options. That’s why you’ll see. In a lot of cities, when they increase density through zoning reform policy, it often starts along major transit corridors, where there is a decreased need for cars, and I’m optimistic with the increased movement towards more transit and self driving vehicles and electric vehicles and bikes and other forms of mobility, that there will be a decreased need for vehicles in the future.

This is looking perhaps further down the future than our immediate future, but certainly that transformation begets a new form of thinking about how we build and the kinds of density that we build.

I think this kind of future already exists in our built environment. It’s meant to bring these hidden or underlying [00:17:00] forms of living more to the foreground and give them more visibility and agency. So with these design tools that are contingent upon zoning reforms, residents can now have the opportunity to build differently and build in ways that matches the diverse kinds of lifestyles that they would like to see possible.

Journey With Purpose: Okay, so you publish courtyard block. What is the next iteration or steps in the research and design?

Peter Yi: There’s many different pathways this research could lead to, I’m thinking a lot about audience in my work, who are the audiences that could respond to the work and how they might take these ideas and expand them into actionable outcomes. So for example, there’s residents who are interpreting the zoning code, there’s developers and builders [00:18:00] who are thinking about.

new ways to create housing. And then there’s also city officials, which is taking feedback from residents, from builders, and thinking about how such policies could be modified, or what new policies to put in place. And this is a conversation that’s not only happening on the local level, it’s also happening on the national levels, where different cities are looking to what’s happening in other cities.

And modeling their zoning reform policies based off of that feedback. Another interesting kind of pathway for this work is continuing to create design proposals. I feel that it’s within designers, architects and planners responsibilities, but also our capabilities to implement. Use design to imagine new ways of living together that [00:19:00] shows what abstract zoning policy reform could look like when implemented in not just a single fixed way, but in a multitude of ways and presented less as a ultimatum for how to build, but a series of options for how our future might look like.

So through design, but also through further conversations through engagement with the different audiences that this work could impact. I see this as a possible next step for Courtyard Block.

Communication breakdown

Journey With Purpose: When you think about communication, what do you think are the particular challenges? About communicating, such a future vision as courtyard block.

Peter Yi: I see that challenge of communication as an exciting challenge to undertake, and it’s something that we are trained for as architects and designers. We work a lot with images, [00:20:00] with renderings, with diagrams, with models. So we not only design buildings, we also create representations of what those buildings look like, and Increasingly, the larger systems and protocols that inform how those buildings get built.

when you mentioned freaking out about looking at the proposal, I can also say I’m sometimes freaked out looking at satellite images of sprawl, especially in places where They’re not meant to be constructed areas where there’s no green lawns and suddenly you have a hundred of them popping up in a desert location.

So I think there’s incredible power in image and what it’s trying to communicate. And sometimes you might consider producing an image that provokes a response or provokes a conversation. And then within that image. There’s [00:21:00] multiple possibilities of how the reality of the proposal could actually play out.

And in the images that I worked on for Courtyard Block, there’s a intention to balance something that is both desirable and attainable, meaning that the possibilities put forth should be Accessible in one way to the residents that would build that they could see themselves building it or they could see their neighborhoods and houses moving towards this vision.

And on the other hand, it has to be a vision that they find attractive.

I’m Peter Yi. I’m an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati Peter Yi. And today I’ve been talking to you about aligning zoning reform with imaginative housing design.

Journey With Purpose: I want to thank [00:22:00] Peter for the great conversation. Zoning might sound boring. It uses lots of very specialized language it’s arcane, but it really is the rules which affect our daily lives and allow us to build or not to build.

As always, this is journey with purpose. You can find more All opinions you heard today are not representative of our employers, but you knew that. We asked you to please share like heart and thumbs up since we’d love for more people to listen to these important topics.

That’s all we have for today. We’ll see you on the internets. Be well.

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