Monday, March 18, 2019


The characteristic stepped-back profile of
New York City skyscrapers was the result
of zoning regulations meant to ensure
adequate light at street level.
A hundred years ago, our zoning regulations made sense. They undertook to protect public health by requiring such niceties as natural light and air—a godsend at a time when living conditions in many urban areas were truly squalid. Zoning also aimed to protect the public by separating incompatible uses—by forbidding, say, a dynamite works to be built in a residential area. U.S. cities were conspicuously shaped by these concerns:  the stepped-back profile of New York City skyscrapers, for example, was a direct result of zoning laws meant to ensure that sunlight could reach the streets below.  

Zoning Run Amuck: Corbusier's Plan Voisin of 1925,
in which the architect proposed to raze an entire district
of Paris and replace it with strictly zoned residential towers.
Over the years, however, zoning regulations became ever more restrictive of what could be built where. Eventually, even the time-honored tradition of combining housing, stores, and workshops in a single district was frowned upon. By the 1960s, zoning laws simply assumed that people would drive everywhere, and the idea of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods became practically extinct. And alas, even in this carbon-conscious era, automobiles remain the centerpiece of most city planning. 

A former Portland, Oregon candy factory converted to living
units. Many zoning regulations still discourage the reuse of
industrial building for living space, leading to the construction
of new "fake" industrial lofts at great cost to the environment.
Many of the excesses of today’s zoning policies are the legacy of overzealous Modernist city planners, who considered mixed-use planning an untidy relic of the nineteenth century—one that was best wiped off the map.  They in turn were influenced by the likes of zoning fanatics such as the architect Le Corbusier, a man who in all seriousness proposed to raze the northern half of Paris and replace it with antiseptic, sharply defined districts arranged to suit his own mania for order (he did grudgingly relent to save a few historic buildings that met his impeccable standards).  

Zoning regulations typically require vast quantities of parking
for retail centers, leading to the usual "sea of asphalt"
in front of suburban strip malls.
Mercifully, Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris came to nothing, along with most of his other monstrous schemes. Still, a half century later, his spirit survives in the form of retentive, hyper-organized zoning regulations that routinely isolate commercial uses from residential ones and vice versa.  

Technology has transformed our culture during the past two decades, and will change it even faster in the coming ones. Electronic commuting has already made the concept of “going to work” a quaint memory for many people, and has further blurred the distinction between residence and workplace. In our cities, the decline of smokestack industry has left a wealth of superb commercial and industrial buildings begging for residential use; meanwhile, we squander more and more unspoiled land on the environmental idiocy of conventionally-zoned suburbs. 
Last but not least, the outdated setback
requirements typical of most cities lead to
wasted and useless strips of setback land
surrounding houses—maybe including yours.

Despite the clear need for more innovative thinking, most zoning regulations remain mired in the past. In large part, they are the reason our suburbs are bereft of basic neighborhood amenities such as shops and eateries, compelling us to drive to a “shopping center” for a quart of milk instead of walking to the corner.  They are also the reason many of our cities are filled with derelict commercial and industrial buildings that could long ago have been converted to housing.  And they are the reason single-family homes must still be separated by narrow, useless strips of side yard—the zoner's beloved "side yard setback"—when courtyard housing or zero-lot-line planning could make far better use of our precious land.

The original public safety aims of our zoning regulations remain admirable, but in this era of climate change and the need for conservation, their means are obsolete. The way we work, live, and communicate is changing profoundly; and the way we’re allowed to build ought to change along with it.  

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