A History of Zoning, Part III: Missing the Trees for the Forest

At Strong Towns, we talk a lot about zoning. Most people have a vague idea of what it is, but where did it come from? Why do we do it? This is the last in a three-part series where we will examine the history of zoning, its growth throughout the last century, and its implications for building strong towns today.

Let’s recall that in Part 1 we discussed the legal theories that undergird zoning as a legitimate act of government. In Part 2 we considered how zoning’s use as a tool of exclusion is widespread, generally unexamined (or even accepted) by the public, and limits social and economic mobility. Today, we will examine a primary motivation for local governments to adopt zoning laws and attempt to offer some suggestions to mitigate the negative effects of zoning.

Let’s begin by emphasizing that this discussion will revolve around cities and local governments as a whole. There are thoughtful and capable individuals working in planning departments or elected positions around the country, just as there are cantankerous obstructionists. This isn’t about individual actors; it’s about governments as a singular unit.

Source:  David Stanley

Cities as Ecosystems

James C. Scott, in his masterful Seeing Like a State, opens with a highly relevant parable about scientific forestry. As the 19th Century dawned, European states developed new analytical methods to manage and exploit forests for economic benefit. There were three key aspects to this new approach: simplification, legibility, and manipulation.

State simplification of forestry was accomplished by ignoring everything but the single aspect that mattered most to the state—timber yield:

[T]he actual tree with its vast number of possible uses was replaced by an abstract tree representing a volume of lumber or firewood. [...] From a naturalist’s perspective, nearly everything was missing from the state’s narrow frame of reference. Gone was the vast majority of flora[...] Gone, too, were reptiles, birds, amphibians, and innumerable species of insects. [...] 

From an anthropologist’s perspective, nearly everything touching on human interaction with the forest was also missing from the state’s tunnel vision. [...] The forest as a habitat disappears and is replaced by the forest as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably.

With this simplification came legibility. States could now reliably estimate the yield of lumber from a given plot of land. As you might imagine, this was highly useful knowledge. It also gave way to efforts to manipulate yield and facilitate management. To accomplish this, forests were cut bare and replanted in tidy geometric rows. This further enhanced legibility (one could know exactly how many trees stood on an acre) and was easier to navigate in the absence of pesky underbrush and fallen timber.

Of course, in their zeal to care for and enhance the single measure they were concerned with, early scientific foresters exposed themselves to a massive blind spot: trees actually need the other parts of the ecosystem in order to be healthy and productive. The first generation of such forests experienced massive growth in timber productivity as the new trees reaped the benefits of the good soil and excellent growing conditions left behind by the freshly destroyed habitat. But subsequent generations yielded poor quality lumber and less of it; the regimented forests eventually failed. By now if you haven’t caught the obvious parallels to the The Growth Ponzi Scheme I’d invite you to review and ponder.

Back to Cities

In City: Urbanism and Its End, Douglas Rae describes the city in terms not unlike the forests of old Europe:

The city of late urbanism was a massive collection of useful inefficiencies--things that were below par from a market point of view, or from the modernist ethic of linear rationality, but nevertheless produced value of other important kinds. Le Corbusier would have looked with horror at the higgledy-piggledy scattering of small groceries, oddly shaped hardware stores, and streets on which a seller of caged birds competed for space and attention with a saloon, all housed in buildings meant for some earlier use now long forgotten.

Out of the perceived chaos, cities saw an opportunity to simplify, impose legibility, and even manipulate conditions for the better. Never mind the ancillary benefits afforded residents by the presence of the corner grocery, our cities must have order! And in zoning, cities found the ideal tool to clear the underbrush and impose rationality.

This concept lies at the core of Strong Towns’ critique of modern planning fads, or concepts like Smart Growth. High density transit-oriented development is a demonstrably positive thing when all you care about are density and transit usage. Scientific foresters were maximizing density too. It’s true that achieving high urban densities through the scientific forester’s means is probably better than achieving low urban densities with the same methods; but both outcomes expose us to the very same risks.

What cities haven’t yet learned is that the process of growth is as important as—and perhaps more important than—the outcome. A body without a soul is a zombie; cities can get the form right, but the essence of a true urban place cannot be conjured from thin air.

What to Do?

I don’t intend for this to be a case for the complete abolishment of zoning. That ship has sailed and anyway, there are actual benefits to some rational control of land development, especially given the myriad external forces affecting real estate that cities cannot control.

If we want our cities to avoid the problems of scientific forestry, (and, to be frank, it’s already too late for that) it is imperative that we find a way to approach urban planning more like ecologists.

American zoning has evolved at a glacial pace. Many cities are working with codes that are literally a half century old; they get by with a tweak here and a tweak there. These complex and brittle systems will fail eventually but that will only happen, it seems, after we’ve patched every last piece of them to avoid undertaking any real consideration of their merit. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear of a code anywhere that manages to avoid the reductionist traps typical of urban planning even today. Perhaps that’s an impossible task, but here are some general guiding principles that I wish to see in zoning’s future:

Quarter-acre lots with 10,000 square foot houses are not inherently wrong; expecting the city to subsidize that lifestyle by maintaining and eventually replacing all the infrastructure necessary to support them is wrong.
  • Every single element of the zoning code must meet a strict test for health or safety that cannot be addressed by other means such as the building code. Remember our discussion of the Police Power in Part 1? Without a demonstrable health or safety effect, use of the Police Power is unjustified. And in case you’re wondering, I deliberately left welfare out. Its equally problematic cousin, morality, fell out of favor in discussions of zoning and the Police Power decades ago. It’s high time we recognize the arbitrary nature of judgments about “welfare” with respect to zoning.

  • Automatically allow, by right, the next increment of development. There are several viable methods to accomplish this, including the automatic adoption of the next transect or the use of floating height limits.

  • Create an explicit nexus between development patterns and infrastructure the city will agree to own and maintain. Quarter-acre lots with 10,000 square foot houses are not inherently wrong; expecting the city to subsidize that lifestyle by maintaining and eventually replacing all the infrastructure necessary to support them is wrong.

Finally, here are some specific zoning reforms that I feel could bring a city into closer alignment with the principles outlined above.

  1. Abolish maximum housing units. If I can fit three units in the footprint of a typical single family home there’s no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to.

  2. Eliminate minimum lot sizes.

  3. Remove side yard setbacks. These create a powerful financial incentive to assemble large parcels for the development of monolithic structures.

  4. Eliminate maximum lot coverages for small lots.

There are legitimate concerns related to complete liberalization of land use and zoning regulation. The current economics are such that some cities and neighborhoods could experience cataclysmic change without the protections of restrictive zoning. If the goal is incremental development, it seems the way forward is to create a two-tiered zoning system. The first would be highly permissive with very few restrictions on use or form, but it would only apply up to a maximum lot size. The second would apply to anything larger than the first tier’s maximum and would be much more exacting to reflect the increased potential for harm done by larger development. This approach would do much to reverse current incentives for large scale development in virtually every US city experiencing demand for new construction.

As Chuck Marohn has noted, there’s no silver bullet that will resolve the problems we’ve created in our cities. A healthy forest ecosystem takes decades to develop. If you take anything away from this series, it should be that cities are complex, organic ecosystems; they’re cats, not washing machines. As such, we need to adopt the ways of the ecologist, which involve far more observation and far less intervention than our current approaches to urban development.

(Top image source: Manitoba Historical Maps)

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