From Heels to Wheels: American Zoning Laws and the End of Western Public Space

Zoning codes used to favor settlement patterns scaled for human beings. No longer.

Western civilization has never lost the idea that town planning and design matter greatly to the proper functioning of politics. In every age, one finds the greatest architects and artists devoted to the design and adornment of public space, whether it be Palladio in Vicenza, Bernini in Rome, or Olmstead in Chicago and New York. The perennial acknowledgment of town planning’s importance is based in an understanding that politics is fundamentally comprised of individuals, and that the individual is a human being whose physical dimensions and senses of sight and hearing do not change over the millennia. The great majority of politics does not happen in scripted events, but in spontaneous interactions that happen naturally in a well-planned town. Thus public buildings and spaces have been designed to a scale appropriate for the human body and senses to be used for multiple ends.

The United States developed its towns and cities on the same model and, when populations exploded in the early 20th century, employed a variety of ingenious methods to keep the cities viable. These ranged from building public trolley lines out in advance of development, founding entirely new towns centered on commuter rail stations, and making the infrastructure an aesthetic asset, such as when the sunken train lines on 4th Avenue were covered to create Park Avenue, and the soaring hall of Grand Central punctuated the vista north and south.

In the 1950s, however, the Western tradition of humanistic town planning was decisively abandoned in favor of an auto-centered model. The origins and economic pressures driving it were numerous, but what made the auto-centered building model dominant was that a decisive combination of public financing, law, and active regulatory bodies came together to make it not only government policy, but one that was heavily subsidized at the federal level. Soon the design parameters of this auto-centered approach became codified in re-written zoning laws, which now cover 90% of the United States, and which remain actively and energetically enforced by local government bodies across the nation. Even as our political system stresses transparency, egalitarianism, and flexibility, our town-planning standards work in the opposite direction. Many Americans believe in the myth of the “Open Road,” but the open road is not free. It requires a constant and extensive level of government involvement, which invades most Americans’ daily lives and makes impossible any other form of town development. Designed for the automobile, American zoning laws create mere symbolic public spaces where association is inconvenient and sometimes dangerous, and where true freedom of expression and design is severely restricted.

In the last sixty years, more than half of Americans have moved to areas built under this new vision; most towns and cities built before the 1950s have been significantly rebuilt along these same lines, and 86% commute to work by car. This sweeping change is only possible because most construction falls under the precise strictures of the local zoning code, which are enforced and interpreted by the local officials. Each individual piece of property is assigned a narrow range of permissible uses on the zoning map. Changing any of these permitted uses (and specific dimensions for each use) is generally a time-consuming and difficult process, often requiring approvals from the city council or county governors.

How extensive is this regulatory framework? Consider a drive in the suburbs, where most Americans live today, between a mall and the driver’s home. The mall is where it is because the local planning office has zoned certain parcels of land as suitable for commercial development, likely near designated collector roads. The driver’s home also sits on land zoned for its use. Whether the home is a rental or multifamily, large or small, was determined when the minimum lot sizes were written into the ordinance and the planners issued their neighborhood recommendations. The driver’s route home will likely follow the planned collector road to narrower tributary roads that will finally lead to the quieter residential streets, all built to widths that are written into the zoning code. Indeed, the driver enters this web in the moment he or she steps out of the mall entrance, for the width of the access lane and the number of parking spots in the mall parking lot have all been set down in the local zoning ordinance and negotiated by the planning officials and developer. These regulations apply to every detail of what property owners can do, from the allowable height of fences and their material and design, to the planting of shrubbery and its dimensions. Most of these restrictions are grounded in the desire not to reduce visibility for drivers.

By crafting the zoning code so as to prevent traffic snarls and provide adequate parking, the inevitable effect is to reduce the number of transportation alternatives to the automobile. This happens because parking lots have a minimum number of parking spots required to be on them, of a specified size, and with minimally sized access lanes. The minimum number of parking spaces for stores is often set for peak demand, such as Christmas, thus leading to seas of asphalt around every store. This, in turn, physically separates every store from the road, the neighboring stores, and even more so from residential neighborhoods. Add the dangers of crossing wide collector roads, which often do not have walk signs or sidewalks, and the extra distances make travel by foot or bicycle impractical. A similar dynamic works in residential areas, where many planners now require each house to provide parking for three cars. Public transportation works best when serving concentrated nodes, but this planning works in the opposite direction.

Thus we have property use regulated to the inches. When this level of active government planning is required to provide for efficient movement of vehicles, it is no longer possible to describe that method of transportation as free and untrammeled—even more so when it eliminates other options, particularly those used by poorer Americans. Worse yet, when the practical rationale for walking or bicycling vanishes, so does most of the rationale for public spaces. At best, people will mingle while waiting on line at the mall bathroom, or while waiting to renew a license at the DMV. However, under current zoning laws, there is simply no use for town greens or city plazas beyond hosting a band on the 4th of July. There is no practical reason for anyone to stop and get out of the car to use the space. Where cars are the dominant form of transportation, public spaces are merely symbolic, empty spaces, meant to be looked at, like a flagpole or mausoleum.

Aside from the irrelevance of public space, auto-centered zoning has other consequences for how American society functions. Most American zoning codes now content themselves with regulating movement that occurs between planned residential and commercial nodes, rather than maintaining the broader, and traditional, vision of planning for communities. The codes are written in such a way that isolates individuals in their homes and physically separates them by age and income. Association is no longer a daily occurrence, as it is in traditional towns with strong, close, and convenient public spaces, but has become an abstraction.

In traditional cities and towns, neighborhoods formed the backbone of communities. The street would become a public plaza, where children would play, people would socialize from front porches, and houses were close enough for casual visits. Zoning regulations invert that relationship. By privileging fast-moving auto traffic, they make streets and the surrounding areas unsafe for pedestrians or children. Zoning regulations assume that people want privacy and seclusion, so they enforce minimum distances from the street. Thus the casual interactions that were possible in the past are now gone; even if you sit on your porch, you have to shout to be heard by your neighbor.

More poignant is the effect of this anti-communal shift on our senior citizens. As people age, their eyesight, hearing, and reaction time declines. Eventually, they must give up driving for their own and others’ safety. As a result of longer life spans, we now have a large population of people unable to drive for decades. Current planning models offer them the choice of being reclusive or giving up their homes and moving to retirement communities. Only the elderly who live in traditional cities are not faced with this stark choice, since they remain mobile as long as they can walk.

Homeowners also pay a high price in restrictions on their lot. In past times, if the owner of a large house lost a job or retired and his children moved out, he could have rented out a room or two to boarders. This would have allowed him to stay in his house, and provided cheap lodgings for someone who couldn’t yet afford a house. This is now illegal. People who can’t afford a house must live in areas zoned for rental, which are usually kept separate from homeowner areas. Outside of wealthy urban areas where it is common for professionals to rent, rental units are usually substandard. This economic exclusion is often quite deliberate.

Nowhere is this clearer than in states like Connecticut, which has some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs and poorest cities. Most Connecticut suburbs have less than 10% affordable housing stock (affordable generally means that a working-class family could buy or rent it), and most local governments work to prevent that number from rising. The simplest strategy for accomplishing this is to increase the minimum lot size. The economics become very simple. An older house on a quarter-acre lot or less in a depressed urban area may cost $100,000. A single acre in a wealthy suburban area may cost the same amount. If the minimum lot size is two acres (as is frequently the case), then with cost of building, to own a house in that suburb will cost $400,000 to $500,000. For someone earning $25,000 a year, the house in the urban area is within reach and the suburban house is not. Chances are good that this person is black, Hispanic, or a recent immigrant, unlike the majority of residents in suburbs, who are white.

In the last decade, there has been a resurgence of vitality in America’s cities. Many former commercial and manufacturing buildings were converted into residential buildings, which, in turn, led to a demand for stores and restaurants, stimulating even more economic activity. This positive cycle was only possible because planners finally dropped single-use zoning restrictions on those buildings. No such change has occurred in the suburbs and towns, where the law remains that development must be diffuse and auto-centered. Even as the world continues to change, this relic of 1950s autocratic central planning will continue to limp on. Much of this is probably the result of bureaucratic inertia. Designing communities for the 21st century would require conceiving of communities that are genuinely flexible while strengthening local ties.

In practice, this would mean offering convenient transportation options and working with a variety of lot sizes organized around strong public spaces. Thus auto traffic would not have to be eliminated, but would be a way of getting between more secluded neighborhoods, where people prefer their current privacy, and denser neighborhoods, where people want to live on small lots, close to shops, restaurants, and work. Within this denser area, people could move about on foot or bike, while taking a bus or train over to the next cluster, which might be a different level of density entirely. Schools and other government buildings could be sited on the edges of these clusters to allow for easy access by all transportation methods and to strengthen the civic presence in the denser areas. This would also reduce expenditures for road maintenance. In between clusters could be a range of developments reachable by cars.

Bringing this about will require much creativity, flexibility, and pragmatism from our planners, the most difficult part of which will be the re-writing of zoning laws to give Americans a real choice in how they live, work, and move about, while working with the basic premise that we live in a republic and that the design of our cities and towns do matter to the basic functioning of a civil society. As we saw in the last boom, private developers are quick to build a variety of communities. However, they can only do so where our government lets them. We need zoning laws and town-planning policy designed for free citizens, not machines.

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