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FBCI Book Review: Zoned in the USA

Form-based codes are a big improvement over conventional zoning, but that’s a hard argument to make if advocates have a poor understanding of zoning and its history.

Zoning is one of the least understood undercurrents shaping our world and experience. As affordable housing is increasingly out of reach for many Americans and the planet heats up, zoning — a topic that for most people is arcane and sleep-inducing — is bubbling to the surface of public discourse with newspaper columnists, and even the Obama White House weighing in. Zoning shapes the impact of people on their environment and on each other, and deserves the long-neglected scrutiny provided by Sonia Hirt’s 2014 book “Zoned in the USA.” Hirt, recently appointed dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, was born in Bulgaria and, thus, is able to provide an international perspective on this issue.

In many American cities, single-family detached house zones extending block after block, if not mile after mile, covering the majority of the land area. Public health officials prod us to walk and cycle, but the monotony of the built landscape, lack of density and dearth of walkable/cycling destinations make this challenging. America likely has the “lowest density settlements in the history of the world,” according to Hirt.

In her book, the author surveys urban development regulation around the world and arrives at the conclusion that American zoning is unique. She gives special attention to the dominance of the single-family detached house zone, a phenomenon specific to the United States and to a lesser extent Canada. No other developed country relies so heavily on a residential zone that is reserved exclusively for this building type and land use. The many other countries she examines throughout Europe and Asia have not adopted this zone. They may have residential zones, but none exclude apartment buildings or row houses or prevent commercial development that can accommodate local residents’ daily needs.

Early 20th century advocates of zoning claimed that this approach to planning provided a public health benefit by keeping noxious uses away from where people lived — yet apartment buildings often were assigned to industrial zones. This dichotomy shows that locating apartment buildings away from house zones was done with clear intent.

In fact, apartment buildings themselves were considered hazards. Hirt quotes contemporary voices that warned of apartment buildings as “children-devouring” and “family-destroying.” By contrast, single-family home ownership was believed to be key to health and was viewed as part of a wholesome lifestyle. The ideal of home ownership, according to former President Herbert Hoover, is a “castle in all that exquisite sentiment which it surrounds with the sweetness of family life. … This aspiration penetrates the heart of our national well-being.” The prevailing wisdom was that multi-family dwellings threatened that well-being. The precedent-setting Supreme Court decision Euclid v. Ambler (1926) affirmed communities’ right to adopt zoning. In support of the decision, Justice George Sutherland, wrote that apartment buildings should be kept away from houses: “The apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the [single-family] district.”

Hirt reports that early zoning advocates claimed business districts were also hazards to well-being — endangering children, in particular, leading to “juvenile delinquency and psychological disorders, eventually converting children to criminals.” Some of the so-called noxious commercial uses that were warned about now seem comical: “The play space of small children ought not to be near fruits and vegetables for sale,” said Edward Basset, one of zoning’s most important early advocates in the 1920s.

Not only were children to be confined to certain zones, but according to Robert Whitten, who worked with Basset on New York’s zoning, “Bankers and leading business men should live in one part of town, storekeepers, clerks and technicians in another, and working people in yet others where they enjoy the association of neighbors more or less of their own kind.” Skeptical voices at the time warned of zoning’s potential to cause class segregation, but it is remarkable how quickly zoning was adopted by cities nationwide in the 1920s and 30s.

Social consequences were not apparent during these early decades, but became more obvious with increasing automobile use.

“To the credit of zoning’s early U.S. advocates, the land-use segregation they proposed was fine-grained. … They assumed that most essential land uses, even though they may be separated, would still be accessible on foot,” Hirt says. But over the decades the zones got bigger and bigger. Driving was no longer a choice, but a necessity.

Hirt commends another book on zoning — William Fischel’s, “Zoning Rules!”but questions Fischel’s economic explanation for the prevalence of the single-family house zone. Since the 1970s, Americans have seen their homes as the primary repository of their wealth. Appreciating home value rather than saving money has become the key to wealth accumulation for most Americans. According to Fischel, Americans have come to perceive monotony surrounding their home investments as reassuring — if everything is predictable then there will be no troubling fluctuations in value. Hirt sites Fischel’s book as “superbly articulated” but questions his economic argument, pointing out that home ownership rates in Europe are higher than in the United States; yet Europeans are more open to a diversity of building types and land uses in their neighborhoods. Average home ownership rates in the European Union’s 28 members are higher than 70 percent, while the United States trails at 65 percent.

Hirt argues that the differences in approach to urban planning between Europe and the United States may be more cultural than economic; Europeans are comfortable with the complexity of urban landscapes. This offers hope for change. Culture is mutable, even in America. American millennials, for example, are less enamored of home and car ownership than their parents or grandparents. They and empty-nesters are returning to urban environments in large numbers. Mixed-use neighborhoods are coming to be seen as desirable – beneficial for health and the environment and simply as being more interesting places in which to live.

Yet Americans and Europeans also differ in their acceptance of government interventions in landscape design. It is said that Europeans do planning, while Americans do zoning. As conceived in the United States, zoning is a system for reducing the discretion of government, a reflection of the limited amount of confidence Americans have in government’s ability to make wise development decisions. However, zoning would seem to violate American libertarian values by restricting the rights of individuals to use their property as they wish. This paradox helps explain form-based coding, which is often described as a by-right system for directing development that avoids capricious government review. It is marketed that way. Yet, according to Hirt, form-based coding promotes development that “fosters a greater variety in the built environment than the conventional approach.”

As Hirt points out, “America’s [zoning] districts based on land use have been growing in size for some hundred years; it is only recently that this trend has begun to reverse through the use of form-based zoning.” Americans increasingly feel comfortable with the results. The streetscapes and townscapes that form-based codes produce appear to be places where property values will hold if not increase. At the same time, the regulatory predictability of form-based codes keeps governments from making capricious decisions that might threaten property values.

Hirt reviews various solutions that have been proposed to reform the deficiencies of conventional zoning and provides constructive explanations of what they are: mixed-use zoning, planned unit development, performance zoning, hierarchical zoning, and form-based coding. Her sympathies appear to be with form-based coding, although she expresses the reservation that “a great majority of them are optional and apply only in a piecemeal fashion either to greenfield sites or to small portions of town.”

The author is correct that the more “piecemeal” form-based codes outnumber city-wide ones. This reflects the fact that adopting a form-based code takes more thought and analysis of local conditions than is required to adopt a conventional zoning ordinance. Zoning typically is adopted city wide and anything less is derided as “spot zoning,” which belies any assumption that form-based codes are an easy substitute for a city’s zoning. Nevertheless, more cities are biting the bullet and writing city-wide codes or writing codes for big areas, such as their downtowns. Unlike conventional zoning, a municipality can write a form-based code for as much or as little as desired. This approach puts form-based codes within reach of communities that can’t afford coding the whole city all at once.

In the United States, development regulation is treated as a local concern, which is not true in many other countries and is not, therefore, a subject of national debate or legislation, nor is it discussed during presidential campaigns or on the floor of Congress. “To this day, there is no federal law on urban land use,” Hirt reminds us.

This lack of public discourse on an issue that is so influential to the American experience needs much greater attention than it has received. Sonia Hirt’s book is a welcome addition to the discussion.

About the Author

Steve Price

Steve Price is a specialist in community visualization techniques at his company Urban Advantage in El Cerrito, CA. He has worked with most of America’s leading new urban designers and his images have been published in numerous books, newspapers, and national magazines.

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