This is the first in a series of articles written by Seth, a new PlanningPool contributor, that will highlight land use challenges and explore innovative ideas on the cutting edge of zoning thinking and practice, in pursuit of sustainability, justice, and prosperity.
I’m not sure exactly when I fell in love with zoning. Zoning’s an odd thing to love – intensely technical, opaque, and jargony. But the invisible logic of zoning – that language and maps (symbolic forms) could manage and transform the complex character of a city – drew me in. Zoning evokes the most boring, stodgy, and opaque subject imaginable, yet at this moment of urban and environmental transformation little could be more important.
The great challenge for urban planning and development in the coming decades will be retrofitting our existing suburbs and cities to create economically and socially vibrant communities while radically reducing their environmental impacts.
Cities are already a environmental force around the globe, impacting the flows of water and natural resources and altering the Earth’s climate. “Cities themselves present both the problems and solutions to sustainability challenges of an increasingly urbanized world” was the conclusion of one article in a special edition on cities and the environment published in Science in 2008.
And, while innovative sustainability strategies and utopian urban designs for greenfield eco-communities like Masdar, in the U.A.E., and Dongtan, in China, do generate excitement, they do not provide practical models for working within the limitations of the existing urban and suburban area where more than half the worlds population already lives.
Existing economies, societies, political realities, laws, and municipal boundaries constrain our practical choices. But the limitations of mature developed areas also present opportunities for creative planning solutions and the reuse of existing infrastructure and buildings. Learning from our experiences can teach us more than all the castles in the air and sustainable master plans drawn in design studios.
Don’t get me wrong, urban designs are important: they help us imagine what new forms the city around us can take. But as a planning exercise they must be lead to practical rules and incentives that shape the behavior of citizens, businesses, property owners, and developers. In the United States and many other countries around the world, land uses are managed through zoning regulations enacted by local governments to ensure felicitous relationships among uses and buildings. Yet in the 20th century, those zoning regulations done terrible damage done to cities by separating uses, creating ethnic and class enclaves, and enforcing auto-oriented sprawl.
Much ink has been spilled on the evils of zoning, and many of these critiques ring true. As someone who loves zoning as a tool, it is a challenge to be continually frustrated by how badly land use regulations can be implemented. Zoning is both a technical challenge (analyzing demographic and land use trends, and drafting regulations), and it is a political act: the way in which we instantiate our vision of our urban future. Of all the functions of local government, planning and zoning is the most consequential. Every generation inherits the built world from their parents and struggles to adapt their cities and communities for a changing world. A better urban future will require better tools for managing the use of urban land and necessarily build from the lessons of zoning and development over the previous century.
More to come…