Archive for the ‘Zoning’ Category

Planning, Design, Zoning, and Urban Enchantment

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

The causes of the changes in American cities over the past hundred years are subject to interpretation.  Three of the most original, convincing, and influential decoders of American cities are Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and David Rusk.  Contemporary American urban and regional planners see cities largely through their eyes.  Architects also weigh in, of course; their designs give form and feeling to cities.  And average citizens contribute mightily to their communities’ contours through the zoning laws they support.  This interplay between planning, design, and regulations goes a long way to explaining what we regard as right or wrong with our cities.

Americans have what generously can be described as a love-hate relationship with their cities.  Since more people have been moving out of cities than moving in, the present mood towards cities may be described as disenchantment — a relative, qualified disenchantment, perhaps, but definitely more chagrin than delight.

To be disenchanted, one must first have been enchanted.  So when did we regard our cities with deep affection?  When was this time of affinity, if not ardor, with our urban spaces?

For Jane Jacobs, the spectacularly influential observer of urban America, the golden age of American cities was characterized by small family-owned and -operated grocery stores, delicatessens, hardware stores, clothing stores (not yet referred to as boutiques), bakeries, and butcher shops; neighborhoods that met our daily needs; downtowns that satisfied anything beyond our daily needs, with wondrous cinemas, restaurants, and department stores; sidewalks, street lights, street cars, and street life; a sense of place and a sense of community — all of which were disappearing when Jacobs wrote her best selling books in the 1960s.

Jacobs’ solution — the return to enchantment — was to allow cities to regain their historic texture and sinew and scale by opposing the huge housing projects and highways and parking lots that were advocated at the time by mainstream American urban planners and economic developers.

Jane Jacobs’ ideas of the American city supplanted those of Lewis Mumford, a towering figure during the formative years of American urban planning as a profession.  In a large body of work beginning in the 1920s, Mumford advanced the theory that each city was unique with its own story to tell: a tale of geography, history, climate, industry, and politics — some parts purposeful, others accidental, but all woven together to explain why this or that city is the way it is.  Mumford identified elements and patterns that all American cities had in common by virtue of having to abide by the same federal regulations, such as basic commuter flows and sites of exchange and power.  But even these, according to Mumford, were endowed by local customs and practices with their own flavor and meaning, so it was best not to generalize about cities.  Mumford had a soft spot for early-twentieth-century urban America, before, as he saw it, the Great Depression siphoned off investment from cities.

It’s fairly simple to understand why Jane Jacobs is revered today while Lewis Mumford, after 40 years of preeminence as an urban theorist, is regarded as passé.  Mumford privileged the creativity, imagination, and agency of local leaders and citizens, traits that are tough to assess objectively.  We can, however, measure and analyze the physical attributes that Jacobs venerated: building heights, setbacks, the shape and location of doors and windows, the size of blocks of buildings, viewsheds, and the quality of materials.  Not only can we measure these forms, we can evaluate them according to the distances human beings can walk, the level the human eye can see, and the aesthetics humans prefer.  Jane Jacobs, in other words, gives us both the components and standards for mathematical models of the world in which we live and thus came to inspire two generations of urban designers and planners.

Jacobs, unknowingly or not, gave a modern voice to the ideas of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman engineer who wrote the multi-volume De Architectura in the two or three decades before the birth of Christ.  According to Vitruvius, all architecture imitated nature.  Since humans represented nature in its perfection, the most stable, functional, and beautiful architecture reproduced human proportions.  The most perfect architecture, in other words, was what we now call human-scale or pedestrian-scale.

Vitruvius influenced Renaissance architects, but, like Jacobs, was turned on end by capitalism.  Vitruvius’ architectural theory flourished until the industrial revolution when function and cost came to dominate form and design.  Jane Jacobs fought an uphill battle for mainstream acceptance from the first word she wrote and only very recently have her ideas been taken seriously.

The post-World War II enthusiasm for building a better America, fueled by unprecedented economic growth, carried with it an urge, a lust not only to expand as never before but also break from the past.  Freed of the styles that disciplined Renaissance builders, post-war American architects gravitated towards an aesthetic that shouted monumentality, aerodynamics, and cheapness, as expressed in ever-broader highways, ever-more-aloof structures, and a predilection for the newest, synthetic materials.  Master planning came into vogue as a comprehensive way of dealing with urban problems, but this usually meant imposing the prevailing economic and aesthetic values on residents and neighborhoods that didn’t necessarily share them.  Don’t want a freeway through your city neighborhood?  Too bad.  It’s important for moving cars to, from, and between the outskirts where most investment is occurring.  You don’t really want to paint or pay extra for brick, do you?  Let’s clad all our new houses in vinyl.  Suburban was the standard; anything else risked being labeled substandard and becoming a target for distain or removal.

Jane Jacobs’ theories were counterintuitive.  How could small and traditional possibly outperform big and brash in a growing America that was flexing its muscles?  Jacobs became a hero to academics, a few urban planners on the fringe, and a dwindling number of community activists who chose to stay and fight for their threatened urban neighborhoods.  But architecture paid scant heed to her, and zoning paid even less.  Zoning regulations reflect average persons’ wishes and prejudices and suburbanization was (and still is) considered modern, forward-looking, emancipating, wealth-creating.  Buildings don’t get built or profits made with nostalgia, which is how Jacob’s ideas appeared to many in the real estate development industry in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

America faced the titanic challenge after World War II of housing tens of millions of new baby boomers and immigrants, building factories and offices for the millions of new jobs being created, and moving and parking millions of new cars.  The master planning of vast areas of a city, the designing of buildings with a blank slate rather than an order established by Jacobs or Vitruvius, and the replacement of the old (designed by someone else) with the modern (designed by me) could be terribly satisfying.  The ambition seemed to be its own reward to people like Robert Moses and modernist architects.  Politicians, not wanting to be spectators in the new metropolitan order, followed the money by following suburban norms.


It was only when population and job projections slowed in the late-1980s and people began to question the hows and whys of growth that Jane Jacob’s ideas entered the mainstream.  But Jacobs focused on the city when most Americans were now living in the suburbs.

In a series of compelling studies in the 1990s, David Rusk, a former city mayor, showed how cities were linked to their suburbs.  According to Rusk, economies had regionalized, but their potential was constrained by the nineteenth century governance models followed by many communities with a region.  Rusk demonstrated how the physical, social, and economic isolation of the poor in inner cities could contribute to the decline of entire metro areas.  Moreover, Rusk quantified how financial disparities within cities, and between cities and suburbs, could be reduced through regional revenue policies, regional housing policies, and regional land use policies.

David Rusk offered a plausible analysis of American metropolitan areas, a new way of modeling change that corresponded with visible shifts in local economies and geographies, and a clear means of monitoring regional performance.  It was an exciting new policy direction that didn’t involve major new public investment or government consolidation or restructuring, but a redistribution of existing metropolitan resources.  Relatively small changes in regional affordable housing policy, for example, could have major positive implications for urban public education and safety and regional workforce development — three of the biggest public sector cost drivers.  Rusk’s theories, in essence, both captured the moral dimension and appreciation of agency of Lewis Mumford by championing social and economic inclusion and supported Jane Jacobs’ insistence on the primacy of place.

Since at least the end of World War II, planning, architecture, and zoning have aligned in the U.S. to give the majority of Americans the growth, change, and physical design they wanted.  Today, the majority is changing in many ways; most obviously, it is aging and diversifying.  But the motivations of real estate development policies, then and now, remain the same: to provide a comfortable, affordable, predictable, and convenient lifestyle for the majority of Americans.  The American Dream, at its most basic level, is a lifestyle of comfort and convenience without too many surprises at a price we can afford.

Today, we reminisce fondly about the well-paying jobs in the post-World War II golden age of American manufacturing, but we forget that most of those jobs resulted from the re-alignment of planning, architecture, and zoning during that period from urban-oriented to suburban-oriented.   We are now seeing what may be the beginning of a new re-alignment, a shift in focus from use to form and from transportation to mobility and accessibility for all.

Will the new confluence of planning, architecture, and zoning allow cities and regions to take off?  Will enough businesses spring up around universal design and sustainability and personal mobility to create transformative economic and social forces?  Capitalism will always exert pressures to expand.  Can we expand inwardly, yet profitably?  Does the term “expand inwardly” even make sense?

The big question is: Are the stars lining up so our cities once again may enchant?


American Suburbia, the Endless Company Town

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

“Economy is simply the Greek word for housekeeping,” Rowen Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminded a conference of trade unionists in 2009.  “Remembering this is a useful way of getting things in proportion, so we don’t lose sight of the fact that economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in…  Practically speaking, this means that at both the individual level and the national level we have to question what we mean by growth.”

Ironically, perhaps, significant numbers of Americans first began to question the meaning of growth by questioning how and where they built their homes.

Sometime around the early-1970s, the terms blight and sprawl entered the American vernacular, as the abandonment and dereliction of land and buildings in central cities were matched by the construction of disconnected residential subdivisions and commercial strips in the suburbs.  The visible links between the two poles of regional growth were roads which became more and more congested.

Empirical studies suggested a causal relationship between America’s prevalent development patterns and increased air and water pollution, higher infrastructure and energy costs, endangered agricultural and natural lands, and entrenched social division and economic inequities.   Concern over the built environment joined the environmental movement’s traditional concern with the natural environment to spawn the sustainability movement.

Sprawl and blight, of course, are worldwide phenomena, consequences of increasing automobile ownership and global market forces.  Tumultuous rural to urban migration in developing countries of people seeking jobs and opportunities has created megacities of populations and proportions unprecedented in human history.

But nowhere in the world has sprawl been more planned and premeditated than in the United States.  Unlike the unplanned development in the third world, sprawl in America is clearly a conscious effort with a formal legal and regulatory foundation.

Several years ago, a series of exhibitions at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. reviewed the major federal legislation that enabled the expansion of suburban America:

In 1913, the U.S. Congress passed the Underwood-Simmons Tariff Act which established the federal income tax.  The law contained a provision which allowed taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes from their federal tax liability.  The mortgage deduction essentially provided a federal subsidy to homeowners only; renters received no deduction.

In 1921, the federal Bureau of Roads was created to plan a highway network to facilitate automobile travel between all major cities in the United States.  Federal matching funds were also made available to improve main roads.  No such subsidies were offered for railroads.

In 1926, in a lawsuit know as the Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that communities could use zoning to exclude multi-family housing and other uses from neighborhoods.  This gave rise to single-land-use districts — residential-only or commercial-only or industrial-only zones — as opposed to the mixed-use neighborhoods that were typical of cities.  Euclid v. Amber also allowed suburbs to specify minimum single-family home sizes, which, along with the ability to prohibit apartments, discouraged affordable housing for lower income families.

In 1931, the Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, convened by President Herbert Hoover and attended by representatives of the real estate development and design industries, created a federal housing policy that promoted the single-family detached house, the careful planning of subdivisions, and the deconcentration of industries and residences from cities.

In 1933, the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation established the practice of making long-term mortgages available to homebuyers.  It also standardized the methods of appraising homes, categorizing them into A, B, C, or D zones.  This appraisal system made it much easier to obtain a mortgage in a middle-class suburban neighborhood (A zone) than in a lower-income or African-American urban neighborhood (D zone).

In 1934, the National Housing Act created the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA.  The FHA insured mortgages by private lenders, enabling buyers to finance a home with only a ten percent down payment and extending long-term mortgages from 20 to 25 or 30 years.  For many buyers, this made it as cheap or cheaper to buy than to rent.  FHA insured mortgages were restricted to white homebuyers in the suburbs.

In 1935, FHA building codes mandated rigid construction standards for lighting, heating, air circulation, and other design criteria.  The new standards made it more profitable for builders to invest in new construction than improve existing structures.  The new standards also encouraged intensive energy consumption by consumers.

In 1935, the Interstate Commerce Commission began to regulate the trucking and railroad industries as separate and competing industries.  By encouraging the trucking industry to deliver goods inexpensively to places railroads did not go, this act enabled stores, shopping centers, and industries to move virtually anywhere outside cities.

In 1938, the FHA began to provide nearly risk-free construction financing for builders of large suburban subdivisions.  As long as a subdivision’s site and house plans met FHA standards, the FHA would insure mortgages for all qualified buyers in the subdivision.

In 1944, the Federal Highway Act began the design of a national system of interstate highways.  The style of highway design often destroyed or divided urban neighborhoods, but greatly facilitated suburban commutes.

Beginning in 1945, utility companies were allowed to provide gas and electrical services to new suburbs at rates averaged throughout a utility’s service area, rather than calculated according to delivery distance.  Thus, the existing and predominantly urban customer base underwrote the cost of supplying utility service for new suburban construction.

The Housing Act of 1949 established “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family” as a basic goal of federal housing policy.  Two sections of this act had a profound effect on metropolitan areas.  Section I authorized federal loans to cities to acquire blighted areas for redevelopment in a process that became known as urban renewal and that, in practice, destroyed many stable, low-income, ethnic, and African-American neighborhoods.  Section III authorized loans for low-rent public housing projects, which often became incubators for social problems and crime.  Officially, these public housing projects were known as “Negro housing”.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka outlawed racial segregation in schools, housing, and public transportation, and was the first in a series of court rulings that led to federally-mandated bussing of children.  Many whites in cities reacted to the mandatory bussing of school children to achieve racial balance in urban public schools by moving to suburban school districts which were under no such mandate.

In 1956, the Interstate Highway Act authorized the construction of a 42,500-mile interstate highway system.  The federal government paid 90 percent of the cost.  The massive investment greatly facilitated the movement of commuters and shoppers between suburban homes and downtowns and encouraged the relocation of homes and businesses outside of cities.  No money was allocated to improve or expand public bus, subway, or streetcar systems, which were considered local responsibilities.

In the 1960s, urban race riots instilled fear in many white Americans that cities were unstable and dangerous, exacerbating the white flight to the suburbs.  The reality, however, is that, by the 1960s, it had become financially unwise for investors — in homes or businesses — not to locate in the suburbs.  The massive public subsidies of suburban roads, sewers, schools, utilities, and mortgages rendered cities non-competitive.  Moreover, most of the people most likely to vote now lived in the suburbs.  Suburbanization had acquired a momentum, economic and political, that was impossible to stop.

The key question becomes: Why would the federal government create a redundant infrastructure in the suburbs and allow its cities to become obsolete?

The dynamics of capitalist competition provide a partial but powerful explanation.

Businesses need certain regulations, infrastructure, and services to survive, which they are unable to provide for themselves: public education; public health; roads, bridges, sewers, and water systems; national defense; fair trade practices; a money supply that is neither inflationary or deflationary; and laws protecting the health and safety of workers and goods.  These are all fundamental to the development and generation of business, but are provided by government.  What consumer would buy a foodstuff or pharmaceutical without government assurance that it was inspected and safe?  How would firms move products quickly and cheaply without public roads?

Consider, for example, education, which is essential to modern economies.  Education, like many other rights and protections we take for granted in advanced societies, simply cannot be provided consistently and extensively by employers.  A worker is free to change employers; therefore, training workers for skills that are in demand may not be the wisest investment for a firm.  Once trained, the employee may take his or her skills to another firm, representing a transfer of resources from the firm that did the training to a competitor that reaps the benefits of the previously-trained worker.

Moreover, education is linked to economic prosperity.  Most American parents are determined to see their children receive the best possible education so they can compete for the best paying jobs.  Americans choose where to buy or build their homes based, in large measure, on the quality of the public schools in a community.

Certainly, the market can and does provide education.  Private schools and universities are among the best in the nation, and also among the most expensive.  If all education were private — or all fire fighting, policing, recreation programs, road construction, basic scientific research, mail delivery, and other services we associate with government — few citizens would be able to afford it.

Government makes sure that capitalist relations function smoothly, that businesses can expand, create jobs, and remain profitable, because it needs the revenues that employers and employees provide in taxes to pay its school teachers, soldiers, and librarians, to build public works projects like roads and schools and water treatment plants, and to keep voters happy by keeping them employed and well-served.

Government and business in America may seem antagonistic towards one another, forever arguing over their proper role or size, but, historically, they have worked together to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Real estate is perhaps the foremost example in the United States.

Businesspersons don’t build factories unless they are in locations where money can be made; workers don’t want housing unless it is reasonably close to jobs; and retailers don’t open unless there is a sufficient density of workers and residents within a specific trade area.   In virtually all types of real estate transactions, government has the ability to make land valuable to businesses and individuals and entice them to invest in that land.  Governments in the U.S. routinely use public undertakings to increase private profit.  Road and sewer construction, shovel-ready industrial sites, property tax abatements, residential mortgage subsidies, airport expansions, and a myriad other publicly-provided appurtenances and incentives fuel real estate speculation and development, benefit truckers and retailers, increase travel, fill office buildings, and sustain car manufacturers and home builders.

American suburbs are part of the same dynamic of enhancing the locational qualities of businesses.  In early industrial America, railroad, steel, and mining companies built “company towns” to provide low-cost housing, schools, and other amenities for their employees.  In the first half of the twentieth century, the U.S. government assumed this role.  Suburbia was essentially the U.S. government’s way of providing endless company towns for U.S. industries.  Massive public investment reduced the cost of doing business in the suburbs, catalyzing private investment, creating jobs, expanding the tax base, and allowing suburban residents to accumulate wealth, mostly in the form of property.  As President Eisenhower wrote in his 1963 memoirs about the publicly-financed national highway system, “Its impact on the American economy — the jobs it would produce in manufacturing and construction, the rural areas it would open up — was beyond calculation.”

Also beyond calculation at the time was the advantage of scale that suburbs would gain over cities in the competition for residents and jobs because of government financial subsidies and legal protections.

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