Zoning in on Zoning

One of the main reasons why there are little options for sprawl-like development today is zoning. Or more specifically, the way we zone.

A simple description of zoning is the practice of isolating land-uses into zones of their own. Residential areas, commercial areas, industrial areas, recreational areas and so forth. Cities will typically have their own zoning policies as well. These are instructions that regulate e.g. the types of housing allowed in a residential zone.

Zoning as a comprehensive tool for land-use planning was first introduced in New York City back in 1916. It emerged at a time when the industrial city had turned out to be a failure and the modern man sought ever-increasing ways of rationalizing the society.

Sprawl critics have repeatedly pointed out that in sprawling areas zoning policies are set to favor this kind of development. Single-use zoning creates a need to move to another zone for work or shopping. And low-density zoning makes sure that you will need a car for that. But it should also be understood that separating people from land-uses and each other are also a built-in features in zoning. The very idea of zoning was to make sure that people would not have to live next to toxic factories.

As in probably every developed country, zoning is however nowadays required by law in Finland. So sticking with it is a likely scenario for the foreseeable future. Our Land-Use and Building Act lays down eleven prestigious goals and guidelines for our planning system to enable sustainable and vivid urban environments. Ironically, they could have been taken from any anti-sprawl book. What we do in practice is far from that.

When zoning, we tend to make irreversible choices that eventually sum up as sprawl. Michael Lewyn for example describes a couple of cases how these dynamics work in American zoning in an understandable way in his blog post. He also notes that the seeds of sprawl are typically put in place already during the comprehensive planning phase. My guess is that there probably are a number of regulations in our National Building Code that support sprawl as well.

Needless to say, a priority for taking back our cities is to work on our zoning policies. The main problem, however, is the mindset that guards them.

Albeit New York City gave us zoning, their work is now a case to take good example of. Change is always an option.The Wall Street Journal reports that the city’s Planning Commission promotes good urbanism through zoning amendments. According to director Amanda Burden, the aim is “to promote New York as a walkable city with active, tree-lined streets and active retail frontages.” The new approach not only shapes the blocks and writes the skyline, but also aims to curb obesity by offering incentives for fresh-food markets in low-income neighborhoods; buck up the mom-and-pop store; and promote an astonishing range of other quality-of-life benefits.

There might be no place like New York City, but I truly hope that doesn’t stop us from learning from them.

4 thoughts on “Zoning in on Zoning”

  1. Nice article! I am in favour of creating mixed areas, rather than strict zoning policies. In the last decade, The Netherlands have embraced the ideal of the compact city. Cities are now looking for inward growth by converting brown sites into mixed use areas. This strategy is good for reducinging sprawl and promoting walkable / cyclable cities. The consequence is that residential areas are located closer to sources of pollution, like highways and industry. The result is that many industrial activities (like the harbours of Amsterdam and Rotterdam) disappear from the city to the periphery. Where highways and dwellings meet (http://static0.parool.nl/static/photo/2011/16/8/1/20111221083114/media_xl_1051951.jpg), big problems arise through high concentrations of fine particles that affects the health of inhabitants and school kids. The big challenge fior the future is to create compact cities that are healthy at the same time.

    1. Thanks Tim! I totally agree with you that mixed areas is the way to go. I don’t know the specifics of the Dutch context, but here (in some more progressive cities) areas of industrial activity are also transformed into mixed-ish areas. These are typically not due to pollution being close to residential areas, but more because the land is too good to be wasted for something that is not perhaps better off somewhere else than the inner city. For example in Helsinki, all of the cargo harbors migrated to a new (suburban) location and vast areas of centrally located land can now be used for other purposes. But I also don’t see so much of a problem in modern industrial areas or activities (such as harbors) being close to people, because they don’t actually cause all that much pollution. While there of course are a lot of exceptions to this, it’s sometimes funny how we keep imaging of industry as something hazardous that needs to separated from everything else. The days of the smoking chimneys are long gone.

      But living next to highway truly is a health issue. The picture in your link is just depressing. I vote for having less highways!

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