Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

Trying to replicate Times Square in places like Atlanta

Large cities often borrow ideas from each other. But, is it possible to design places like Times Square into being by adding lights?

Some smaller American cities have recently been attempting to mimic this aesthetic, albeit on a lesser scale, in the hope of spurring economic development and a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Denver’s theater district, for instance, now features an enormous video screen and lighted advertisements peddling the latest in products and entertainment, and Atlanta is in the process of planning such a district for a section of its downtown.

The organization Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) is spearheading the effort to relax signage restrictions so that property owners can go bigger and brighter. “At this point, downtown Atlanta’s zoning doesn’t allow signs that are over 200 square feet, and our billboards are stuck in time,” says Jennifer Ball, CAP’s Vice President for Planning and Economic Development. “We’re anticipating an increase in size as well as the ability to do large-screen video and LED boards.” Atlanta’s City Council will likely vote on the measure in January…

But the larger aim is to bring more people downtown—and for them to experience the area on foot rather than in their cars. Atlanta is known for its incredible sprawl, with its more walkable neighborhoods scattered throughout the city and thus only easily accessed via automobile. The city is aiming to make itself denser and more pedestrian-friendly, and the district is, according to Ball, “a piece of the puzzle.” To further that goal, the bright lights district would also include more housing and ground-level retail outlets and restaurants. “Atlanta wants to have a strong core that is walkable and bikeable and has the level of density to support a lifestyle where you don’t have to be in your car all the time,” Ball says.

Such a multi-pronged strategy is important, as urban lighting scholars caution that illumination on its own doesn’t guarantee an increase in business or foot traffic. Margaret Petty, Head of the School of Design at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology and a historian of electric lighting, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that lighting alone attracts people to an area, unless that area, such as Times Square, is “iconic.” Josiane Meier, lecturer at the Technical University of Berlin and co-editor of Urban Lighting, Light Pollution, and Society, adds that the “if you build it, they will come” model doesn’t really work in terms of lighting and density. “The interdependency runs the other way,” she says. “Density is a prerequisite for the existence of bright lights districts.”

It sounds like the Atlanta plan isn’t just about lights; it is about creating denser, vibrant places with a variety of uses and lights (which both can attract people and highlight existing activity). New Urbanism and Jane Jacobs come together to possibly reshape Atlanta.

Will it actually work? This reminds me of the number of cities that tried to replicate the High Line after it proved very successful in New York City. It isn’t hard to build things to look like someplace else – look at Las Vegas – but it is difficult to create legitimate neighborhoods that aren’t just tourist destinations. Times Square is interesting not just because of the tourists but also because it is at the center of the number one global city (New York City) and and is located in one of the most densely settled places in the United States (Manhattan). A bar/entertainment district with some housing above and nearby may be nice but it can’t exactly replicate the conditions of a New York City or London or Tokyo.

What could a city like Atlanta create that would be more authentic to itself while also increasing density and vibrancy? What is unique to Atlanta that can’t be found elsewhere (besides the sprawl)?

The Chicago of today influenced by 1920s zoning decisions

A new study suggests the beginning of zoning in Chicago had long-lasting effects:

Walsh and two other urban economists investigated zoning’s long-term effects in Chicago, using 1920s parcel-level data on land use and market values prior to, and immediately after, the adoption of the city’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1923. They compared these early quilts of land use to that of the present day (or, at least, to the most recent complete dataset available, which came from 2005).

Contrary to what many economists may believe, they first found that zoning did not merely ratify existing land uses. Lot by lot, they found significant variation between the activities that predated zoning and those that came after, especially as years went by. For example, some factories and shopping areas that didn’t conform to the 1923 code were allowed to stay in their respective locations, thanks to a “grandfather” clause. But over time, the vast majority of them disappeared. The powerful force of zoning can be seen on a citywide scale, too: Whereas 82 percent of Chicago’s developed blocks had some form of commerce happening in 1922, that share had dropped by about half by 2005, researchers found.

In other words, the way Chicago looks in the 21st century tracks much more closely with the desires of its planners in 1923 than it does with the city that preceded zoning. This fact has had a huge effect on economic patterns, too. For example, the researchers found that exclusive residential zoning had a significant impact on home prices, driving up values in neighborhoods cordoned off for single-family homes. On a citywide level, they used a regression analysis to find that the zoning code of 1923 had bigger role in shaping economic patterns—i.e., where commercial and industrial activity is going on today—than either pre-existing transportation networks or geography, two factors you might think would best explain why there’s a factory by the old railroad tracks, or a shopping district near downtown…

Although the present paper didn’t explicitly analyze how Chicago’s old zoning codes have influenced racial segregation, a companion paper published in Julyby the same researchers found that the laws drawn up in 1923 were discriminatory: Areas with more black residents were zoned for higher-density housing, and “neighborhoods with larger populations of blacks or recent immigrants were zoned disproportionately for manufacturing.” Chicago consistently ranks as among the most segregated cities in the U.S., and its present-day economic divisions track closely with race (as well as with municipally recognized community boundaries). It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that zoning laws (much like housing policy) dating back a century are in some ways responsible. That’s a theory that needs investigation, Walsh says.

Zoning decisions are political ones. The suggestion here is that if the decisions are good ones, they can have positive effects for decades. The converse – particularly when used to limit options for particular groups – is also true.

The last paragraph of the article hints at recent suggestions regarding significant changes to urban zoning. It would be interesting to see what average Americans think of such ideas: would they trade predictability for flexibility? Continue with the example of Chicago: would more flexible zoning allow for the construction of more affordable housing or would it mean that more land would be converted to non-residential uses, limiting housing options? New Urbanists have touted mixed-use zoning for a long time but their vision of this is often limited to particular kinds of businesses or offices as well as nicer housing (even if it includes different price ranges).

“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.

Trying to revive “obsolete” suburban office parks

Declining interest in space in suburban office parks means a number of people are looking for ways to use that same space:

A report from the real-estate-service firm NGKF released late last year provides new numbers on an ongoing phenomenon: the slow, agonizing death of the American office park. The report looks at five far-flung office-tenancy submarkets—Santa Clara, in the San Francisco Bay Area; Denver; the O’Hare area of Chicago; Reston and Herndon, outside of Washington, D.C.; and Parsippany, New Jersey—and finds a general aura of decline.

Between 14 and 22 percent of the suburban-office inventory in these areas is, the report found, “in some stage of obsolescence,” suggesting that between 600 million and 1 billion square feet of office space are unnecessary for the modern company and worker. That’s about 7.5 percent of the country’s entire office inventory…

There are models that developers are using to transform older office parks throughout the country, to measured success. They mostly involve turning definitely-suburban office parks into urban-like, albeit still isolated, office “cities.” (It is worth noting that many of these projects involve extensive rezoning efforts.) A facility in the community of Edina, Minnesota, is in the midst of transforming from a sprawling office center into what one local developer called “not your father’s or mother’s office park.” In practice, that means linking the park to 15 miles of bike trails, big-box-store-free retail, and green space. Other developers managing struggling office parks are considering adding farmers’ markets, hotels, and housing.

Such efforts have been going on for a while now whether from New Urbanists trying to introduce mixed uses (office parks are notoriously empty for much of the day outside of business hours) or edge cities trying to diversify their portfolio of uses and revenues (see an example like Tysons Corner). Of course, such efforts require funds and demand for the new or renovated space and it can often be easier for developers and investors to move on to new hot locations or construct all new buildings and properties.

One other idea for these office parks: why not seriously look at converting them into housing? A good amount of the infrastructure would already be present – major roads, utilities, parking lots – and many metropolitan regions are in desperate need of more housing units (particularly affordable ones). Many of these office parks are located in existing job centers so the housing would be convenient for a number of workers. I don’t know what it would cost to renovate office space to residential space but it would be interesting to see some proposals.

How Chicago became “the alley capital of the country”

Chicago has a lot of alleys and here is how they came to be:

According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west…

According to cartographer and Chicago history buff Dennis McClendon, alleys had become so commonplace in the American West that the Illinois General Assembly “simply expected it to happen in Chicago.”…

The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”…

For its boom years in the 1800s, Chicago was an alley monster; it planned new blocks with alleys, annexed towns with alleys, and added territory to its alley-riddled gridiron. But all grid things must come to an end, and soon communities started popping up without alleys.

The first of those communities arrived in 1869. That year, Frederick Law Olmsted — the father of landscape architecture (and who later played a huge role in Chicago’s landscape) — planned the community of Riverside, which was situated on what was considered to be the far western outskirts of the Chicago region. It was the first planned suburb in America, and the earliest sign of divergence from Chicago’s alley trend.

In other words, Chicago has alleys because when it was founded, many communities had alleys. Chicago just happened to boom at this time and the alley was seen as a normal feature – until it slowly petered out in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then, different expectations took over which emphasized lawns and cars. The vast majority of post-World War II housing does not include alleys as the car is given a prominent spot at the front of the house (with a driveway and garage) and the backyard became a private and important space. Today, New Urbanists promote alleys largely because they are a traditional design feature that removes undesirable activities (like cars) to the back and allows the house to be closer to the street (encouraging sociability). And, I have hard time imagining many municipalities want to pay for alleys – they add an additional layer of cost and infrastructure.

Building beautiful American sports stadiums

One writer asks whether Americans can build beautiful sports stadiums:

So why don’t any of them look like the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux? For a country with such a deep and abiding love for professional sports and lighting money on fire, the U.S. really isn’t in the business of building iconic sports arenas. Museums: Fine. Libraries: We’re golden. Those things are built to make the case for themselves and their cities. It’s different with stadiums…France’s latest soccer stadium, which opened to great fanfare in September, is the work of Herzog & de Meuron. It was designed with an eye toward Bordeaux’s landscape, according to the firm’s website, with heavy emphasis on elegance and “geometrical clarity.” At a glance, it looks like a juiced-up John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Herzog & de Meuron are what you would call elite architects. The firm is best known for projects such as the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and 56 Leonard Street in New York. Not that they’re not known for sports architecture: The firm designed the unforgettable Bird’s Nest Stadium, a collaboration with Ai Weiwei that served as the centerpiece for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games. Herzog & de Meuron has also produced jewel-box arenas for Munich (Allianz Arena) and Basel (St. Jakob Park).

But Europe is home to lots of ballparks and arenas by smaller firms that, for better or worse, push the boundaries of what stadium architecture can be. In the U.S., most sports venues are designed by one of a handful of giant specialty firms, namely Populous, HKS, HOK, AECOM, NBBJ, and a few others. While these are fine firms—great firms, even—stadium designs for American clients trend toward the conservative.

The argument seems a bit convoluted: local leaders, taxpayers, and teams are going to build more of these stupid things anyway so why not make them better looking? This could go a few different directions instead:

  1. Iconic buildings – those with unique architecture and often designed by starchitects – can become draws on their own. Both status and tourist dollars are at stake here. Of course, there are issues with promoting such iconic structures as they can often have little connection to existing styles in the community.
  2. Any sort of major public building, from museums to libraries to parking garages to stadiums, should be pleasing to look at and contribute to the community. For example, New Urbanists argue civic structures should occupy prominent locations and be landmarks for the community. In other words, you could have a beautiful structure but if it is located next to a highway junction to best serve those trying to get to the park or in order to take advantage of cheap land, what’s the point?
  3. What counts as a beautiful or well-designed building is difficult to define. Who gets to decide if stadiums are ugly? The fans who regularly go there? A survey of local residents? Team owners? Could utilitarian structures be considered beautiful in their own way? The example discussed from Bordeaux appears to be the sort of modernist structure that never really caught on in the United States. (For example, it never really gathered much steam for houses.)

Still, I imagine there are some American stadiums that the general public would consider more beautiful than others. Whether Americans want daring stadiums, ones that don’t look like the typical American stadium, may be a tough sell…