Making Your City More Walkable? That’s Not “Zoning”

In last week’s Washington Post, Roger K. Lewis, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland, wrote an intriguing column suggesting that it’s time for a big rethink of the concept of zoning, which he says is a relic of the early 20th century:

Zoning traditionally served to separate businesses from residences. Image: ## Arbor Chronicle##

Zoning conventions are no longer conventional. Land-use regulation is still needed, but zoning increasingly has become a conceptually inappropriate term, an obsolete characterization of how we plan and shape growth.

Zoning laws were first conceived at the outset of the industrial era. At the time, the economy was dominated by factories churning out noxious byproducts of all kinds, from sludge to foul fumes to loud noises. The original zoning laws sought to segregate homes from businesses that might be nuisances — a legacy that American cities and towns are still living with:

Traditional zoning first took hold in the early 20th century with a clearly logical intent, as the word implies: to establish and keep apart discretely delineated areas of land use within counties and municipalities. Single-purpose zones ensured separation of incompatible uses such as dwellings and factories.

But that’s not what “zoning” is all about anymore. Lewis’s example — Washington, D.C. — is examining and revising all kinds of long-standing regulations, from minimum parking requirements to its famous height restrictions. These reforms seek to change cities in a way that’s completely distinct from segregating uses. The intent of reducing parking requirements, for instance, is to make places more walkable and reduce housing costs.

Since the way we design and regulate cities is changing so quickly, Lewis suggests that maybe it’s time we had a new word too:

Dropping the word ‘zoning’ necessitates using an alternative vocabulary. It’s time to talk less about zoning restrictions and limits and more about visionary plans, urban design goals and architectural aspirations.

9 thoughts on Making Your City More Walkable? That’s Not “Zoning”

  1. Sounds like an attempt by clubs, restaurants, late-night venues to be opened in residential districts to the chagrin of those who would like peace and quiet where they live/sleep. Separating these functions is preferable. Your apartment is a retreat from the noise and crowds of the city. Maintain a zoned entertainment district, for example, and you can provide shuttle services there to minimize traffic (and reduce drunk driving), keep it open 24/7, while keeping it a distance from those who prefer a quieter area in which to live. (and please no comments like, “if you don’t like it, move to the suburbs.”)   

  2. @5b263925590b465a3a234c3828a41a62:disqus Angie is talking about separation of uses and using ordinances to maintain “peace and quiet.” She is talking about government requirements that force builders and architects to create buildings that are a particular size and shape, and sit in a particular way on the lot. She is talking about restrictions on urban form, which is why the suburbs and sprawl areas exist in the way that they do. 

  3. @5b263925590b465a3a234c3828a41a62:disqus There’s a huge continuum of uses, and vibrant communities include both commercial and residential uses of all sorts; not all commercial uses are crowded nightclubs!  Heavy-handed control-freaky attempts to artificially segregate by use generally leads to the sort of horrid dead planned cities that are the antithesis of livable communities (Brasília! ><).

    If there are problems with noise levels, then have a system for dealing with noise-levels, but don't impose unnecessary and clumsy distinctions just for the sake of it.

  4. The reductio ad absurdum argument is what you always hear from defenders of zoning – that any changes will turn every town into Manhattan, that we will have lead smelters next to schools, etc. Those are straw men; no one is proposing that.

    If you dig out the zoning map for your city (and they’re almost all available online), with rare exceptions, you’ll find that whatever zoning you have was back-zoned onto preexisting development. This is even true in new sprawly areas, which are usually unincorporated parts of a county when they start developing.

  5. Zoning seems to have created more problems than it solves. In my small town Texas home town, for 50 years or more zoning made it almost impossible to preserve the character of the old downtown. 

    Lots that could have been used for apartment buildings two or three stories tall were forbidden. No high density housing — least of all anything for the elderly — is allowed within walking distance of the courthouse or the adjoining shaded plaza, or near the main churches remaining in the city center, or close to the restaurants serving civic center employees for lunch, but in desperate need of customers at suppertime.

    The commercial zoning meant that parking lots were allowed everywhere as of right, no questions asked. But the two story retail buildings that used to have people “living above the store” were prevented from offering any such housing. 

    Frontage along all the state or federal highways passing thru town that used to be residential were rezoned commercial. If a historic old house in a commercial area became vacant for two years then it could no longer be used for residential. Perhaps the owner went to the rest home and no one could bear to sell her home until after she was gone. By the time the heirs could sell it, it could no longer be used as a home. (Again, a parking lot was  no problem). Blocks that used to be filled with houses eventually were sharing space with neon-lit auto parts stores, etc, until almost all the Queen Anne Homes and bungalows were bulldozed.

    The zoning rules completely destroyed the walkability of the historic downtown, and they destroyed the historic character of miles of the city streets.

  6. @5b263925590b465a3a234c3828a41a62:disqus: Yes, it’s because nobody wants to live near nightclubs and restaurants that rents are so low in neighborhoods like the East Village and the Castro.

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