Civic Data

Data-oriented thinking about where and how people live.

Review: “Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation” (Sonia Hirt)

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tl;dr: highly worthwhile book on the international uniqueness of American zoning codes and their cultural underpinnings. 4 out of 5 stars.

This book is an attempt to demonstrate and explain the features of modern zoning codes (and cities) that are almost unique to the United States: the very broad use of exclusively residential zones and exclusively single-family house zones. It combines an extended history of zoning, both internationally and in America, with a comparative study of modern zoning codes and legal regimes surrounding new construction in several countries, most notably England and Germany.

The book is fascinating overall, and highly recommended to any students of cities and/or American history. It is richly detailed and sourced. The perspective is that of an urban planning student from Bulgaria who moved to the US for career reasons and was baffled by the apparent contradictions between the narrative of American individualism and freedom and the very restrictive codes surrounding the built environments in which they lived (which is baffling to this native US citizen as well).

There are many hypotheses that attempt to explain American zoning codes. To name a few: the availability of plenty of cheap land in the US, the predominance of local as opposed to national control over planning and development, the protection of private property values, etc.

However, Hirt feels that these arguments are insufficiently unique to explain the genuine uniqueness of American zoning. The principal thesis of the book is that they are largely the result of a strong cultural undercurrent of agrarian and “frontier” values in the US. As a result, the single-family house on a generous plot was seen as the morally correct dwelling arrangement, and our zoning and legal codes responded to that desire.

The apparent contradiction described above results from the explosion of US cities in the 19th century, and the resulting collision between our preferences for different sorts of “freedoms”: political freedom (in particular the right to use private property without governmental interference) and what she calls “spatial freedom,” which is something like the desire to claim, explore, and patrol the boundaries of a sizable piece of land. It’s not exactly a spoiler to observe that spatial freedom won this rhetorical battle. However, political freedom was appeased in that the new legal structures were simple, scientific, rules-based systems that would treat each property the same and give each property owner the right to development without asking permission within the constraints of the rules, or were advertised as such anyway. And “economic” freedom was appealed to by the universal emphasis on stabilizing and increasing property values.

I did feel that the international comparisons beyond those to Germany and England were a bit overpromised and underdelivered. The sections on each of the other nations discussed (France, Russia, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Japan) amount to capsule histories of a page or two and are not the subject of extended comparisons throughout the rest of the book.

More information about the book is available at Cornell Press.

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