Civic Data

Data-oriented thinking about where and how people live.


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

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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Review of “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time is a call to arms for bringing back that endangered species to our downtowns and public spaces: the pedestrian. Early in the book, Speck makes a convincing case that our economic, physical, and social health have been undermined by relentlessly car-oriented city planning. The majority of the book is his recipe for reversing these trends. This recipe is presented in the form of Ten Steps (viz, Commandments) of Walkability.

The book speaks primarily to the urban planner, city council member or mayor, and the general urban enthusiast. Very few of the changes can be implemented on the level of the individual. That’s not to say that Speck proposes expensive interventions, by and large — he clearly takes pleasure in pointing out that many simply require a bit of yellow paint and some civic daring. A city is more likely to be won over to these reforms by successful experimental changes to its urban form than any niche book, but building popular support for these kind of changes is clearly a worthy goal, and it’s inspiring to read about the many pro-urban steps that other places have taken.

I have two relatively minor quibbles with the book.

First, the book is intentionally a generalist’s take. At 260 not-overly-dense pages, that implies that very few of the broad-stroke concepts will be new to the kind of person who has read Jane Jacobs and keeps an eye on Planetizen and Streetsblog daily. (Don’t worry — there are certainly plenty of stock factoids for your geekier cocktail parties. For instance: Portland’s entire bike network has been built since the early 1990s for a total of $65 million, less than the $140 million cost to rebuild just one of the city’s freeway interchanges, and less than one percent of Portland’s transportation budget over that time period. In return, bicycling has increased from 1 to 8 percent of commuter traffic, and average travel times during the morning rush hour have decreased from 54 to 43 minutes, despite a 20% increase in population.) The flip side is that the book would make a great gift for an urban-inclined teenager, or just Mom and Dad.

Second and more importantly, I feel that the book could have used some prioritization. The Ten Steps are presented separated into four categories (UsefulSafeComfortable, and Interesting), in that order, but Speck is careful to point out that this is not a ranked list. As presented, it can feel more like a grab bag.

It’s clear that many of the aspects of urban design that lead to more walk-friendly environments interact non-linearly. For instance, bike lanes and tree-lined streets together are nicer than twice as much of either one alone. However, for cities and civic organizations, almost universally under financial constraints, which should be done first? For encouraging affordable housing downtown, which is better: reducing zoning restrictions on development like floor-to-area ratio limits and parking requirements, or inclusionary zoning? Obviously, the relative importance of things like parking management and bike lanes will be a matter of debate, but Speck has clearly spent a lot of time doing this stuff and it would be interesting to hear his opinions.

(In this context, it’s ironic that step ten in the book is Urban Triage, the process of ranking streets based on how close they are to forming a network of walkable places, and then focusing on the places “on the bubble,” where your investments will make the most difference.)

Despite these minor flaws, the book is eminently readable, timely, and important.