Friday, September 2, 2011

Friday Read: Zoning, Here and in France

 law journal article on the economic and environmental problems inherent in Euclidean zoning, always beneficial to read even if one is familiar with the arguments, but especially nice for launching a critique simultaneously from all ideological angles, leaving a little something for Randal O'Toole, Ed Glaeser and David Owen to each nod in agreement with:
"Euclidean zoning distorts the real estate market in so many ways that it manages to simultaneously conflict with conservative, libertarian, and liberal values. In addition to increasing the average price of housing, “[t]he fact that a zoning map allows high density housing in some areas, only single family housing in others, only industrial and commercial use in designated locations, and high rise office buildings in downtown areas, creates great disparity in value among a city’s many properties.” While “[a] local regulation imposing a maximum land value would almost certainly be viewed as a [Fifth Amendment] taking, . . . zoning laws that effectively impose a maximum land value have been upheld. . . .”

And because municipal zoning authorities, rather than the market, dictate what housing types will be available and favor single-family homes, “profitable sites for [multifamily housing] are artificially scarce” and thus artificially expensive. Such a situation is clearly incompatible with free-market principles, and since affordable housing often means some type of multi-family housing, it is also hostile to the goal of increasing the access of lower-income families to affordable housing. In addition, Euclidean zoning increases the burden on middle-class families: while the artificial scarcity of multi-family sites might be expected to reduce the cost of single-family homes by increasing the availability of single-family sites, this possibility is nullified by the tendency of suburban municipalities to require large minimum lot and house sizes. That “forces people to consume land and improvements they do not want,” at a higher cost than they would pay were they allowed to buy only the amount of property they want. “This forced consumption is inefficient because the recipient could sell the extra land and improvements on the market for more than what they are worth to the recipient. . . .”
As a bonus, it contains an in-depth comparative look at French and American (specifically, New York and Parisian) approaches to land use and zoning:

"[T]he most recent Paris zoning code divides the city and surrounding greenspace into just four zones, three of which are neither residential nor commercial (those three are Zone N (Nature and Forests); Zone UV (Green Urban), i.e. parks and other public landscaped areas; Zone UGSU (Major Urban Services), i.e. train stations and rail lines, hospitals, waste treatment centers, water reservoirs, riverside ports, convention centers, and major centers of industrial distribution); the city’s houses, apartment buildings, shops, caf├ęs, offices, and other commercial establishments thus fall within a single zone, General Urban."
* * *

As for the relative absence of unsightly buildings, this is at least in part due to the fact that Paris has historically tended to zone for structures rather than uses. Between 1607 and 1902, zoning was used to set maximum building heights, to regulate building materials due to fire risk, and to impose minimum courtyard sizes to promote access to sunlight and free circulation of air. This has continued to the present day, with Paris’s General Urban district subdivided not into use zones but into areas of different maximum heights and structure types."

This is a true comparative look at property rights, much unlike the International Property Rights Index I mentioned earlier this week, and delves into the crucial details that, when applied in the aggregate, have enormous consequences for the resultant urban form.


  1. thanks for the post, great article. i like the point about being forced to consume. the same could be said about parking requirements, developers forced to assemble more land to make an efficient garage, and residents forced to consume parking spaces even if they don't need.

  2. Is the link to the law article broken? I can't seem to get it.

  3. Hi Liam -- should be working now. The direct link is:

  4. I haven't read the article, but I hope the author isn't suggesting that Paris' approach to post-war land use is really that much better than, say, New York's. Prices are extremely high near the center, and while they may allow more density than the US, they clearly don't allow as much density as the market demands. Even roping off anything built before WWII as untouchable, there is still a good amount of buildable and redevelopable land that is being underused because the government is dead-set on preserving the city in formaldehyde.

  5. A lot of this discussion ignores the working class and the industrial plants they depend on. Manufacturing does not fit into the nostalgic worldview of the "old city", and so is ignored - along with the lower class people who are excluded from the city.

    The "walk to work" paradigm is predicated on an economy of retail/commercial or service jobs - proving the myopia of many planners and architects, who see (and plan for) only people like themselves.

    Such an approach also lets planners blather about the awful racial segregation of "publiv housing" while neatly insuring that their expensive walk-to-everything "old city" neighborhoods exclude the working class.

    Nice trick!

    The regrouping of Paris into 4 zones basically lumps manufacturing/industrial plants together with the "infrastructure" category... which has its practical side - but guess which class is still required to commute to work?

    And because the "old" city" folks favor public transport over cars, the working class is controlled in where they can go.... the article first frames zoning as an example of "police power" - and ere it is: no land ownership or freedom of movement for the working class.

    ... but the class most planners belong to can walk to their favorite cafe!

    It's quite telling that Paris has had to create a special zone for hi-rise office buildings - that is, places where modern people actually do modern work, before returning to their Mansard-roofed apartments/faceless boxes in public housing. Is preserving your "old city" in amber really a recipe for avoiding stagnation and decline?

  6. Ben David -- I'm not quite sure what approach you're advocating. If industrial zoning is undesirable, and "ignoring" manufacturing (i.e. no zoning) is also undesirable, where does that leave us? In any event, whether a city has use-based zoning or not, large manufacturing plants tend to locate on city fringes or along particular corridors for reasons that have to do with spatial needs and land values, not class issues.

    A traditionalist point of view certainly does encompass industry, which has been a part of the traditional city for thousands of years -- blacksmiths, brickmakers, potters, bakers, stonemasons, brewers, glassblowers, tanners, etc. In fact, it was a more visible part of the medieval or ancient city than it is in the modern city. And yet medieval cities passed zoning ordinances regulating the location of tanneries to protect the drinking water supply, while just as today the space-intensive industries (timber mills, foundries) located far from the center or outside the walls altogether.

    I haven't mentioned industrial uses much on this blog, but based on some previous posts you might detect a general dislike of use-based zoning. As in Houston, nuisance laws can effectively fill in the gaps, encouraging mitigation of the worst effects of certain uses.

  7. Well - does zoning for structure rather than use actually result in a mixing of the classes, or not?

    If not, don't use it as a preachy point against Euclidean suburbia.

    My guess is that upper-class people will always find a way to segregate themselves from other classes, and protect their real-estate investments.

    If "Old City" and "walkabout" planning does not result in more equality - a claim going back to Jane Jacobs, but not substantiated - then please stop preening about how much more "diverse" your Old City center is.

    Jacobs herself railed against the community-destroying oversized "renewal" projects in New York during the 50s and 60s. But without any of those behemoth projects, the gentrification of Manhattan and other parts of New York STILL resulted in just as much economic segregation, while preserving "human scale".

    Any old New Yorker can list the now-gentrified "walkable neighborhoods" that were cleared of minorities, students, and artists as prices rose. Ironically, many of the brownstones were build as worker housing last century...

    So please stop making that particular claim, and admit that the "walkable" areas generally wind up hosting upper-class tenants - who can pay for location, convenience, and the inherent inefficiencies of the "Old City".

  8. I don't recall making the claim that a virtue of traditional neighborhoods is that they encourage "mixing of the classes," though I wouldn't necessarily disagree with it. Walkable neighborhoods frequently end up gentrified because they are 1) highly pleasant and convenient places to live and 2) in the United States, extremely scarce, since modern (Euclidean) zoning codes have made it impossible to build more. There is an artificial abundance of large lot suburbia and an artificial shortage of urbanism. The net result is greater housing and transportation costs for both rich and poor, and greater geographical income segregation. Because zoning itself heavily distorts the market, the argument that “traditional urban neighborhoods are always occupied by the rich” only shows that these neighborhoods are greatly undersupplied (or that one is only looking at center city areas where land values are bound to be high no matter what is built there).

    If you want evidence on this point, look at my previous post on property rights, where it’s mentioned that Mexico, by allowing construction of attached housing on small lots with narrow streets and few restrictions on uses (i.e. traditional urbanism, in form), has kept homes affordable to almost everyone in society. The city of almost nothing but traditional urbanism is far less expensive, relative to incomes, than the city of almost nothing but American-style suburbia, and can accommodate the full range of incomes. Further, the traditional city, because it is dense and contains public places in abundance, provides ample opportunities for social mixing even where there is some segregation by income in various neighborhoods, as there's always been in all historical cities. All that is at least possible, though not inevitable, with a form-based code, and unlikely, though not impossible, with a detailed use-based code.

  9. I don't know what the association between social class and job type is in France, but in the US, manufacturing jobs are rarely lower-class or even working-class. The working poor usually work in the service industry, in call centers, supermarkets, stores, and other typically non-union gray-collar jobs. And this is doubly true in the Northeast and Midwest, which do not have the non-union hog farms and mills that relocated to the South. Traditional factory jobs are too union-heavy to be low-paying; the workers may have the values and voting patterns of the working class, but their paychecks are middle-class at the poorest.

    Walkable neighborhoods only become upper-class enclaves if there's no other place in the area that offers walkability. It's the case in New York and Paris, which surround their 19th century cores with urban renewal hell. It's not the case in Tokyo, where there's too much walkable urbanism for the rich to corner all of it. It's not the case in Singapore, where the rich seclude themselves into gated communities and towers, and what little walkable urbanism there is is in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, which the expats and the local rich find too distasteful.

  10. Wait I'm confused. I thought you specifically stated that Mexico's system wasn't something to admire or emulate. You are certainly suggesting that here. Are you advocating for it or not?

    I'm also confused about euclidean zoning. You are against it, but the desirable neighborhoods Jane Jacobs likes are euclidean zoning. So you are against those neighborhoods too?

    Can you clarify what sort of neighborhoods you are advocating in favor of? I have read a lot of these archives, and while I understand some of your positions (against zoning laws in general and for reducing the size of streets and parking space) I am having trouble following your argument here. Thanks in advance.

  11. Alon,

    I think you are making too general of an argument. In many places in the Midwest manufacturing jobs pay well and are located in manufacturing parks similar to office parks. However there are many manufacturing facilities that are in old industrial neighborhoods and many manufacturing jobs do not pay well. There is some of everything so generalities are can be inaccurate.

  12. Benny -- if you'll re-read the earlier post closely, you'll see the model I was referring to at the end was not the Mexican one, but the informal model drawn on the shantytowns of Buenos Aires, and only to make clear that I wasn't "necessarily" (key qualifier) putting it forth as a viable development model for the United States. I didn't actually pass any kind of judgment on the Mexican example of formalized, but minimally restricted, development.

    As for Jacobs, the neighborhoods she liked were built long before Euclidean zoning, and their pre-zoning characteristics were essentially grandfathered and accommodated out of necessity. By the time the first zoning ordinance was adopted in 1916, most of Manhattan was already built out.

    As for neighborhoods -- I'm mainly advocating traditional urbanism, but that comes in many varieties of its own. There's no one "ideal neighborhood," of course, but the best around the world share certain fundamental characteristics, and it's those I try to focus on, as well as attempting to identify a process by which those same characteristics can again be built, recognizing that where people are free to build as they choose, traditional urbanism is frequently the natural result.

  13. Benny,

    Yes, there is some of everything, but manufacturing jobs pay significantly better than service jobs, and are much stabler. Anti-gentrification advocates and left-wing populists routinely bring this up as an argument for preserving city manufacturing. Whereas you say that manufacturing is necessary to provide jobs for the poor and the service economy is useful only to the rich, they argue that manufacturing is necessary to provide high-paying jobs and the service economy pays poorly.

  14. IIRC the claim about class segregation was made in the linked article.

  15. Benny -- thanks for reading and commenting.

    Alon -- great point about manufacturing. One of the primary goals of the 1961 revisions to the NY zoning code was to preserve some areas exclusively for industrial use in Manhattan and surrounding areas. The result was not to to preserve the city's manufacturing base, or retain blue collar workers, but to blight the areas so designated, since they were of little value for modern manufacturing needs (too small/not proximate to highways), yet could not be used for high value office and residential space. Ironically, one of those areas was recently condemned by the city to be used by Columbia University for a new campus expansion -- the justification being the "blight" which the city itself had inflicted on the area through zoning policy.