Sunday, July 27, 2014

Where Zoning Went Wrong

In previous posts on zoning, I’ve been pretty hard on the Supreme Court’s Euclid v. Ambler decision, which upheld the use of single-use, and specifically single family-only, zones.  In doing so, the nation’s highest court gave the formal stamp of approval to exclusionary zoning, holding among other things that cities were justified in excluding so-called “apartment houses” from residential zones.

The fact that this dispute even reached the Supreme Court in the first place, however, indicates underlying policy choices that occurred somewhat earlier. Professor Sonia Hirt, who has done extensive research in the greatly underexplored comparative zoning realm, has shown how in Germany, a limited number of zoning categories are established at the federal level, with specific implementation left to local governments.  Although localities can choose where to place these zones, they cannot create zones of their own.  Simon Vallee (at Urban Kchoze) has described a very similar regulatory regime in Japan, where the national government has established a list of certain permissible zones that cities may use.  Hirt mentions similar but even more permissive zoning arrangements in other countries such as Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. 

Notably, whether by coincidence or design, it appears that in none of these cases have state or national governments established single-family detached-only residential zones. In general, these countries establish only floor-area limitations, thereby allowing both single-family and multifamily housing in all residential areas, and also permit small offices and neighborhood commercial even in the most restrictive zones. Importantly, lot size and setback requirements appear to be modest or minimal.

In contrast to the experience of most other countries, the United States, right from the start, delegated zoning
Munich zoning map ca. 1900. From Harvard Library.
powers from states to localities in spite of the fact that early 20th century American planners greatly admired the German zoning system.  The best-known instrument of this delegation, although it was not the first, was the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, a document first devised in the early 1920s by Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department.

The Act was a curious document: although it spent many pages devoted to the legal proceduralism of planning commissions, it offered little guidance, and contained no requirements, as to how localities should actually zone. This intriguing and highly consequential omission was not due to lack of interest or expertise.  Edward Murray Bassett, a principal author of New York's 1916 Zoning Resolution and of much of the Enabling Act, authored a handbook on zoning (entitled “Zoning,” what else) in which he laid out its purposes and proper role. Bassett’s work, one of many on the topic from that time period by such men as Harland Bartholomew and Herbert Swan, establishes several major themes to distinguish zoning in the United States which were reflected in the enabling act and which have characterized American zoning practice ever since:
  • Approval of the exclusion of commercial activity from residential zones. Bassett seems to have assumed, without explaining further, that excluding all commercial uses from residential areas was a desirable and legitimate end of zoning. Furthermore, he casually elided any distinctions between noxious and harmless uses: "[In] a residence district a home owner may try to carry on a sweat shop or a restaurant or a junk yard. How shall he be prevented? ... The ordinance should make such act unlawful and make provision for ousting the unlawful use." (p. 327).
  • Failure to disapprove of the exclusion of multifamily from residential zones. Although Bassett struck a cautionary note toward single-family zones, this appears to have been primarily because he feared (mistakenly, it turned out) that courts would strike down such zones as lacking justification (p. 323-324). This, in turn, might have cast doubt on the fledgling enterprise of zoning. Elsewhere, he advocated for such zones as a means creating preserves for wealthy urban homeowners (p. 323). Bassett also suggested the use of maximum lot coverage ratios as an alternative means of discouraging apartment houses, notwithstanding that such coverage ratios would also have the effect of discouraging single-family homes on very small lots.
  • Extreme deference to localities. Bassett recommended that enabling acts transfer power to regulate the height, bulk and use of buildings to cities, apparently without any restriction on how these powers might be deployed in various zones. The states were to retain little or no power in the zoning area under his proposed arrangement, nor were they to provide any guidance except for the very vague suggestions within the Enabling Act.  There was no reason presented for this policy choice, and transportation policy was in fact moving in the opposite direction at the same time, with states and the federal government playing larger roles in planning and building highway routes.
  • Insistence on a "comprehensive" plan.  Although European zoning is often conducted on a block-by-block basis according to Prof. Hirt, and frequently leaves large central areas exempt from most restrictions, Bassett and other American zoning advocates insisted that courts would not accept such piecemeal or partial zoning, and that cities should therefore zone every inch of ground under their jurisdiction.  Allowing different zones within small and otherwise similar areas was also assumed to be unconstitutional "spot zoning," and was not advised.  Impliedly, these recommendations would intensify the use-segregated character and monotony of American zoning.  Nonetheless, once the initial plan was in place, selective rezonings (almost always downzonings) of politically influential neighborhoods were carried out and continue to be carried out to this day.
  • Irreconcilable conflict between planning and zoning. Bassett acknowledged that "[e]very vital growing city must change and the zoning plan must be capable of change," but quickly clarified that "a high degree of permanency or stiffness must be insisted upon." In other words, although zoning was adopted in the name of looking "mainly to the future," in Bassett's words, in practice, it would be highly resistant to alteration. To achieve this, Bassett included a proposal to limit the power of the city council to alter the zoning plan once it had been established by, in essence, subjecting every proposed zoning change to a referendum requiring 80% support of affected owners (see p. 330). What's more, Bassett's logic against zoning changes used only examples of upzoning or increasing permitted uses (see p. 330).  Downzoning was not critiqued.
  • Heavy reliance on legal process as a substitute for sound policymaking. Bassett, an attorney, was apparently aware that such permissive zoning powers might result in extremely restrictive regulations: "The letter of the ordinance and maps may be the extreme of hardship," he noted (p. 330). Rather than address this potential problem by advocating limits on zoning's restrictiveness at the start, Bassett suggested a Board of Adjustment with the power to grant variances. The obvious potential for abuse, graft and corruption in such an arrangement was noted by Bassett's contemporary, Lawrence Veiller, but the substance of Bassett's recommendations was included in the Enabling Act. Bassett dismissed these concerns out of hand in his book by noting that "it is the business of the mayor or appointing power to see that the board is made up of impartial and experienced men." (p. 331).
  • Rejection of aesthetic concerns. The City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, although it shared certain policy goals with the early zoning advocates, embraced a traditionally European emphasis on the outward appearance of the city. Architecture was considered an integral part of city planning, and planning literature frequently included lavish illustrations setting forth a compelling aesthetic vision for the city (what might be called a form-based vision).  In Bassett's view, however, aesthetics could not even supply a rational basis for zoning regulations: "If [regulations] are employed ... for aesthetics or some sentimental object, courts will not support them," he wrote. In short, despite his professed admiration for European planning methods, Bassett was waving the white flag before a shot had been fired in the legal battle.  Bassett was wrong again about how the courts would respond, but with most codes having been adopted under the erroneous assumption that such concerns were illegitimate, it would take until the mid-1990s, with the rise of the New Urbanism and the development of form-based codes, that architecture, aesthetics and form were given a more conspicuous role in zoning documents.
  • Concern with protecting the wealth of well-to-do homeowners.  Although Bassett stated that zoning "endeavors to protect investments" as a general matter, the investments he cites as examples tend to be those of very wealthy individuals seeking to erect expensive houses ("A man who built a $40,000 home ... was considered highly speculative because in a few years he might have an apartment house on one side and a factory on the other" (p. 316); "[A] man might put up a fine residence ... and find that the council had changed it to business and he was likely to have a butcher store on one side and a grocery on the other" (p. 330).  This was largely the extent of Bassett's social concern, such as it was, in his book. The interests of poor and middle-class residents, whether owners or tenants, went unmentioned by Bassett (in fairness, Andrew Wright Crawford, writing in 1920, claimed that zoning was "for the protection of the poor man," although did not address the exclusion of apartments).
  • Lack of comparative focus. Although Bassett claimed to have been inspired to become involved in zoning matters after a visit to an urban design conference in Dusseldorf, his treatise dismisses European planning models early on as inapplicable to American constitutional government, thereby depriving readers of the chance to learn from non-American planning precedents. Bassett even goes so far as to claim that zoning New York took as long as it did because "there were almost no precedents to help," which was only true if one completely disregarded decades of European zoning practice.
Zoning didn't remain an entirely localized concern by any means: the federal government would, only a decade or so later, become indirectly involved though FHA lending practices, and several states have since adopted regional plans, though not one of the 50, so far as I know, sets out zoning categories that cities must use. Federal fair housing laws would also become entwined with local zoning practice in the 1960s and later, but only incidentally. These original purposes, however, have endured with relatively little change and virtually no challenge over the following ninety-plus years.  

I've quoted legal criticism of some of these doctrines in the past, but there was scholarly critique at the time, as well, from progressive authors, some of it quite strident, but most of it now forgotten. For instance, the German-born Bruno Lasker, writing in 1920:
"Whence, to ask a very simple question, do so many of the zoning commissions derive their sanction for dividing the physical make-up of the city into use districts that distinguish between the residential needs of different classes? ... Why, in this country of democracy, is a city government, representative of all classes of the community, taking it upon itself to to legislate a majority of citizens -- those who cannot afford to occupy a detached house of their own  out of the best located parts of the city area, practically always the parts with the best aspect, best parks and streets, best supplied with municipal services and best cared for in every way? Why does it deliberately segregate the foreign-born who have not yet become sufficiently prosperous to buy or rent a home under building regulations which preclude the possibility of inexpensive development and construction?"
Social justice inquiries like these evidently didn't keep a legal-minded pragmatist like Bassett or his allies up at night. What's more difficult to tell is whether, had the federal government not taken such an active role in promoting a vision of local government-based planning and zoning, a more European zoning model might have emerged in some states.

Related posts:


  1. Apart from the contemporaneous legal and scholarly critique of zoning, which didn't seem to have much effect, I'm curious how the fierce opposition from builders and developers was quashed?

    That is, popular belief still holds today that developers exercize unseemly influence over politicians and planning bureaucracies alike (via campaign contributions, for example) to get exemptions to build almost anything they want.

    So, if this is true, how was Euclidean zoning imposed over builders' influence in the first place? (and locally at that, not federally, as discussed in the post!) Was it through sheer force of "rational" econometric personality; i.e. much like the spread of "broken windows" policing outwards from the NYPD's Bratton in the 1990s?

    For example, there is an interesting segment on zoning in The Baltimore Rowhouse. The authors describe the difficulty in enforcing zoning regulations in that city until Bassett's code:

    "...Up in arms, developers circulated among themselves a pamphlet entitled 'How Zoning Will Reduce Present and Future Real Estate Values:' 'Zoning is an imported idea. It came from Europe with the label on it - Made in Germany. In attempting to shoot a few offenders such as owners of offensive garages or objectionable factories, zoners are using a gun loaded with buckshot that will hit many innocent bystanders.'"

    "The 1910 construction of six pairs of semidetached houses in affluent Forest Park prompted the suburb's civic improvement association to petition the Maryland legislature for relief. The legislature in 1912 responded with a law prohibiting row construction in the suburbs. Three years later the Court of Appeals declared the law unconstitutional and expressed its disapproval of the intent of the law to segregate on the basis of class. The residents of Forest Park responded by banding together to buy the parcel and the new owners subdivided the property for cottages 'to sell to persons known to the community to be of the right sort.'"

    "City managers, led by Mayor James Preston, were determined that new development [on newly-annexed city land] should be detached houses, not rows. Bassett created separate rowhouse and cottage districts based on density. The heated debate left a great deal of uncertainty about the constitutionality of the city's first zoning ordinance in 1923, and many builders decided that the zoning maps were not necessarily enforceable. Gallagher's tract was labeled E [detached houses], but he was determined to stick with rowhouses. In 1924 the Board of Zoning Appeals [changed] Gallagher's tract from E to D [rowhouses]. No written record of Gallagher's efforts to secure the zoning change exists, but he was a major builder with political influence."

    - quotes from pp. 150-155

    This scenario implies that strong econometric personalities were able to push codes that didn't necessarily have wide appeal (one could even argue the same for today's form-based-code regulators), but also that it was relatively easy for developers to cajole or outright corrupt administrators to get what they wanted. How (did it? and why?) did this ability fade over time such that zoning never became a toothless gesture, like so many contemporary "master plans" and "best practices" documents?

    Interestingly, much of the oppositional rhetoric to zoning from the early 20th century mirrors today's Tea Party rhetoric. Also interesting is Joel Kotkin's recent piece on Houston, which to some degree still functions as many American cities did pre-zoning in its ongoing incremental densification:

    1. To clarify, was the precedent set by Euclid v. Ambler really strong enough to accommodate the pervasive spread of single-use zoning, or was it more attributable to the interwar-war-postwar "efficiency" zeitgeist among elites led by personalities who eventually spread these ideals through monolithic entities like Municode?

      A similar debate occurred at the recent CNU over "pink codes" - whether bad precedent is set solely by gov't regulation emerging from court rulings, or from internal/private best practices distributed efficiently among large organizations, such as insurance requirements:

    2. Marc -- as for developers, I'll quote from William Fischel's 2001 article on zoning (

      "Marc Weiss (1987) found that the developers who pioneered large-scale residential subdivisions in Southern California in the pre-zoning era were the prime movers behind the adoption of zoning regulations in Los Angeles. Developers found that voluntary covenants were insufficient to protect their property’s value from incompatible uses on their borders. They also took a larger view, according to Weiss, about the possibility that some of their own parcels might be adversely affected by zoning. Developers believed zoning “would maximize aggregate land values, and stabilize values at each location, but would not maximize values everywhere” (1987, p. 101). Far from being something shoved down developers’ throats, zoning was actively promoted by developer organizations. Even J. C. Nichols, whose famous Kansas City developments were subject to covenants from 1907 onward, was an early and active advocate of zoning (Worley 1990).

      Developer support for zoning was not based on starry-eyed faith in the capacity of planners. It was founded on the need to induce homeowners to invest their savings in a large, undiversified asset. A 1920 zoning advocate pointed out that “So long as undesirable properties could encroach upon an area in which good residences and good income-bearing properties were already established, there would be no stability or trust in real estate as an investment” (Cheney 1920, p. 33). As planning-historian Christine Boyer points out, zoning was seen as a way to provide “an insurance policy that the single-family home owner’s investment would be protected in stable neighborhood communities…” (1983, p. 148)."

      In other words, it was the tract developers, not the individual builders, who were in favor of zoning regulations (specifically single-family residential-only zoning) as a means of inducing wealthy and upper middle class buyers to purchase large and expensive homes (this would also explain Bassett's otherwise odd focus on such homes), and this went hand-in-hand with Secretary/President Hoover's pro-ownership advocacy. I recall Randall O'Toole (yes, that Randall O'Toole) stating at a talk that, in the late 1800s, "native" (non-immigrant) Americans tended to be renters, while immigrants were more likely to be owners, for the reason that the natives viewed housing in the stereotypical single-family/single-use sense and needed to be prepared to move if neighborhood conditions changed, while immigrants viewed housing as an investment in the broadest sense of the term -- they took in boarders, would conduct business, add living units, and so forth. Zoning was therefore indirectly a way of keeping out immigrants, but was foremost a means of indulging the delicate sensitivities and preferences of the native population for financial gain.

      Now, this logic did not require the existing portions of cities to be zoned restrictively, but as I mentioned there was an insistence on the zoning plan being "comprehensive" (to placate the courts, apparently), which led to even CBDs being covered with various zoning designations. I think that point is where developer moneymaking instinct ceases and the progressive efficiency ideology you mentioned, along with the biases held by planners (who tended to be "natives"), prevailed. The elites always seemed to be much more interested in the older, mixed-use areas, with the initial somewhat patronizing concern of the early 20th century turning violent in the urban renewal era.

    3. Thanks for the thorough response! Do you know if O'Toole articulated the native/immigrant differential in homeownership in writing, because that's the first time I heard of it. Most people argue the opposite via historical narratives of New York, Chicago, tenements, etc.: that immigrants may certainly have *aspired* to homeownership, but couldn't necessarily achieve it for several generations, save for exceptions like the rowhouse+land rent cities that brought ownership within reach of the working classes.

      Good point also on differentiating between tract developers and individual builders (of apartment houses, for example). Weiss' analysis suggests a trajectory similar to the discussion on building codes and insurance at the Bacon's Rebellion link: that tract developers tried to bring predictability (i.e. attract upper-class investment) to their projects via private consensus means, and then, feeling this was inadequate, via municipal regulation.

    4. After some more digging, no need to cite O'Toole -- here is a recent study that has a literature review and its own analysis and conclusions:

      "For 1890 I reproduce data published in the U.S. Census Reports of that year. I find that the incidence of home ownership rose with age for both the foreign- and native-born families in cross-sections drawn from the census samples. Homeownership rates calculated for immigrants were surprisingly high and exceeded those for the native born by a substantial margin when corrected for city size and other coincident variables."

      I think the narrative has been distorted a bit by the experience of New York and the image of the tenements, which was actually not the ordinary 19th c. immigrant experience. The Philadelphia rowhouse (or the Chicago bungalow) are probably more typical. The study does note the statistical exceptionalism of New York:

      "Surprisingly, across the range of city size older immigrant families exhibited substantially higher propensity to own homes then their native-born counterparts. The difference (excluding New York) is estimated at 10.8 percentage points! New York, the largest city in 1900 and the port of entry for most new arrivals at the time, is an exception. In that city the homeownership rates of natives exceeded that of the immigrants, 23.8 percent versus 19.2 percent. New York City was also the home of some of the wealthiest people in the country, almost all of them native."

    5. Perfect, thanks! And yes, I agree that the NYC tenement experience, though it continues to linger in the cultural imagination, was not really reflective of the larger situation.

      But whereas O'Toole apparently attributes the difference in native and immigrant homeownership rates as 'natives needed to be prepared to move if the neighborhood conditions changed,' Sutch doesn't imply socioeconomic friction and attributes the difference to self-sorting instead:

      "Indeed, many native-born citizens remained renters even though they were thoroughly assimilated into the American
      culture and the American labor market. Insufficient funds for a down payment and imperfect access to credit barred some from ownership, particularly younger men. [I'd add that many immigrants were able to go to their own ethnic Building & Loans for this purpose, but perhaps there was no real equivalent for natives until the FHA came along.] (3)."

      "Immigration selects for the ambitious and hard working. Immigrants were reported to be heavy savers with an unusuallystrong demand for real estate. With only the census returns to inform us it is not possible to determine
      whether this desire to become homeowners was due to the landless status of their forbearers in Europe, their desire for status and a voice in their chosen community, their employer’s preference for workers who were settled
      and less likely to quit, or – as I believe – the importance of acquiring a life-cycle stock of wealth because of an inability to rely upon distant family members, the larger community, or co-ethnic neighbors for protection in old age. Probably a mix of such motives weighed more heavily on immigrants
      than natives (18)."

      But, on reflection, I think O'Toole's argument could certainly (partly) be behind the difference, given all the nativist unrest and corresponding political movements of the time.

    6. Yes, self-selection must be a large part of it. And the mention of Building & Loans is interesting also. I have to go back and re-read Joseph Bigott's "From Cottage to Bungalow" now -- it deals with this very issue in the context of 1870-1920 Chicago. An excerpt (talking about Polish immigrants' high rates of homeownership in West Hammond, IL):

      "Most houses were small, inexpensive cottages owned by families of unskilled laborers whose children went to work at an early age to help pay the cost of the house. Immigrants also purchased multiple-family residences and earned steady incomes from the rent they charged others, usually younger immigrant families. In turn, these same young families often took in boarders to supplement their incomes. When combined, the various sources of income allowed Poles to enter the housing market at an early age despite limited resources and irregular employment."

      Bigott also mentions the "King John Sobieski Building and Loan," supporting your point about ethnic organizations for housing finance that were probably less available to natives.

    7. Also, if you want a combination of "native" aesthetic outrage and intolerance combined with anti-immigrant attitudes, both alive and well in 2014, you could do worse than this comment board reacting to a seemingly humble two-story rowhouse in Queens:

      It's difficult to disentangle the two, but I'm unwilling to say that the aesthetic outrage is simply an excuse for anti-immigrant sentiment, since I've seen these same sorts of things said in contexts where the ethnicity of the builders is not at issue. I think it does show, though, that first generation immigrants (those from non-Anglophone countries, anyways) generally do not share the same sensitivities and/or status anxieties as the native population regarding the built environment, and this seems to have been the case for the immigrants of the 19th c. as well.

    8. Not sure I follow. Minimalism in zoning doesn't rule out extravagance in residential taste -- if anything, it enables it. Not a coincidence that the article is about Houston, then.

    9. I'm always hoping to convey things by shorthand, but I'm never successful.
      As an anti-urbanist observer of these discussions over density, zoning, preservation, transit, etc., I often marvel at what seems to me the utopianism of the urbanist crowd. (I make no distinction between smart growthers and urbanolibertarians, I guess I'm "color-blind in that range." I do find it interesting that preservationists, who in my untutored view seem like the original "urbanists," are now unwelcome, but all movements must have purges, I suppose.) Across all the blogs and forums, there's this conviction that all the things y'all love are just going to naturally flow from cities becoming denser and more populous. Population growth in America has meant the loss of the things I love. But maybe your hopes are really not fanciful. If you hate the things I love, you may actually be on course to have your utopian zeal rewarded! But grant one favor, if you can. If you find it difficult to "disentangle" aesthetic outrage and "anti-immigration sentiment," please allow that people like me may find it equally difficult to disentangle calls for more density, for less open space, fewer trees, no height limits, etc. - with immigration/population policy, a subject about which people may respectfully disagree, or once did at any rate.

    10. With all due respect Anonymous, I think you need to be a better "observer" (your term). There are too many contradictions, muddlings, and assertions in your post to make sense of it, perhaps revealing the limitations of internet dialog, or perhaps revealing the author's confusion and vague stance on "preservation" (whatever he/she thinks that means).

      "Population growth in America has meant the loss of the things I love."

      If you are truly an anti-urbanist observer, why concern yourself with a blog that expresses an interest in a very small segment of the landscape? From the tone of the post, I'm assuming the author resides somewhere in N. America, which still has LOTS of empty, and even wild, land to retreat into.

      To me the post reflects the angst some people felt when Turner proposed the "Frontier Thesis" in the late 19th century...
      ...Some fled the "evil" density of the East for the comfort of western isolation, and weren't too happy at the prospect when someone proposed that the isolated frontier itself had been closed.

      I'd humbly suggest the "antiurbanists" reflect on their own totalitarian impulses!: it's self-evident that not everyone cares for cities (but no one's forcing you into them!), but not everyone cares for the boonies either!

    11. @Anonymous: I'm not taking any political position on immigration here (nor would I share any such opinion on this blog, since it would be irrelevant and of no particular interest to anyone reading I would think). It's simply an inquiry into the sources of anti-development or anti-densification sentiment. That said, there are really two sources of pro-density thought which take more or less opposite positions on population/immigration: the environmentalist/Green movement (acutely concerned about overpopulation, or at least it was in the past) and the "market urbanist" movement (generally Libertarian or with Libertarian leanings, and therefore associated with permissive immigration policy). So I really don't think those two positions are easily conflated. My comments about "disentangling" the two sentiments pertained only to the particular article I linked to. In other cases, anti-urbanism advocacy is pretty clearly unrelated to immigration.

      @Marc: The NAHB just released data on immigrant/native homeowership today:

      The figures show much lower rates of ownership for immigrants, but again I wonder how they would look if they underwent the same correction for city size that Sutch performed. New York City and LA absorb a huge fraction of immigrants, and ownership there is very low.

    12. I'm taking a little break from packing up to move :-).

      @Charlie Gardner, I don't doubt that you're right about the disinterest in population. The libertarian right neatly co-opted the humanist language of the left to flip concern about the environment (and especially population, that once so preoccupied Americans, and on which they were heavily in agreement) and left and right are now indistinguishable on that as on so many things. I thus do not trouble to distinguish between them.

      I am sympathetic to many of their ideas, but am mostly driven mad by the reigning, density-loving local urbanist crowd: their routinely-expressed contempt for the efforts of an earlier generation of civic activists - for instance, in cobbling together open space to protect our aquifer and several federally-listed endangered species, and passing a heritage tree ordinance, toothless as it is; their default hostility to homeowners and to the private yards and gardens that do so much to mitigate the heat here (trust me, significant); their general neomania; and their overwhelming interest in/continual desire to remake the fraction of the city that is attractive, and by the metrics that matter to me, well-functioning (no, I don't live there), while having little to say about the rest, that is to say, most of it (it isn't "city-like" enough to hold their attention, or furnish skyscraper dreams, I suppose). And I'm so sorry if this is an uncomfortable or dull point to make on your blog - but here, sprawl is driven far less by density limitations than by immigration. All growth is good, so they are oddball urbanists, who confusingly welcome suburban sprawl.

    13. @Marc:
      What are your views on the national debt? Well, why don't you just move then?
      How do you feel about the death penalty? Hop on the bus, Gus!
      Or your thoughts on "healthcare"? Vote with your feet and move!
      Or education? For God's sake, man, just move already!

      Would that I were such a solipsist, capable of caring about things only as they pertain to my immediate field of view. It would be so easy, a game of peek-a-boo: cover your eyes, and it's like nothing's there! (I'm serious, I would be happier.)

      Most of us will live in cities someday, and I know that some people believe this will heal the earth somehow.

      I have my doubts. I can admire certain cities (probably yours, not mine, but mine is the future!) while questioning whether the mass of people are best shaped by living their whole lives in a landscape so urbanized that natural beauty nowhere intrudes. What kind of people result? Will they care about nature while rarely ever being exposed to it? I don't feel this is a trivial question. It is something I actually contemplate, as someone born and bred in what is commonly regarded as America's ugliest city. I am even able to work myself into knots worrying about China, a place I've never been, and its birds and mammals, but the people too (apologies if, here again, my interest strikes you as untoward) and the Party's "Urbanizing the Countryside" program.

      You invoke all that land empty of people (count Alaska, to make it really huge) as if the integrity of the landscape and the ecology therein relied on a simple binary - people here/no people - a species of that rhetorical device the anti-enviros used to trot out triumphantly, and sometimes still do: all the people in the world could fit comfortably in the Grand Canyon, etc. Or stacked in Yankee Stadium. Heck, we could all stand on a tiny spot on the moon, for all the good it would do us. Or the entire world population could all stand in their own homes! At once!*

      I've never been able to parse the unspoken corollary to such interesting statements, what the speaker believes he has said; what it has to do with biodiversity, ocean acidification, invasive plants, the Sixth Extinction, resources, pollution, tropical deforestation, tarsiers et al.

      It reminds me of some guy who came to university to "lecture" (to use the word broadly - one hopes his honorarium was not very high) on this one insight he had that there was nothing to environmental degradation, you see, because everything is just "chemicals" rearranging themselves in the earth's atmosphere (he overlooked helium, I guess). It would have been interesting theater to have made a mortal attack on him then and there, calmly to remind him as the life drained out that it was all "chemicals" and there was no particularity to any of it, least of all him.

      But that would have been a shame because he wouldn't have lived to see how his views became so mainstream; and I'm not a monster, I can see that it's nice for somebody to emerge a winner.

      *If we could just communicate with the great blue whales (better hurry!), we ought to try this out with them:
      All five or ten thousand of you that remain, could be lined up along the Marianas Trench, and you wouldn't even be able to see each other! Kind of like you probably can't see another whale right now! You could even add the 380,000 blue whales that were taken in the 20th century, you big guys wouldn't even come close to filling up the Challenger Deep. Not that you can live down there, but whatever. All the action's in the cities - there's plenty of room in the ocean, so no worries, mates!

    14. "[I'm] questioning whether the mass of people are best shaped by living their whole lives in a landscape so urbanized that natural beauty nowhere intrudes. What kind of people result? Will they care about nature while rarely ever being exposed to it?"

      But we, simply by being, are part of nature, as are our cities. They're just as natural as beaver dams (which significantly affect the surrounding environment!) or coral reefs. Only in the 18th century did the Anglo-American imagination assert that humans were somehow separate from nature, and this notion still thunders through the Anglo-American psyche (as your post shows). But to me, people-watching is just as much a joy as hawk-spotting or what have you.

      I don't remember the exact quote, but Jane Jacobs once said something along the lines of 'Americans are the greatest sentimentalizers of nature, and not by coincidence, they're also the greatest destroyers of nature.' (Forgiving her for not foreseeing the environmental destruction in contemporary China and other industrializing nations.)

      I don't really sympathize with the 'stack people up in one pinprick to save the rest of the planet' notion myself, and I have great respect for the environmental victories of the late 20th century, but I still get the impression that sentimentalizers of nature only tend to destroy it by killing it with kindness.

      Forgive me for not taking the antiurban subset of the American environmentalist movement seriously, because I see the same silly utopianism that you may see in urbanists: I see them running around preaching deprivation *for others* while living luxuriantly - in resource-intensive country retreats - themselves.

    15. Yes, of course, when the Corps floods a bottomland hardwood forest with 4 million acre-feet of water so they can stock it with bass, and people can run around on motorboats, it's just like when beavers build their dams!
      Why didn't I see that before?!

      But now I'm the one who's lost. Why was that "not a coincidence," Jane? And where do the Pleistocene megafauna fit into your formulation? What is it that "sentimentalizers of nature" actually do? I'm middlingly familiar with species loss around the globe, admittedly weak on bugs - which creatures did we kill with kindness? Dogs and cats? And what exactly was "natural" about the population explosion after the Green Revolution? If during the Cold War we had leveled a city with an H-bomb, that would have been natural too, I guess, that also being the result of R&D. There's still time for that awesome display of nature.

      Oh, I forgot, in the view presented everything that takes place on the surface of the earth is in accordance with nature. Nature just means terrestrial. Why stop there? Maybe it means the universe, the multiverse. Which means it's well on its way to meaning nothing.

      Orwell was imperfect at prophecy, but he was right about what's going on when people deliberately manipulate the meanings of words: it's nearly always sinister.

      "We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic."

      It's so weird how that never stops being true.

    16. ...and I hope Charlie doesn't mind our veering off topic. :-)

      - - -

      Charlie, I found the paper on "Birth Networks" in your link interesting, because it seems to represent an inversion of Sutch's explanation of 19th century immigrant homeownership:

      "[Immigrants placed] importance on acquiring a life-cycle stock of wealth because of an inability to rely upon distant family members, the larger community, or co-ethnic neighbors for protection in old age."

      Mundra and Oyelere argue that the situation is now different; that immigrants *do* use these resources to secure homeownership - I was surprised to discover that while the native homeownership rate fell during the Great Recession, the immigrant rate *rose*!

    17. Anonymous, the computer you're commenting from is consuming a great amount of coal, endangering the various flora, fauna, and ecosystems you cited. So unless you're willing to go hardcore "off the grid," to me your comments only reflect the fundamental hypocrisy of modern environmentalist religiosity: there is a concern over the abstract sins of *others'* coupled with ignorance of one's own contribution to those sins.

      That evil "green revolution" enabled a population explosion that included yourself! And of overpopulation: who do you propose be the first to volunteer? It's easy to angst over abstract environmental problems if responsibility can always be shifted to some sinister "other" (like those evil urbanists).

      Look up the definition of "nature":
      "The forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world."

      So yes, we and everything we do *are* a part of nature. It was actually modern environmentalism that distorted the word by detaching humanity from it (We are apparently now Ian McHarg's "planetary disease"). I don't think we'll reach an ecotopia until we realize we're a legitimate part of nature again.

      Right now, to me it seems the "greener" we try to be as we retreat into "nature," the worse our environmental problems get: Berm an office park into a field, and suddenly it doesn't matter that everyone's forced to drive there, because there are plants all around the thing!

    18. Our blog host has been patient. He needn't worry, I'm only passing through. But I would feel uneasy if the record did not reflect, the view you and your numerous cultural allies are espousing is that we are beyond nature, that we don't need nature. That is a very different thing from being part of nature. When we are forced to remember that, we may feel very sentimental indeed, but that will be the least of it.
      Believe it or not, I already had a pretty good idea about where the electric power comes from. But I will take great glee in explaining to the conservationist to whom I've been married lo these many years, that the dams he's successfully opposed, the land he's had a hand in preserving, or keeping in forest, the prairie restoration, the species monitoring and all the rest of it - well, it must stop now. In fact, he should roll it all back unless he commits to using only a pencil.
      And that I learned that on the internet from someone who believes the world would not be diminished without hawks.
      I can already see it's not going to go well.

  2. So: zoning in a small way contributed to enabling an established population to peacefully absorb large numbers of newcomers and cope with rapid wholesale change? Or the fear of friction or instability, we're now sure, was unfounded?

    1. Anonymous: this isn't a critique of zoning per se. It's a critique of one particular implementation of zoning. And I do not believe it was a reaction to immigration so much as it was a reaction to land use unpredictability allowed by the car (large-scale immigration had been ongoing since the 1860s, but zoning only started gaining traction shortly after the Model T appeared on city streets). The fears were certainly not without foundation, although they were typically wildly exaggerated to play to people's apprehensions. The question was not whether zoning would proliferate, but in what form would it proliferate? Everything described above is not necessarily inherent in zoning, but rather is a distinctive feature of the American approach to it.

    2. Thinking of my grandparents, who each left the Missouri farm they grew up on, in the twenties: a seemingly nomadic period during the thirties, as my grandfather strung lines for AT&T; then a tiny white house in OKC, and finally the "custom" brick dream home (modest now, of course) in the mid-fifties, in Nichols Hills, an OKC neighborhood an old or new urbanist would detest.
      Beyond growing a few tomatoes, neither grandparent ever thought again of farming, but I expect the idea of buying a home with little-to-no yard would have seemed strange to them, given their rural roots.
      It's not as pleasingly sinister as the idea of a protection racket for the well-enough-off, or of playing to people's fears, but I wonder if developers of zoned single-family homes were not simply trying to sell to many such once-rural people.

    3. Interesting question, anonymous. I don't really have an answer for you. I can say that the "cottage style" dwelling (the freestanding house) was very popular going back well into the 1800s, and was basically intended to be an imitation of a farmhouse but on a much smaller lot (farmhouses being the traditional example of a "single-family detached house"). Did they have special appeal to ex-farmers of the 1920s and 1930s? They very well might have, but they were also widely popular among Americans of all stripes.

  3. Another place where zoning goes rather wrong is when zoning standards for new-build suburbs are applied to already-existing cities, which is the case in a lot of the Northeast. In that case, minimum lots sizes end up higher than actually existing lot sizes and other ridiculous things like that, so it ends up with the zoning code attempting to "preserve neighborhood character" by encouraging (notionally) the complete demolition and reconstruction of the city into a new and completely different-looking city or else (actually) discouraging people from ever tearing down anything at all, because they'll be unable to rebuild it within the existing zoning.
    And zoning is also not very good at responding to changes in economic conditions: it's one thing to discourage any and all changes when the city is declining and changes are generally for the worse, it's a completely different thing to do that when the demand is increasing and freezing the housing supply leads to shortages, sky-high prices, overcrowding, and so on.

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