Let's Regulate For The Places We Want
July 11, 2022

We regulate what gets built in our cities. Common regulations includes:

You would think that we would set up our regulatory system to build the best of what the people want. A good way of telling what people want and like is to look at the art they decorate their homes with. It is common to go into a home or even a waiting room of a business in the United States and see paintings of beautiful, traditional cities hung on the wall;

A print of a painting of a traditional street for sale at Hobby Lobby store in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Completely different to the strip mall environment outside.

We hang up artwork of things we fantasize about and bring us happiness. But, then you go outside into places built in the last century in the United States;


Shopping at a major retailer area in Meridian, Mississippi.


A residential street in Conway, Arkansas. I do not mean to pick on you, Conway. Years ago, I lived in Conway, so it is easy for me to reference. Most of the United States, that was built after World War 2, looks like this.


A new commercial street in Conway, Arkansas. This was built after I moved away, so it represents the latest in urban planning, circa late 2010s.

Where is the disconnect? Why do we fantasize about beautiful places, then set into law that we can only build the total opposite? The people passing the laws have the best intentions in mind. "People do not want to live next to factories." "We need to have wide roads to respond to emergencies." "We do not want to be Kowloon."

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
— English proverbCitation4

Individually, each regulation might sound like a good idea. But, when mixed together they can have an unintended consequences. Here are some examples of how the regulations I listed above work together to create a suburban dystopia;

What does the result of this vision-less patchwork of regulations produce?


Let's spend a day walking around Houston, Texas.


Let's spend a day out shopping in Greater Sudbury, Ontario.

Is this really the pinnacle of human existence? Is this what the lawmakers were envisioning as the best we can accomplish?

We have missed the forest for the trees. We have picked our favourite plants (a tropical fern here, a cactus there, and a winter-hardy evergreen), and end up with a dying incompatible forest. Instead, we should envision the forest we want, and pick to plants that would accomplish it. Start by looking at a place, and identifying the components that make it up.

Let's look at a few places that are not good urbanism, and pick out the elements that stand out;


A street in Tampa, Florida


A new apartment complex in Bayonne, New Jersey.


West Valley City, Utah.


A neighbourhood in Bakersfield, California.


A neighborhood in Warsaw, Poland.

Now, let's look at some places that are good urbanism, and see what stands out;


Nafplion, Greece.


An alley in Philadelphia.


San Juan, Puerto Rico.


Florence, Italy.

These are the obvious elements of good and bad urbanism that stood out to me. I am sure we could stare at endless examples for hours and come up with a much more comprehensive list.

If we were to develop regulation to create great urbanism, what would it look like? Let's compile together a list of what our regulation should encourage and discourage;

What we should encourage What we should discourage
  • Many individual buildings per block.
  • Homes above businesses.
  • No segregation between commercial and residential.
  • Buildings made of natural materials.
  • Many doors along the streets.
  • Non-asphalt street surface.
  • Tree canopy covering the street.
  • Pedestrian alleys.
  • Lots of squares.
  • Highly connected network of crooked, narrow streets.
  • Buildings flush against the river.
  • Wide roads for heavy vehicle traffic that are far and few between, and not through the center of town.
  • Neighbourhoods are compact enough that a 30 minute walk covers a large amount of the city.
  • Few buildings per block.
  • Few doors along the street.
  • Majority of streetscape dedicated to cars.
  • Signs are the tallest structures.
  • Lots of space between each building.
  • Filler "green space" that serves no purpose.
  • Commercial and residential uses segregated.
  • Bland modern architecture.
  • Main Streets built to highway standards.
  • Car scale distances between residential and commercial uses.
  • Many disconnected streets and long detours.
  • Repetitive landscape of large, identical buildings.

This looks nothing like the output of our current regulations of setbacks, parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, Euclidean zoning, traffic planning, etc. The current system, in most of the United States, outlaws much of the left column and encourages much of the right column.

I am an urbanist. I enjoy visiting wonderful cities around the world. I see patterns in what makes some places great, and others not so great, and I want to bring the best back home. Attending city planning meetings or looking at our zoning maps makes me sad because we are knee deep in debating how to trim a tree while the forest around us is dying.

Junk regulation produces junk places. In the 20th century, we institutionalized modern urban planning by accrediting institutions that issued urban planning degrees that conformed to the modern ideals of the time. This gave a facade of seriousness that they knew what they are talking about, and quickly replaced the traditions we have been following for millennia. Junk regulations spread around the world, and we ended up with the same junk results, that look identical as most places built in the 20th century.


Jersey City, New Jersey, but it might as well be in Germany.


Paris, France. Does anything about this look French to you? You could convince me this was on the outskirts of Toronto or Tokyo.

Can we recover from this without throwing out our current planning and land-use regulations and starting fresh? However we proceed, when we come up with new regulations, instead of just passing laws that focus on a particular problem, we should start from a vision of what we want our city to be, then ask our ourselves: What should the laws be to accomplish that vision?

A good place to start for inspiration is to find a place that historical preservationists fight to protect but urban planners outlaw copying. They are hidden everywhere (hint: it is usually the areas most popular with tourists.)


We used to create a beautiful places, such as St. Augstine, Florida.


Eureka Springs, Arkansas. A popular place for Arkansans to honeymoon.