We regulate what gets built in our cities. Common regulations includes:
- Requiring a minimum amount of parking depending on the use of the building.
- Limiting the floor-area-ratio - how much floor space can be built on an area of land.
- The internal use of the property (known as Euclidean zoning.)
- Requiring buildings to be set back a minimum distance from the street and property boundaries.
- Requiring sprinkler systems, fire lanes, and other things required by suburban building codes.
- And many more...
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;
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;
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;
- Requiring a minimum amount of parking requires property owners to provide expensive parking instead of doing something productive with their land (such as space for living or doing business), which drives up costs for everyone, induces driving by oversupplying parking, and in general, wastes space by littering the landscape with parking lots and garages, which spaces out things worth walking to.
- Limiting the floor-area-ratio keeps the supply of floorspace scarce enough so $/sqft does not drop, and while protecting the existing building owners' investments and preventing poor people from affording to move in.
- Regulating the placement of properties throughout the city clusters land uses together, often at automobile scale distances. Instead of the barbershop being a short walk from homes, it is driving distance. Instead of asking our citizens to walk home intoxicated from the bar, we place the bar so far from home that they have no option but to drive. Because our legs are useless outside, the only other way to have the freedom to get where you want to go, when you want to go, is to drive a car. Anyone who can afford to do so owns a car.
- Requiring setbacks encourages land consolidation and otherwise just forces the city to be spaced out farther than it would, reducing what can be walked to.
- Buildings that have stood for a century but are non-conforming to modern building codes (such as lacking a $100,000 sprinkler system) end up being denied any permit to rehabilitate while they dilapidate further.
- I can go on...
What does the result of this vision-less patchwork of regulations produce?
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;
Now, let's look at some places that are good urbanism, and see what stands out;
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|
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.
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.)