The irony of many of our urban problems is that they stem from well-intentioned decisions that we made when trying to make cities good places for living.
Zoning is one of these problems. Before you mentally switch off, you shouldn’t think about zoning as some boring piece of regulation, rather you should think of zoning as the art of crafting a cities uses.
Jane Jacobs is one of my heros. She was an American journalist who became the most influential person in modern-day urban planning. Being a keen observer and phenomenal writer, she documented The Death and Life of American Cities in a truly human way that hadn’t been done before. Rather than looking at urban planning from the sky down (like traditional planning more than often did), she looked at it from the street up.
What she saw has shaped the very core of modern urban planning. I’m yet to come across a book that hasn’t referenced her.
If you were to get only one thing from Jacobs, it would be the importance of diversity, more specifically, of mixed-use zoning.
A quick history of zoning
One of the big achievements of traditional urban planning was its invention of zoning.
While zoning in it’s purest form has been around for centuries, it really took off back when capitalism was being born. Big factories producing all sorts of commercial and consumer goods were being built everywhere. These factories were a major source of employment for town families which began to live around the factory for convenience.
Our most natural tendency was to live close-by where we work.
This worked great, for a while. Factories at those times were grimy and polluting places. What began to happen was that the quality of living around the factories dropped dramatically. Air quality from coal-burning affected peoples lungs, faeces from the horses which were the main form of transport filled the neighbourhood with a thick stench and likely contributed to the spreading of viruses. Houses were overcrowded as the low-income workers struggled to find places to live.
In response to these poor living conditions, city governments began separating toxic commercial activities from where people lived, so that a glue factory couldn’t be built next to townhouses. This greatly improved people’s quality of living, but it was taken too far.
How it’s done today
Today when most businesses aren’t glue-factories, we still separate residential from commercial use with strict zoning.
Most modern zoning looks like:
- Use-based zoning codes – Dictating the types of land use per area (residential, commercial, office buildings, townhouses, etc)
- Prevents unwanted mixture – This prevents a commercial property from being mixed with residential. No garbage-tip next to your home.
- Also prevents wanted mixture – Unfortunately the big problem with modern zoning is that it unnecessarily creates mono-functional cities. This is bad news, like really bad.
Zoning stifles diversity
Jacobs observed that what happens when a city has tight use-based zoning you get mono-functional neighbourhoods. In cities, like Sydney Australia, where people eat in one area, work in another, play in a third struggle to create truly vibrant urban environments.
Firstly, this division of modern cities by use is unnecessary. More and more business is moving towards offices and non-polluting manufacturing. So there really less reason today why we should be separating commercial from private use land.
The critical reason, however, is that mono-functional cities mean wild extremes of high-low activity. During peak hours businesses, outdoor spaces, etc. are flooded with people to the point that they can’t serve them all, but in low periods they are empty.
- less safe streets – mono-functional neighbourhoods have consistent times when the streets are dead empty making them feel (and then become) targets for unseen crime.
- biased towards big business – if your customers only come during a short peak of activity, then you need to make all your revenue in a short period of time which means you need to have a large capacity to support peak rushes. This kind of scale can only be covered by large business, meaning that small businesses get squeezed out of mono-functional neighbourhoods.
- less interesting neighbourhoods – Intense peaks of activity with long dulls don’t support that types of secondary-use businesses that contribute to a cities culture.
- crappy parks – Parks need constant stream of people to remain inviting and used. If your park only attracts the mid-day crowd, then it’s more likely to be used for other, less savoury purposes at other hours.
So rather than traditional use-based zoning, the good cities are moving towards zoning diversity in, rather than out.
This can simply be by relaxing zoning regulations to encourage mixture, or by fancier methods such as performance-based zoning, which stipulates the goals for the area (X jobs, X affordable housing, X walkability score) and allows developers to meet that however they think is most effective.
There is still a real need for zoning in urban cities. In particular, things that greatly detract from urban vitality such as car parks, warehouses, etc, need to be kept out of urban areas to protect them.
- Zone for mixed primary-use – rather than forcing all of the same things to be in one area, restrict it from happening.
- Zone for mixed building ages – this creates a diversity of rental costs (older being cheaper) which supports business innovation and income diversity.
- Allow diverse building types – This is a flow-on effect from the above two, but streets with a range of different building styles, designs, and types are more interesting than streets with all the same office building, house, or factory.
- Traditional zoning was about segregating land uses so that residential areas didn’t get polluted.
- This resulted in single-use suburbs and mono-functional cities, which lack the requirements for vibrant street life, while also segregating people by class.
- However since good urban living thrives on diversity, modern zoning attempts to zone in diversity, meaning mixed-uses in a single neighbourhood.
So the next time an office building is put up in your highly residential area be happy for it, as this is creating a higher diversity of primary-use which is likely to bring along with it more secondary-use businesses which foster street life, safer streets, and good city culture.
Keep reading this series – Part 5: Praying to the Car Gods