myurbandream: (zeguenerin=ich)
[personal profile] myurbandream
For hadanelith, who asked about this weeks ago, sorry for the delay!

I'm going to preface this with a disclaimer: I'm an urbanist, I dislike suburbs for a number of reasons, and land-use zoning is one of the tools of suburbia. Of my two points below, one is intrinsic to the loss of walkable urbanism; the other is only tangentially related. So there's my bias, up front and disclaimed.

I'm gonna skip all the history of land-use zoning, which can basically be summed up with two phrases: "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and "Not In My Back Yard" aka NIMBY. We'll come back to that last one, though.

My problem with land-use zoning is two-fold: 1) it curtails pedestrian accessibility and is therefore deadly to walkable urbanism. And 2) it lets other people tell you what you can and can't do with your property.

Allow me to elaborate.

Land-use zoning means that you have only one land use on each piece of property. So each property can be an office OR a restaurant OR a house OR a bookshop, etc. That rules out the ability to have mixed-use buildings, where the restaurant and the bookshop are on the ground floor, the office is on the second floor (or next door in the same building), and the apartments are on the third and fourth floors, etc. With zoning, every use is in a different building and, thanks to minimum parking regulations, on a different block as well. That means from your house you have to walk AT LEAST one block to reach the restaurant, the office, or the bookstore - and because the suburbs take this concept to the extreme, it's usually more like six blocks to one of those and another four blocks to the next. In suburbia, similar things are concentrated together, so there are a bunch of houses next to each other, and six blocks away are all the restaurants and offices and bookshops. That doesn't sound so bad.... except that there isn't usually a direct walking/bicycling route to get there, so a 10 minute trip by car is a 25 minute trip by bicycle and a 45 minute walk. Pedestrian traffic dies, the only way to get anywhere is by car, and the people who don't have a car are screwed.

For extra detail, it's generally assumed that a residential density of 15-20 dwelling units per acre is the threshold for walkable urbanism, aka enough foot traffic to support commercial developments just from people walking by. Garden-style apartment buildings average about 18 units per acre. Single family neighborhoods average about 3 homes per acre. That's a huge gap.

Part Two!

Land-use zoning is under the purview of the city/municipality that regulates development in your area. Zoning is generally handled by a planning/development department within the government, and approved by City Council or the equivalent political body. For cities with zoning, those people, whoever they may be, get to pretty much arbitrarily decide what they think any given piece of land ought to be developed as, and then make it basically illegal to do anything else unless you come and ask their permission, and they still have the right to tell you "no" JUST BECAUSE. I have seen property zoned for X that has stood vacant for a decade, because there's no market demand for X, and when the owner tries to have it re-zoned into something that will sell, the city staff have looked me in the face and said they don’t care, they're willing to wait until the market changes so they can get what they want on that property. Meanwhile the owner (my client) is stuck paying property taxes on land they can't sell or develop, just because of the zoning.

That's bullshit.

Coming back now to NIMBY, which drives me up the fucking wall. NIMBY is what happens when people buy a home that backs onto commercial property and then get upset when the restaurant behind their house stays open until 2am playing live music and hosting large parties. What the hell did you think was going to happen, people? And then the neighborhood gets even more upset when the City won't let them build a ten-foot fence between the houses and the restaurant. Property owners think that zoning should protect them from their neighbors by preventing any activity they disapprove of ("Not In My Back Yard"), but at the same time, zoning should not prevent them from doing whatever they want on their own property. You can't have it both ways, people.

Here ends my soapbox.
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