“Our existing ordinance is rather antique.” Elwood Taylor, former chairman of the Planning Commission, Upper Pottsgrove Township, Pennsylvania.
“There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.” Louis Armstrong.
Most cities have zoning ordinances. Zoning ordinances create zones in cities. Okay so far.
The zones that ordinances create are zones that legally limit allowable uses (residential, commercial, manufacturing, institutional), building sizes (usually maximum building floor area per lot, sometimes heights) building locations (setbacks from streets, side yards, alleys), parking and loading requirements, and a myriad of other kinds of limitations.
Zoning was originally undertaken to promote and protect health and welfare in choking, filthy urban tenements. Ultimately, it became a tool to atomize the city, segregating uses and driving density down. Zoning has wrecked cities and given us drive-by suburbanism: mall here, school there, supermarket a few miles over there, quarter acre lots with lots of lawn, office 30 minutes away in the city center. This, of course, is precisely the kind of idea about cities that we must abandon. Fast.
Using most contemporary zoning ordinances for most cities, the neighborhood shown here would be illegal.
Too dense, too tall. Too many different uses. Not enough parking. Not enough loading docks. And of course, just what we need in the next city.
These days there are some additional tools that can get us closer to what we need, such as overlay districts, where limitations are customized as overlays of existing zones. Or form based codes, pioneered by the new urbanists, to get buildings to meet certain physical goals like massing, building-to-building relationships, even the shape of roofs or the presence of porches.
Fine. But what we need now is something very different. What we need now is some kind of no-zoning ordinance. No zones. Just all kinds of uses jumbled up, densely. No requirement of any kind for parking. No requirement for loading. None of the usual zoning restrictions.
Well, okay, I don’t want an oil refinery next door to me here on Capitol Hill, or a tannery, or a Wal-Mart. Or a skyscraper: we all need access to the sun, so nobody can hog by casting shadows on others. Some restrictions are needed.
But we live in what’s called an R-4 zoning district here in Washington. That means day-care is permitted, churches, medical offices and health care facilities, home occupations no larger than 250 square feet (permit required), parking lots (!), rehab centers. But no retail.
No cafes, no green grocers, no meat markets, no cozy neighborhood bars, no news stands (for those of us old fogeys who still read newspapers). For retail you have to go to a C (commercial) district. Our closest here on the Hill features a 7-Eleven, which sells tons of junk food and other useless crap and spews out mountains of trash everywhere in the neighborhood; a hair dresser; and a lone cafe.
The dense, mixed use, walkable city we need is illegal. Ack!
It was instructive to see Washington (population about 592,000) with nearly 2,000,000 visitors on Inauguration Day. The roads were mostly closed on that memorable day, and the trains were crammed way beyond capacity. So for 48 hours or so everyone across the city was on foot. The sidewalks, even in our quiet residential neighborhood, were jammed. Folding tables were set up in various spots to hawk water, coffee, hand warmers (it was really cold) and memorabilia. Most of us thought nothing of a walk of 2 or 5 or 10 miles.
In that one delicious moment we could see what our city could be, or needs to be. Dense. Walkable. Mixed up – with all kinds of uses close at hand to every neighborhood. Easy access to many more transit options, and way fewer cars. What we really need is a city that the zoning ordinance prohibits. I think we know what we have to do next.
A colleague in Chicago, a fellow architect, once remarked that our cities are nothing more than diagrams of our zoning ordinances. The real designers of cities are zoning officials.
Somebody call rewrite.
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