Sunday, May 9, 2010

Some Of Todays Unintended Consequences

Zoning, according to Wikipedia, has a primary purpose of segregating uses that are thought to be incompatible. You know, keeping things that annoy good folks at a distance while allowing them to exist.
In 1916, New York City adopted the first zoning regulations to apply city-wide as a reaction to The Equitable Building which towered over the neighboring residences, diminishing the availability of sunshine.
The rest of the country quickly followed suit and began to separate those uses that people enjoyed from those that were necessary but, by their very nature, offensive. Housing near the stockyards, not good. Smokestack industries near playgrounds, not good. Traffic intensive business near neighborhood schools, not good-well- maybe. Single-family homes near apartments, well, OK in some areas but it brings the home values down. Small single family's near estate lots, not in my neighborhood. Zoning has become out of control.

As our definitions of what is incompatible have become more narrowly interpreted and the scale of development has become larger, the separations of our land uses have started to cause us some problems. No longer are we within walking distance of our schools and churches, our local grocery or restaurants or even the places that service our very means of getting around, our automobiles. Everything that we need to do takes a trip of 1 or more miles. If my car was to have a dead battery or be out of gas, it is at least a 1 1/2 mile walk to the nearest gas station. And I consider myself to be closer than most.

I must say that the majority of this has happened during the "age of cheap oil". From 1916 through the early 1990s oil was relatively cheap and people could use it abundantly. Subdivisions could be spread out and just about everyone could live on a short, little used street. The cul-de-sac became the desired location for families with young children. It made little difference that these said cul-de-sacs were some distance from the schools and parks these children need or even greater distances from the shopping and jobs that the parents required.

The May issue of the Harvard Business Review notes a recent study which shows that areas with cul-de-sacs force their residents to travel 26% farther than the residents of areas with interconnected streets. As I have stated here before, government services are also forced to make the greater travel distances at a cost not just to the areas residents, but to the entire community. Subdivisions which have been zoned to limit the commercial opportunities and allow these cul-de-sacs could be forcing the travel distances closer to 30% or higher.

We are reaching the point of an end of cheap oil and will soon realize that such a continued excessive use of resources is surely unsustainable. Our zoning laws will have to be rewritten to reflect better uses of land and, indirectly, the resources necessary to maintain urban life. The Brookings Institute has also noticed that, according to a recent analysis of census data, more and more young, whites are returning to the city cores in America, something like a reverse "white flight". While they are not fleeing an influx of undesirable neighbors, they are escaping an undesirable living situation.

Since our past history of unintended consequences with zoning leaves a lot to be desired, how do you think we will fare in the future?

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