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Tuesday, March 5

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Urban Planning Mon Nov 28 2011

Zoning at 85 and a Reading Assignment

Urban Land Institute senior fellow Edward T. McMahon, whom I'll assume prefers to go by Edward or at least Ted, has a post up today commemorating the 85th anniversary of the decision in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty, the Supreme Court case that protected single-issue or "Euclidean" zoning.

McMahon addresses some of the myth surrounding the negative impacts of land use regulations generally and zoning specifically. Critics of zoning (and the planning it requires) argue that zoning codes infringe on individual property rights and as a result in the aggregate lead to less efficient uses of land, which in turn drive down land values and drive up costs of living.

Undoubtedly, Euclidean zoning on its own is inefficient, at the least because it creates zones that limit use way out into the future, people make long-term plans based on those zones, and changing them can be immensely difficult, whatever the economic or technological changes that come around. Alternatives to Euclidean zoning, including modular zoning and performance zoning, the latter of which was advocated in part by the Metropolitan Planning Council in a 2001 report.

What grabbed me about McMahon's piece is his mythbusting regarding Houston. Opponents of zoning point to Houston, which has grown in population and economy while other major cities have declined despite not having a city-wide zoning code. I would excerpt McMahon's point on this, but ULI has an insane policy of charging you to copy and paste text from their site.

Thankfully, McMahon's point is easily summarized: while Houston has grown, comparable cities in Texas with zoning codes (including San Antonio and Austin) have also grown, some at greater rates and with lower unemployment, and without the risk of someone running a marble grinding business out of their house next door to you.

This latter scenario (which comes from a real case) underlies the problem. Zoning is an expression of a natural instinct to protect your quality of life and your property from de facto intrusions from the way other people use their property. So while Houston lacks a zoning code, it does feature deed-restricted and covenant communities, which can be ruled by iron-fisted homeowners associations. In other words, the fairly broad and democratic regulations embodied in a municipal zoning code are merely privatized to homeowners associations with less transparency and sometimes less accountability.

Euclidean zoning is antiquated, notwithstanding its awesome name. Chicago has a proud and important history as a laboratory for urban planning. It may be time to revisit the zoning code in a comprehensive way. Given his eagerness to wipe the slate clean and considerable influence with the City Council, Mayor Emanuel could get the process started in a way a more compromised executive couldn't.

Which brings me to your reading assignment, this book which traces the evolution of Chicago's own zoning code. The current code is a creature of thousands of amendments, but its framework was built as the result of large, concentrated efforts by city leadership. Um...see if they have it at the library.

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