City Life and Design: Preservationists, Zoning, and Sprawl
In last week's article, we familiarized ourselves with a few basic vocabulary words concerning city life and design (gentrification, mixed-use and density). I briefly explained in that article how new development of an area can both contribute to and help solve housing scarcity and affordability, depending on the type and location of the development. Today we will continue this exploration and learn some new vocabulary terms along the way.
Because people don't always like change, bringing a new building to a neighborhood can cause a lot of controversy. This is especially true when a new building comes at the expense of building that has been around for some time and will be demolished to make room for the new development. There are numerous reasons for resisting a new development, but a significant number of individuals have adopted an ideological stance against development in their neighborhoods and cities as a whole. These people may be called preservationists because they wish to indefinitely preserve a district's current makeup. In general, these people see new development as a threat to their lifestyle for one reason or another.
Fortunately for preservationists, most cities in the world are governed by development laws and regulations generally called zoning. A neighborhood's zoning code governs the types of uses that a building can accommodate and may also dictate limits on building dimensions, where it sits on a property and how much parking is required or allowed. As anyone coming to visit the United States from Europe or other continents may remark, there are a lot of houses with yards, garages and driveways here, even in cities. This is largely an effect of zoning laws, which strictly dictate how many families may live on a property. The typical american neighborhood is strictly single-family zoning, meaning that no single lot may accommodate housing for anything other than one family unit. When someone wants to build an apartment building in a city neighborhood, preservationists often have zoning laws on their side, prohibiting the development.
Given the difficulty of building new housing in American cities, strict zoning laws have caused cities to spread outwards into the enormous metropolitan regions, such as Houston or Atlanta, which shock the world by their size. This process is called urban sprawl, or just sprawl for short. While sprawling cities are big in size, they are often home to fewer people than much smaller cities in Asia or Europe. Much of the population in a sprawling city lives in homes and, because of zoning laws, are not within walking distance to any businesses, requiring the use of a car for the vast majority of trips. Therefore, sprawl is problematic because of its contribution to air pollution as well as the social isolation of families.
Zoning in the United States functions largely in service of preservationist goals and the continuation of urban sprawl. Each of these phenomena reinforce one another to an extent and are extremely difficult to reverse or even slow down. Consider using these new terms in a conversation about your neighborhood this week. If you have an insight about development in your city or town, write a comment below.