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Who should zone cities?


The Old Urbanist has just published an informative post called “Where Zoning Went Wrong.” In it, he talks about some of the defining characterstics of American city planning and suggests that the delegation of planning authority from states to local municipalities is what has caused many of the challenges that city builders now face.

But before we get into that discussion, let’s outline the characeristics. By way of Edward Bassett’s handbook on zoning (1922), the Old Urbanist outlines 9 characeristics of American planning. They are:

  1. Approval of the exclusion of commercial activity from residential zones
  2. Failure to disapprove of the exclusion of multifamily from residential zones
  3. Extreme deference to localities
  4. Insistence on a “comprehensive” plan
  5. Irreconcilable conflict between planning and zoning
  6. Heavy reliance on legal process as a substitute for sound policymaking
  7. Rejection of aesthetic concerns
  8. Concern with protecting the wealth of well-to-do homeowners
  9. Lack of comparative focus

If you’re a planner or city geek, some of these items will be familiar to you – particularly the first one. Single-use zoning (or Euclidean zoning) is widely criticized as being hugely detrimental to cities, which is why mixed-use is so much in vogue right now. We’ve realized that there are tremendous benefits to creating neighborhoods and precincts where people can live, work, play, and learn. And not just do one of those things.

But one point that somewhat surprised me was number 3: the deference to localities. The Old Urbanist’s argument is that around the world – from Germany to Japan – state and federal governments play a much more active role in city planning as compared to the US. And that the result is a different kind of city. As one example, most other countries don’t have single-family detached-only residential zones. The US does.

Now, you could argue that it’s partially cultural. The US is all about individualism, whereas many other countries around the world have a greater sense of collectivism. But as the Old Urbanist suggests, it could also be because local municipalities are more prone to NIMBYism, which can ultimately lead to downzoning and more restrictive land use policies. Interesting.

It was surprising to me though because I’m a firm believer in strong cities. They drive the economy and I generally believe that they deserve to look after themselves. And so could it really be that they need higher levels of government to keep advocacy groups and community opposition in check?

Immediately I thought of the planning environment here in Toronto and Ontario. The Places to Grow Act, which is largely responsible for the intensification we’re seeing across the region, is provincial legislation. And “the Board” (OMB) that hears appeals arising from the municipal planning level is also provincial. So in other words, provincial decisions trump municipal ones.

Many people believe that the OMB should be abolished. But probably an equal number of people believe that it’s critical to keeping development moving in Ontario. And, given our discussion here, it could be keeping our land use policies in check.

But at the same time, I wonder if there isn’t a way to structure local planning such that it doesn’t succumb to individual interests and instead keeps the greater city building agenda at the forefront. If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Image: Old Urbanist

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