Monday, August 30, 2010

How Zoning Changed the City

Have you ever watched a movie about the late 1800s to early 1900s and noticed that in cities many people lived in an apartment above their business?  Remember in Westerns the doctor who had a clinic attached to his house.  This used to be a common practice before the advent of zoning.  It was actually pretty practical and in some ways even Green.  You didn't have to travel to get to work and your customers were nearby.  

But during the 1920s zoning suddenly became fashionable and planning experts and doctors started to tout the healthful advantages of segregating housing from business uses.  After all, you don't want your child passing out from donut fumes.  Home owners started to worry about not only their health but their property values.  After all, a home is more valuable if it's next to other homes with nice yards, fresh paint and no industrial odors.

Slowly over the decade the home business was replaced by business districts and housing subdivisions.  The rise of commuter traffic to reach the work place rose.  Thanks to Albatross at Strange in San Antonio, you can see an old city map circa 1923 to 1933.  The map shows two different types of mass transit routes, one for buses and one for street cars.  

Zoning's segregation of uses was also a boon to the automobile industry.  After all, who wants to ride a smelly old bus when you can travel in your own car. Street improvements were needed to carry the new traffic.

A businessman's committee asked the city commission to approve a $5 million public improvement bond issue for bridges, streets, sanitary and storm sewers and flood prevention.
Double lines of traffic, in place of the former single line, were being allowed to pass signal lights at Commerce and Alamo.
Parking became a problem.
The first day of the parking meters appeared to be a success in so far as preventing double parking is concerned. Delivery trucks were pulled flush to the curb while their drivers conducted business.
Two bids on downtown underground parking lots were opened by the city council and terms of the two proposals read.
Traffic worsened.
San Antonio's traffic situation has been held the worst in the state by a representative of the National Safety Council.
By 1959 the problem of Urban Sprawl began to rear its ugly head.  Check out this old film produced by the National Association of Home Builders and the Urban Land Institute.  The use of zoning had encouraged low density housing developments that spread out all around cities, because as I talked about in my post What is Zoning?, higher density housing uses i.e. apartments, were usually zoned on less desirable land, leaving apartments to people who could not afford to live in quiet subdivisions.  Owning your own home in the suburbs became the American Dream.

Zoning and Urban Sprawl are also blamed, in part, for the obesity epidemic that has spread throughout the country, particularly in the south where mass transit never really caught on.  If you can walk to work, you get exercise (most mass transit commuter routes require some walking to reach bus stops, subway stations, etc.)
And let us not forget air pollution and increased carbon dioxide emissions released by the ubiquitous car.

Now don't get me wrong, zoning isn't all bad.  If it weren't for zoning there would be no setbacks on buildings.  This is important in areas where there are many high rise buildings.  When buildings were allowed to be built directly on the street, sunlight was blocked out leaving many cities dreary and smelly.

In many cities, building setbacks add value to the interior real estate adjacent to the setback by creating usable exterior spaces. These setback terraces are prized for the access they provide to fresh air, skyline firefighting apparatus between buildings, views, and recreational uses such as gardening and outdoor dining. In addition, setbacks promote fire safety by spacing buildings and their protruding parts away from each other and allow for passage of firefighting apparatus between buildings.

Zoning can also be used to protect historic and environmentally sensitive areas.  In San Antonio we have a zoning designation called the Neighborhood Conservation District  that promotes revitalization and preservation of historic neighborhoods.  The Zoning Commission also requires developers to make special provisions for water drainage in the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.  

Before zoning, cities had no control over growth patterns or property uses.  Controlled growth is the Holy Grail of urban planning and makes sense when it is used wisely.  

My next post will be on the New Urbanism and Smart Growth, or how zoning uses can be changed to encourage different types of growth patterns in cities.

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