Zoning laws: A tool for designing dysfunctional, unsocial communities

How it happened and why it has to change

The Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, New York.

It all started in New York City in 1916 when the city adopted the first zoning regulations to apply citywide as a reaction to the construction of the Equitable Building, which still stands at 120 Broadway.

The building towered over the neighboring residences, completely covering all available land area within the property boundary, blocking windows of nearby buildings and diminishing the availability of sunshine for the people in the affected area.

These laws, written by a commission headed by Edward Bassett and signed by Mayor John Purroy Mitchel, became the blueprint for zoning in the rest of the country. It was endorsed because Bassett led the group of planning lawyers who wrote The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act that was issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1924 and accepted almost without change by most states.

Many benefited and still are from this system of urban design, but it’s never the ordinary person. People aren’t necessarily aware of these laws or chose to trust decision making to local authorities and municipal landscapers. In fact, the social impact of zoning laws are so underrated and seldom talked about in the media that most people don’t even realize that the main reason why their communities are broken is due to these flawed designs trusted in the hands of the few.

We, human beings, are creatures of our environment and it shapes the people we are today. We are very regional creatures, and we don’t naturally move around a lot on a daily basis except for the occasional traveling. We prefer to spend most of our time in our neighborhoods and in the geographic proximity of what we call home.

For thousands of years, human beings chose to live close together near their food and water sources, and they tend to form social bonds and dense communities forming small villages. As more people walked the earth, more villages were built, and they turned into towns, which lead eventually to cities.

If deterrence is built in our surroundings that affect our movement, it’s usually out of the individual’s control, and people will be forced to adapt to it eventually. Deep down we know we’re unhappy with the new change, but we choose to adapt to it because in part it’s out of our control and in another part we are adaptive creators.

Naturally, we grow to come to peace with the things we adapt to — good or bad. Look around, and it’s impossible to miss the importance of social interactions to human society. They form the basis of our families, our governments, and even our global economy.

Then came the invention of the car and disrupted the humanistic way of life. They became increasingly cheaper with time and more people could afford them and decided to buy them. People’s mobility increased, and they started exploring outside their cities, but it has lead to the fragmentation of cities, and people started to willingly choose to live in remote areas outside the cities as long as it’s within a reasonable drive to town.

This advertisement is typical of the 1950s and is a result of the rapid car boom that was taking place at the time. It evokes themes of the urbanization of America, which in itself was a big driving force for the rapid growth of the automotive industry. Chevrolet attempted to capitalize on the desires that the idea of an American Dream gave to the average Joe — a home, a family, pets and, most importantly, a car. The house itself is in the mid-century modern style and the advert generally replicates the post-war enthusiasm that pervaded society at the time.

Cities during and after the industrial revolution were heavily polluted and it made sense for the average person to move with his family far from the pollution of the city and away from factories. It was surely great for a while up until an increasing number of cars were on the roads congesting highways created by people who also thought it’s a good idea to commute from out of the city.

The “faulty human mind” (a term I tend to use when referring to the author of all that is and will always be flawed and defective) suggested that more highways are the answer — and so it was. This solution of course only solved the problem for the short-term until more cars hit the road and these new highways reached capacity reasonably quickly.

Postwar, urban highway development really got going, and–crucially–the plan for the entire highway network, including the paths that it would take through city centers, was decided by engineers. “They were trained to design without much consideration for how a highway might impact urban fabric,” wrote Joseph DiMento in Changing Lanes, his book on the history of highways. “They were worried about the most efficient way of moving people from A to B.” As long as individual states agreed to these paths, the federal government would pay for 90% of the new roads’ construction costs. PHOTO: IOFOTO VIA SHUTTERSTOCK.

The faulty human mind came up with another idea. Urban developers thought that it makes sense to build large residential-only communities for those commuters in the countrysides that are filled with single-family houses with back and front yards. Since there were so many people opting to live outside the city, these opportunist architects and developers could defiantly sell every last one of those houses, and of course, they did.

This architectural practice created what is called “Urban sprawl.” By definition, urban sprawl or suburban sprawl describes the expansion of human populations away from central urban areas into low-density, mono-functional and usually car-dependent communities, in a process called sub-urbanization.

Eden Prairie, Florida. This is urban sprawl, and Christoph Gielen has captured it beautifully in this series of incredible aerial photographs of housing subdivisions across the United States. Be sure to check out his website for even more incredible aerials.

The average human being living in these urban sprawls is separated by miles of other single-family houses and highways from everything he ever needs such as retail, groceries, offices, schools, meeting places, restaurants, cafes, and public parks, and every other facet of living. These basic needs became centralized in specific geographic locations and separated by roads, highways, and walls.

It’s not easy to get to them on foot, and you’ll be forced to use a car just to reach them. The option to walk to your stores was eliminated, and everything became less accessible. Ultimately, the average urban sprawl resident found himself consuming a gallon of gas to buy a gallon of milk.

This new reality killed the traditional mom’s and pop’s shops because they relied on people walking around the neighborhood. Everyone is moving around in cars, and they became conditioned to go to centralized places like malls and plazas to buy in bulk. It gave more control to larger corporations and created an environment where they can monopolize their industry and destroy local small businesses.

In these urban sprawls, it becomes expensive for residents to drive and too far for them to walk to the places where they can socialize and meet people. So, they stay in their homes. Children growing up in these neighborhoods are predominantly unsocial because they got adopted to a community were less social activity happens.

Segregating people’s natural environment and destroying the chances for social interactions makes people less secure and less happy because humans are inherently social creatures.

People need direct and easy access to their fundamental elements of life and they shouldn’t be separated from these basic needs by categorizing or zoning their natural landscape.

Regulators and lawmakers have made stringent zoning laws which restrict property rights. By doing this, the cities are inherently designed to inhibit people from being able to participate in the system. It’s not a fair-trade economy if people can’t participate in the market and contribute to the communities.

If you can’t find a job, you can start a lemonade stand on a street corner and generate a minimal income to survive and grow into something better. However, in the U.S you’re entirely barred from doing that because it requires a permit that turns what should be a simple business venture of selling lemonade into a fight for licenses. These laws serve to keep the streets sterile and lubricated only for movement through the nearest drive-through.

Is this young girl breaking the law? Seven year old Julie Murphy had her lemonade stand shut down in Oregon City because Multnomah County claimed that she did not have a $120 temporary restaurant license.

Consider the above photo for instance. You wouldn’t think such a tiny business of selling lemonade would be illegal, but in most states, the harmless business pursuits of kids can get shut down. In 2011, Georgia police officers shut down a lemonade stand run by three little girls because they didn’t have a business license or the proper permits required to sell food. Last year, two teens were threatened with fines from New Jersey officials because they hadn’t obtained a “solicitation permit” before they went door-to-door offering to shovel snow after a storm.

Stringent zoning laws which are ultimately controlled in favor of large businesses only served to foster political and economical corruption in the U.S. There would naturally be more fast food businesses than MacDonald’s, for example, if they were allowed.

The solution?

Building denser mixed-use buildings is the answer to most social and economical problems we have today in the U.S. Denser mixed-used communities traditionally sell more because of easy access, which people love.

Having mixed-used areas would give small businesses a competitive edge against large corporations. Retail attached to housing upstairs traditionally sells more. This architectural practice creates the opportunity for better services and products and gives the control back to the people.

Less stringent zoning laws give urban developers the freedom to build more mixed-use areas that American people are craving for. Additionally, less zoning laws have been equated to less housing costs, which would enable more Americans to buy or rent property.

Houston is America’s most prominent city without zoning ordinances. Houston voters have rejected efforts to implement zoning in 1948, 1962, and 1993. It is commonly accepted by the public that “Houston is Houston” due to the lack of zoning laws.

According to a 2006 consensus, Houston has an average dwelling price of 126,000$ compared to 496,000$ in the strictly enforced New York. Between 2000 and 2007, the city grew by 19.4% compared with just 2.7% growth for New York.

The top leading cause of happiness is interpersonal connections. Studies (including the Grant Study, which followed 268 men for their entire lives) have shown that the happiest people on earth are those with stable social bonds, who spend most of their time with family or friends. It wasn’t money, sex, age, gender or race. By designing an environment that makes it harder for the average person to find opportunities to socialize with other people, we are destroying our happiness and breeding unhappy unsocial generations.

Five-story buildings with shops on the ground floor, foot traffic, a lot of tourists, and most importantly, no cars— Filipe Frazao (Shutterstock) / La Rambla in Barcelona

I find it ironical that this country, which was founded on the idea of pursuing happiness and Free trade, seems to be heading the opposite way entirely.

Eradicating Zoning laws in favor of livable, accessible, multi-centered, high-density cities should become a shared global commitment.