Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Post #2: Confusing homogeneity with compatibility

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.

One of the disadvantages of a long career in city planning is that I have started to realize all the stupid things I did when I was first starting out. For example, I used to firmly believe in the wisdom of zoning large chunks of land to a single zoning district that allowed a very limited range of uses. At the same time, I would warn against the dire consequences that would come from allowing “spot zoning” to ruin an otherwise pristine development. What better way to make sure that all development within a particular area was compatible than to insist that it all be essentially homogeneous.

The predictable results were large single family subdivisions where simply buying a jug of milk required a 10-minute drive. Or large office parks that were virtually deserted from 6 PM to 7 AM the next morning. Or large industrial parks that never fully developed because there simply wasn’t enough demand for the limited range of allowable uses.

Yes, I and my planning brethren minimized many land use conflicts. But in turn, we helped create a boring and dysfunctional urban form. In seeking the ultimate level of compatibility between properties, we failed to see the downside of homogeneity. There is a reason why nature rarely produces an area populated by a single type of plant or animal -- it doesn’t work well and it doesn’t last long. Ecologists and horticulturalists will tell you that even something as cherished as our front lawn (a homogeneous mono-culture of a single type of plant) is probably a bad idea. (Our Lawns Are Killing Us. It’s Time to Kick the Habit.) In land use terms, we have created an urban form that is not very resilient to economic or social change.

I agree that minimizing land use conflicts is a noble and worthwhile goal. I wouldn’t want my home to be next to the proverbial smoke-belching factory or even a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru lane. But preventing that problem does not require that everything be the same. There are numerous land use combinations that, while different, are compatible in terms of intensity and operational characteristics. There is nothing wrong (and several things that are “right”) with mixing offices and certain types of retail development or multi-family development. Historically, many communities allowed different residential formats to be mixed together into a single neighborhood and increasingly cities are re-introducing that idea into their zoning regulations (e.g. the City of Minneapolis). In fact, I grew up in a single family home that was across the street from two stately, 6-unit apartment buildings and around the corner from a mom-and-pop grocery store -- it seemed perfectly normal at the time.

To be slightly more precise, minimizing land use conflicts is really about reducing or eliminating what economists refer to as a negative externality. In case you have forgotten, a negative externality is a cost incurred by a third party who did not choose to incur that cost and has no control (or limited control) over that cost. Furthermore, the creator of the cost does not incur the cost and so considers it to be “external” to the optimization of their economic returns. Sorry -- I know that probably doesn't make much sense to most people. So let's turn it into an example: if I own a house and a fast food restaurant is built next door, the noise, lights and exhaust fumes from the restaurant and drive-thru lane interrupt my sleep, lessen the enjoyment of my property, and reduce the value of my property when I am ready to sell -- all very real costs. The restaurant owner, on the other hand, has no economic incentive to minimize noise, lights or fumes -- those issues are not problematic for his restaurant and thus are external to his decision-making process. In fact, the restaurant owner would love to increase the number of drive-thru customers which would make all of my problems worse.

In response to the negative externalities created by incompatible land uses, cities created zoning regulations. Properties were zoned to a particular district designation and only land uses that were deemed compatible with one another were permitted in that district. Over time, zoning regulations become more and more fine grained and each district more and more limited in the range of permitted uses so that cities could exercise tighter and tighter control over possible conflicts. Generally speaking, this strategy was successful in minimizing what many people in my generation viewed as the land use chaos of central cities. Baby boomers abandoned the central city en masse for the structured orderliness of suburban zoning. Now, many in the millennial and gen-Z generations view the result as boring and socially stifling, and are choosing to live in the older parts of town because they like the energy and liveliness that come from land use diversity.

Furthermore, many of those homogeneous developments are now showing signs of economic distress because as they have aged and deteriorated, the same zoning regulations that protected them in the past now serve as obstacles to their revitalization. How many cities have a dead mall or half empty power center because the world of retailing has shifted and no one wants to occupy that type of space? How many older residential areas are slowly sliding into blight because there is very little economic incentive for owners to reinvest in their property since their options for reinvestment are so limited? Simply put, homogeneity is the enemy of economic resilience.

What might be worst of all, planners have trained the general public to believe that they must insist on homogeneity to protect their property values and the livability of their neighborhoods. Predictably, this is now being carried to ridiculous extremes where single family homeowners on one-acre lots are adamant that allowing single family homes in an adjacent subdivision to be on half-acre lots will ruin their property values and destroy the tranquility of their neighborhood. Or that allowing a moderate density, elderly housing project 1,000 feet away from their single family neighborhood will end civilization as we know it. Okay, I’m exaggerating slightly, but only slightly.

For many homeowners, their residence is their largest asset and their refuge from the stress of daily life. So it is natural to want to protect that. But by creating zoning districts and zoning patterns that promote homogeneity, we have implied that diversity is bad and the public now uses that as a rationale to resist nearly any type of change.

What is the solution?

Sorry, but I don’t really know how to remedy this situation in the short term. I’m not very good at combating irrational behavior and in many of the NIMBY zoning discussions, I think that is exactly where we are. I suspect that the only real solution will take many years of small, incremental steps. Here are some ideas on how to get started:

The Comprehensive Plan Many people want their city’s comprehensive plan to be a crystal ball that will tell them exactly how each portion of the city will develop in the future. That is an impossible task, of course, but planners give it their best effort and they try to compensate for their inability to predict the future by doing regular updates. I think a better approach would be for the plan to be less specific, focused more on the general character and level of intensity that is desired in a given area and less on the specific land uses that are expected. Whatever categories we use in the plan should encompass a variety of land uses that are consistent with the desired character and intensity but not strictly homogeneous unless it is absolutely necessary. I think it is better for the plan to be somewhat vague about the details so that the real “plan” is a framework for an ongoing community discussion about the future that can embrace unforeseen opportunities and respond to unexpected problems.

Promote the need for reinvestment The built environment lasts a long time -- so long, in fact, that most people view it as static or fixed. The reality is that as soon as a building is built it starts to decay. The built environment -- streets, houses, water lines, commercial buildings, bridges, and on and on -- needs continuous reinvestment or it will fall apart. Initially, that consists primarily of routine maintenance, and most people (and most cities) are pretty good at getting that work done. At some point, however, routine maintenance is not enough to preserve structural integrity (and/or economic utility) and some type of reconstruction or revision is needed. This step is expensive and it may necessitate land use or density changes which is where people tend to freak out. We need to educate the public (and civic leaders) on the dangers of continued decay/under-investment so that they can reasonably evaluate proposals for reinvestment/change.

Start where problems are obvious Change is hard. Convincing the leader of a neighborhood to embrace something other than traditional single family homes or convincing the owner of a shopping center to embrace something other than retail will be difficult. It will probably be easier, however, where there are obvious problems. Although even the leader of a declining neighborhood and the owner of a struggling shopping center will want to believe that some minor repairs and a fresh coat of paint will be sufficient to restore the former glory of their development, you may be able to convince them that there has been a fundamental shift which requires a new development strategy. Falling home values or a shift from owner occupied homes to absentee landlords are often signs that decay is outpacing reinvestment. The underlying cause may be that the demographics of the area have changed significantly or that the regional job market has shifted. Step back from the details of zoning and start talking about the realities of what the community is facing. Then talk about the values the community shares before discussing specific development options. If you find a neighborhood that is open to change, work really hard to make it successful and then use it as a model for change elsewhere.

In conclusion, I am not advocating that all neighborhoods should contain a wide variety of uses or that a declining area should welcome any kind of redevelopment or reinvestment. There are some neighborhoods where a limited range of land uses works well, and there are good forms of reinvestment and bad forms of reinvestment. What I am recommending is that we let the pendulum swing back toward an urban form which allows some areas to be more mixed and that, particularly for areas that are struggling, redevelopment options be considered which include both land use and density changes. We need to be open to building a new future rather than clinging blindly to the past.

Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at doug@midwesturbanism.com.

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