Is Fixing Zoning Laws Part of the Solution?

My 28 year old son recently remarked to me that a big reason why the layout of cities in the United States is so different from that in Europe is because of a difference in zoning laws. I am not sure how major a reason zoning is, but it would seem to be a contributing factor. Many of the zoning laws in the United States were developed when there was abundant cheap oil, so the laws encouraged wide separation among uses--not thinking that this might not always be a good idea, if oil would eventually be in short supply.

Even beyond zoning laws, in some cities of the US, there are subdivision laws as well, which add additional requirements--what color you can repaint your house, whether you can have a clothes line (No!), and how frequently your lawn must be mowed. In the suburbs of Atlanta where I live, subdivision laws are popular--especially in neighborhoods with the more expensive, newer homes.

I am wondering whether it might not be helpful to get these zoning and subdivision laws changed. It seems like in order to do this, "peak oil" and "sustainability" folks would need to act as catalysts in their communities. If this could be done, I expect the biggest impact would be with respect to already built properties--whether homeowners can operate a business out of their garage, or rent rooms to others, and how they can use their yards. Also, what alternate uses vacant business properties can be used for. Longer term, there may be a possibility of developing combined business-residential use properties, although financing additional development now might be a problem.

I am hoping that readers can add their thoughts regarding this issue.

In the United States, the primary type of zoning is Euclidean. With this type of zoning, different land uses are segregated by area -- industrial is separate from commercial, which is in turn separate from residential multifamily, which is in turn separate from residential-single family. There are variations on this, but the net effect is to require workers to drive considerable distances to their workplaces, and also to require consumers to drive long distances to places where they purchase goods (like food and clothing) and services (like medical care and piano lessons).

Zoning can sometimes make it hard for less-affluent family members to find housing near richer family members, because lower income housing (such as multi-family apartments) tends not to be available nearby. When new low priced homes are needed, agricultural land is frequently rezoned for single-family homes, contributing to sprawl, and giving farmers an incentive to sell their land, rather than to continue to farm.

In Europe and elsewhere, zoning laws differ. I am afraid I have not researched the issue adequately to describe the approaches used elsewhere, but they seem to permit more mixed use within cities, and they seem to be better at keeping land agricultural land as agricultural.

One type of zoning that seems to be more flexible than Euclidean is Form Based. According to Wikipedia:

Form based zoning regulates not the type of land use, but the form that that land use may take. For instance, form based zoning in a dense area may insist on low setbacks, high density, and pedestrian accessibility among other things. As another example, in a largely suburban single family residential area, uses such as offices, retail, or even light industrial could be permitted so long as they conformed (setback, building size, lot coverage, height, and other factors) with other existing development in the area.

Form-based zoning relies on rules applied to development sites according to both prescriptive and potentially discretionary criteria. These criteria are typically dependent on lot size, location, proximity, and other various site- and use-specific characteristics.


1. What are your observations regarding zoning laws? Is it possible to get them changed? What approaches work best?

2. How about subdivision laws? Are these falling by the wayside, in areas with high bankruptcies? Have readers had success in changing them?

3. What zoning laws have been successful in Europe in keeping cities compact and walkable?

4. Are there any zoning laws you find particularly onerous?

I am very interested in the comments from Europe. I've read Kunstler's earlier stuff, "Geography of Nowhere" etc., which is actually quite good on this whole subject, in his own usual curmudgeonly style. I have two comments:

1. What are your observations regarding zoning laws? Is it possible to get them changed? What approaches work best?

Generally, it is difficult. Denver is doing a major zoning revision and lots of the green types have made numerous suggestions. The zoning revision commission talks endlessly about "form based" zoning but seem to use the term selectively, because it's a hot buzzword. This is a city with a fairly progressive "green" record -- Hickenlooper, the mayor, spoke at both the ASPO-USA conferences in Denver (2005 and 2009). Yet, the only new, vaguely progressive measure is that they will allow some use of ADU's (accessory dwelling units, a. k. a. "granny flats"). But we can't get them interested in solar access or restrictions on McMansions.

Wait! Just though of another vaguely progressive thing -- we have seen some areas of "multi-use" development, e. g. condos above shops, that sort of thing, walkable neighborhoods. The Stapleton area was developed in this way, as I recall. Very nice and popular. But I'd like to see this sort of thing take over the whole city.

4. Are there any zoning laws you find particularly onerous?

Yes. I think that residential zoning should be much more flexible on use and zone for size and shape only (the whole concept of form-based codes, actually). McMansions wouldn't be so bad if you'd zone it so that similarly shaped houses could be built split into townhomes. E. g. a division allowing a 4400-square foot monstrosity should be zoned so that it could, in principle, be split into e. g., 3 or 4 townhomes. This would mix the classes in together in the same neighborhood and add density, instead of segregating the division for the super-rich. But alas, this doesn't seem to be on the agenda in Denver.

I look forward to others' comments on questions 2 and 3.


I regard the Denver area's commercial zoning -- or lack thereof -- to be a significant contributor to problems. For decades now, the metro area has allowed major concentrations of new jobs to happen in places that have little or no infrastructure or transit: the Tech Center, Inverness, Interlocken, and the proposed new Jefferson Center. Each of them creates thousands, or tens of thousands, of jobs, along with a guarantee that the people taking those jobs will be entirely dependent on personal cars for commuting and noontime activities. In all cases, the developers were allowed to take intentional steps to avoid creating a dense core area that might be mistaken for a "downtown" and be able to support mass transit as well as eating and shopping within walking distance, separating buildings widely and surrounding them with extensive park-like landscaping. In these areas, the question "Where do you want to eat lunch?" is invariably followed by "Who wants to drive?"

Even the People's Republic of Boulder has been somewhat guilty. Their zoning has allowed the creation of thousands of clean high-tech jobs in the city, but the people that take those new jobs are largely forced to live many miles away, as there is little or no space available for additional housing of any sort.

Yes, all of these areas were developed when oil was cheap and there was no perceived problem. We are paying today for the mistakes of the past. We could make a start by changing the zoning of these areas, but I don't see that happening right away, and even when we change the zoning it will be years before we'll see practical effects on the city.

While Europe has cities that have grown up denser historically, after WWII there was a big drive to separate uses in cities and make them more automobile-friendly. The Ruhrgebiet in Western Germany is nothing but sprawl with about a hundred highways crisscrossing it everywhere. It is also very ugly.
As the downsides of separating commerce and residential districts became more obvious, there was a pushback to change zoning laws to a greater mix of usages. So the american concept of sprwaling, traffic-friendly cities was quite succesfull in the fifties and sixties, and many cities show it, it is now regarded as out of date, and the results of these old policies are unpopular and unasthetic.
It is not just the laws here, but it is also that people do not want to live in american style sprawl. Whenever some shopping mall gets build at the edge of the city, there is considerable public opposition to it. Often politicians want to build highways, wide roads and large industrial areas, but the public opposition can be fierce.
When they wanted to build a new bridge in my town, Dresden, people were occupying trees (i.e. actually living in the crown of the tree for weeks) in order to oppose the construction until they got forecibly removed by the police .

It may be poor form to put up an early comment when I know nothing much about zoning.

But it strikes me that this is the sort of thing - changing the zoning rules - which will be successfully resisted by those in the BAU consensus trance, until long after it becomes obvious the current rules are an anachronism.

There may well be an increase in the number of people violating the rules, though, and at the point they get numerous enough, the rules may not be enforced.

In a neighborhood of fully-owned houses, one can probably get away with a fair bit if one's transgression isn't visible from the street, but I imagine that will vary with the uptightness of the neighbors and how many of them are trying to sell. If it's a stable neighborhood I'd imagine the neighbors would cut one another some slack, but if there are a lot of houses on sale there might be more pressure brought by neighbors to conform to rules lest one drive property values down. (Since there's no ongoing inspection process, my assumption here is that the main infractions process consists of being ratted out by one's neighbors).

I'd imagine that in developments which have "covenants" and annual fees, etc, that it would be much harder to get away with stuff, but that's not zoning per se.

It'll vary a fair bit in practice. In the big isle neighborhood where I just sold off our little piece of land, one could probably get away with building an entire house without permits. Indeed, they are even resold that way on the MLS, noting that there is an "unpermitted structure".

The entire island of Oahu has mostly been zoned urban, cut into ever-smaller squares and "flipped" to the limit of zoning with a payoff here and there; there's no significant ag going on here now. Just a city and suburbs covering a rock in mid-pacific... what could possibly go wrong? When I moved here, our lot abutted several thousand acres of reserve, as far as the eye could see. It quickly became a Yakuza-owned golf course and many condo developments (though my wife and I stopped the nearest one from being built. Community opposition is as nothing compared to a good tight machiavellian offense, and the burly japanese golfers with no pinky fingers have since departed). Zoning still seems to be going the wrong way - greater density and greater restrictions.

If I decide to stay - a big if - I might get permits to expand the structure for relatives/helpers; such construction out here only requires single-wall and no heating or cooling, just a matter of keeping the rain off. There are already rules about how many different families can be in one house, etc, but they seem seldom enforced. A neighbor across the street has built like 4 houses on their lot and constructed a network of younger families to care for them in their old age.

Just as a gauge of the uptightness here, though, the local group which banned billboards in Hawaii is still active. The fellow who is now directing it is an ex-employee of mine. Their latest high-profile public campaign in the service of aesthetic environmentalism has been to attempt banning the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile from Hawaii's roads. Seriously, that became their organizational focus. I haven't seen the Weinermobile around lately, so perhaps they were victorious. Then again, in a truer sense, I see little BUT weinermobiles on this rock.

A good start might be the right to clotheslines. Like Gandhi going to the sea to make salt. I don't see it happening, though, until after problems arise which make zoning seem irrelevant. Because the citizens don't WANT clotheslines.

While there will no doubt be a lot of struggles over zoning laws in the foreseeable future, the great thing about an issue like this is that when change is ready to happen it will happen relatively easily and quickly, as long as a modicum of democratic local decision making is in place. There's nothing that a local politician wants to resolve faster than a bunch of local residents up in arms about a regulation that keeps them from doing something they want to do on their own property. And as soon as there is a critical mass of residents who want change, they will organize to rouse rabble. It's a lot easier to organize locally than at broader geographic levels. Finally, in a lot of places governments hard pressed for resources may find themselves unable to enforce laws that people don't want to follow.

Probably the stickier issue is not zoning laws per se, but tenant vs. landlord issues. Tenants may want to do things to "transition" well before their landlords are willing to accept things that might "reduce property values."

I think you are right, about change happening when it is ready to happen.

A realtor told me that in at least one subdivision of large homes that is being foreclosed, it is being rezoned so the homes can be broken up into smaller apartments. There aren't any "regular" non-foreclosed homes in the area, so there is no one to object.


I think you just have to wait and see.

Are american cities actually expanding as of 2010? What with all the foreclosures and the sinking housing market? Maybe the sprawl is already halted?

If the economy does not recover in a robust fashion (i.e. lots of new jobs) and the oil price keeps creeping up, the proliferation of McMansions will not be one of the problems the country will face. Foreclosed people will move into apartments or smaller houses (at least thats what I would hope).
You have to see that many americans never actually had the wealth to live in such large houses. Millions of these homes seem to have been financed only with the help of fraudulent Mortgage Backed Securities that then got sold all over the world. As much as this money is not coming back, there will also be no more new money to finance so much new construction, so the problem of sprawl might solve itself.

It appears that the housing crash has hit hardest in areas that are the most car dependent. The worst hit areas are Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and the outer suburbs of LA and San Francisco. Essentially the market has changed the relative value of housing in these markets to take into account rising fuel costs vs. increased living space and amenities. I am convinced that the only way this revaluation can be made to stick is to ensure that fuel prices stay high and go higher.

Not all areas were hit with the same force. I remember walking through a 900 square foot apartment in the South Beach area of San Francisco (along with 5 or 6 new acquaintances there for the same purpose). Asking price $655K for the lower floors and higher for upper stories with a better view.

It appears that the housing crash has hit hardest in areas that are the most car dependent.

You would expect that to happen in a post-peak oil world. Housing that is car-dependent will decline in value, and in some cases will become valueless. Only housing in areas with good public transit or walkable communities will retain their value.

Only housing in areas with good public transit or walkable communities will retain their value.

Often, but not always, these were the areas with the highest value in the first place. For many of the exurbs, they only reason they were higher in value was because of the large lots and large houses but we are really seeing that they are "high cost" rather than "high value"

You could extend this observation to say that cities with good transit and walkable communities will not only retain their values better, but likely retain jobs/economy better as well. With less spending on cars/fuel and possibly roads, most of which leaves the local economy, more money is retained locally.

Consider also that most car dependent housing (suburbs/exurbs) is often much bigger than necessary, creating more heating/cooling/maintenance costs. And as with cars, almost all spending on energy leaves the local economy, so you have another money drain, leaving less to be spent on local businesses.

Possibly the best examples of this are the university areas of cities. The students typically don't have a lot of money, but spend as little as possible on housing and on transport, but always seem to have plenty for beer (I worked in a brewery to put myself through university, so I always had plenty of beer, and thus money for other things). The student areas always have thriving bars/restaurants/coffee shops/music stores/ etc etc, and achieve this with a relatively low per capita income, but high disposable portion, and high population density.

Automobile dependent housing is not losing value due to oil prices. It is losing value due to gross over supply of housing. Hybrids are very inexpensive. Not everything is related to Peak Oil.

Transportation is cheap,

I disagree.

The increasing cost of transportation is making many areas unaffordable without major declines in house prices.

The old metric was housing should not exceed 30% of income. The new, and more restrictive metric is that housing + transportation should not exceed 45% of income.

The areas where median income < 45% median H + T are greater than areas where median income < 30% median housing.

Increasing transportation costs helps support housing prices where transportation costs are lower.


A prius costs about $22,000 out the door, they get 48mpg in the city. If you go from a SUV that gets 16mpg with $3.00/gal gas to a Prius, gas would have to be $9.00/gal to take up the same amount of your income.

A Tata Nano costs only $2,000 and gets similar mileage. Point to point transportation should not be an issue until the oil exports really start drying up.

Some people can reduce their commuting costs that significantly, but few actually do it. Note the Prius & Insight market share.

Perhaps their ego and self image is defined by the car they drive.

And when they are struggling to make the house note, a brand new stripped Prius is not in the budget.


People will buy a Prius when they are convinced it is necessary. I had a conversation with my accountant about this. Some of his clients have decided oil prices will stay high and changed to a hybrid. Others want to believe the price spikes are temporary and are resisting the switch.

Most people raising kids want to live in suburbs. They'll choose an HEV, PHEV, or EV to allow them to continue to do so.

In areas where housing is expensive the cost of a hybrid is small potatoes. The costs of HEVs, PHEVs, and EVs will determine how far suburban housing prices fall and how far people will commute in cars.

The demographic changes alone (I expect social changes as well) will reduce the demand for multi (more than 2) bedroom McMansions in suburbia.

I see a multi-step wise staircase down in Suburban housing prices until demolition and abandonment equalize supply & demand.


Transportation is not cheap for lower to middle class Americans. According to this study, WORKING FAMILIES PAY MORE FOR TRANSPORTATION THAN THEY SAVE ON AFFORDABLE HOUSING people's transportation costs in many major US population centers exceeded their housing costs.

According to the study, published in 2006 before fuel costs really went through the roof, the total of housing + transportation costs was remarkably similar in major metropolitan areas, although the split between them varied considerably. The average total housing + transportation cost was 57% of income, and that 25 of the 28 areas were within 3% of the average.

To my way of thinking, 57% of income is way too much. I always kept my total below 35%, and when I bought a more expensive house, I compensated by downsizing my car and never driving it to work.

Actually, the jump in transportation costs was the real trigger of the housing meltdown. If you are spending nearly 2/3 of your income on housing and transportation, and your transportation costs double, you no longer can afford to pay the mortgage. Many people had to default.

People have to realize that the urban sprawl that the US has sustained in the past few decades is non-sustainable in a world of expensive oil. They have to downsize their expectations and live in denser communities to keep their costs down to a level they can afford.

I am convinced that the only way this revaluation can be made to stick is to ensure that fuel prices stay high and go higher.

This is absolutely true.
I am convinced that this is the main reason developed societies like Europe and Japan use only half the oil per capita as does the US. If gas is expensive, people will waste less of it. Unfortunately, while taxing fuel is an extremely simple and elegant solution, its also the hardest to do politically.

But, not to worry, right now it does seem as if "the market" takes care of that problem. If oil is over $80 a barrel even in the worst recession since WWII its highly unlikely it will ever go down to $12 again. If it would, however, that would be an unmitigated disaster for the effort to change our infrastructure and transition away from oil.

Many exurbs were hard hit not because of being car dependent but rather because that demographic (young families and people in lower middle-income brackets wanting new houses)lost a disporportionate share of jobs. Also, exurbs have a lot of employment and many two income households live near one spouse's workplace.

Two income households can pay to live close in where one may have an easier reverse commute. For these people time is a bigger factor in housing (land) cost than the cost of commuting. The rule of thumb for years in Atlanta was that the price of housing decreased $10,000 per mile going away from the I-285 beltway.

Actually, you would be amazed at the number of rules that people are willing to place on their neighbors if they think it will affect their own property values.

I used to work for Habitat for Humanity, and the zoning regulations that various affiliates had to deal with included not just the ban on clotheslines, but requirements for garages, basements and air conditioners (the logic being that the sight of a house with open windows and fans would make the whole neighborhood look cheap).

And remember, most zoning legislation occurrs at a very local level, and neighbors can be very quick to report any perceived violations.

So this problem can't be laid entirely at the feet of 'big government' (the Federal Housing Programs after WWII, however...)

Some good films that deal with this include "Save our Land, Save our Towns" and "Subdivide and Conquer" produced by Bullfrog films.

I disagree about the right to clotheslines. They are really a side issue. Running a dryer for an hour or two a week is a bit of an energy expense, but it is pretty minor when you compare it to the amount of energy single family zoning necessitates. I think a good first step would be to allow secondary suites -- everywhere. The concomitant increase in density allows for a wide range of energy savings.

Running a dryer is a bigger problem than you think. It is often more than an hour or two per week, and it is also often during peak electrical periods of the day. In winter, a dryer can remove several thousand cubic feet of (heated) air, resulting in significant energy loss.

Agreed about secondary suites - my town has finally done that, but only after a fire in an illegal suite resulted in a near death. Probably a good thing, as clear rules for fire and accessibility have been set and are being enforced. One rule they did not set, to their credit, was about requiring a car parking space. This has allowed owners to create suites where it previously would not have been possible, and no car is no problem for many students, etc.

Some houses even have tertiary suites (one on each level). I know of one such three suiter where the tenants all share one car!

This sort of thing is better than sprawl, but ultimately, many single family housing areas, especially close to transit, will need to be redeveloped

A load of laundry can take 70 - 80 minutes to dry, especially towels and jeans. When I had three kids at home all participating in sports I was doing 10 - 12 loads per week. Yes, clothesline are small in the scheme of things, but hanging one's laundry is such an easy thing to do. I started hanging our clothes outside to dry during the outrageous Enron scam, and while it does take a few extra minutes a load it can be very meditative. And it's quiet, unlike the dryer.

Electric dryers are hardly a side issue or minor expense; in my 4 person household it was at least 15% of the total electrical consumption. That's estimated from the difference in usage after the dryer finally (and thankfully) died. My wife, btw, apparently acquired the perspective growing up that clotheslines were a sign of "white trash", while I grew up helping my mom hang the clothes out, enjoying the sun...

There should be a national law allowing solar clothes dryers except where they negatively impact public health or safety. So any new prohibition will have to be passed with this justification.


I know that in Atlanta, one project that is under consideration is the redevelopment of an old railroad that circles the city, called the Atlanta Beltline Initiative. I understand that one of the problems they are running into is zoning issues--to make it profitable, they would need to build stores at stations, and these would be in residential neighborhoods. I am sure there is also some feeling of not wanting people with lesser incomes to commute to "their" neighborhoods, either. According to the site:

The BeltLine is a $2.8 billion redevelopment project that will shape the way Atlanta grows over the next 25 years and beyond. The project proposes a network of public parks, multi-use trails and transit along a historic railroad corridor circling downtown and connecting many neighborhoods. Key attributes of the BeltLine include:

  • Nearly 1,300 acres of new greenspace and parks
  • 33 miles of mult-use trails
  • A 22-mile loop of transit
  • Approximately 30,000 new jobs in 20 economic development areas
  • 5,600+ affordable workforce housing units
  • Touches and connects 45 neighborhood
  • Investments in pedestrian access, streetscapes, public art, historic preservation and environmental cleanup

Through this investment, the City hopes to encourage more sustainable development patterns and improve the quality of life for all Atlanta residents.

Hi Gail,

I think economics has a lot to do with it.

In fact, I left the architecture and urban design profession shortly after completing advanced degrees only to realize the values and insights I brought to the profession were irrelevant. Developers drive the urban politics and have a great deal of control over urban zoning dynamics (how the laws are interpreted and enforced are as important as the law itself) . At the time, my interests were largely driven by the social implication of place. Getting people talk and interact helps counteract a number of ills (Jane Jacobs). The desire to promote and showcase sustainable land use patterns came with paying attention more than most kids, I guess.

What I did not understand as a student was that mobility, and economic prosperity came to America early enough on in our build-out to allow for suburban patterns to become dominant and enshrined in our culture. At this point, only pain or necessity will result in a paradigm shift with regard to zoning. Putting the interests of our society or ecosystem ahead of developer interests and consumer preferences is a lot to ask of an American. In fairness, we are still buying what the developers are selling. In our cities the people are by and large not pushing back against the suburbanization of our older neighborhoods. It seems Wallgreens with drive-thrus are popping up in cities all over these days.

When mobility is a a premium, folks want mixed use neighborhoods. If this comes to pass, zoning laws will change and developers will adapt. Adaptive reuse will experience a boom.

Another issue is Regional Planning. Europe has it. We do not. For the most part the concept of planning is anathema to american sensibilities. This has only become stronger as we've moved toward extreme capitalism. We need to keep in mind that "elbow room" and expansion are part of our unique heritage. Europe had to deal with resource and population issues that certianly underpin some of their zoning conventions and momentum. They experienced community interdependence as deeply as we experienced rugged individualism. In much of Europe when mobility came on the scene the mold was already cast and suburbs often became associated with the poor.

Should the economic conditions change, opportunities will be created and perhaps those of us with ideas to address current sustainability shortcomings will have the opportunity to bring forward ideas that would never be considered today. If "community", walkability, and mixed use are suddenly seen to provide advantage, I think zoning changes can happen quite quickly. Otherwise a few progressive areas may provide some valuable insights, but not a national paradigm shift.

In this case in Atlanta, it sounds like a revitalization effort that caters to the wealthy and progressive. If including mixed use is alien to even progressives (and we have reason to believe "right" thinking folks don't want to ride the bus unless the have to), I think that speaks to how deep set american values are and how far we have to go with regard to economic realities before such change is seen as widely desirable.

if people are objecting to stores at the stations, they are missing the whole point of the transit system. Each station becomes a mini village, it should have stores, and then condos above them, creating a dense little village, which, of course, is within walking distance of the surrounding houses.
For the people that live in the condos, they may well be able to Live Without A Car. I suspect that the fact that people could live cheaper like this at the stations, is the reason why surrounding owners would object - they don;t want "cheap people" in their area.

But it works, in Calgary, growth has preferentially occurred around the LRT stations, some are still big malls and parking lots, but many are condos. This helps the stores around stay in business, and many people live above the place they work - how small is their carbon footprint (and how much free time do they have!)

just as it was in the 19th century, the coming of the train service spurs economic growth.

I was really impressed when I visited Germany, and saw how their transit centers were exactly how you describe. In many cases, their shopping malls were the transit centers themselves, so you could easily use public transit to go where you need to shop. It seems like an extremely elegant model, to me, and I think it is one that we should push for in the United States. Being able to live without a car will be increasingly important in our fuel-squeezed (near) future.

In many cases, their shopping malls were the transit centers themselves, so you could easily use public transit to go where you need to shop.

Yes, but this particular fact is regarded as the result of americanization as well. We used to have these really beautiful train stations with lots of small shops inside and the the city center with the shopping district nearby. Now, when they renovate a trainstation, they often indeed turn it into a shopping mall. I dont really like that, as it degrades the train stations as travel centers. IMO it doesnt hurt anyone to walk 500 metres to the next mall...

Otherwise I very much agree with your post.
There is a lot of big shopping malls at the edge of the cities too, but city planners are very aware that too many of these lead to "the death of the inner city".

In London, when the Jubilee Line Extension was built in the late 90s at a cost of £2bn of public money it gave rise to a windfall of around £17bn to property owners who lived in the vicinity of the line's stations. This was a straight wealth transfer from public to private.

Atlanta's line should easily be self funding on the same basis, with a 'Location Benefit Levy' on all properties in the vicinity of stations, and maybe a turnover-based levy on businesses close by.

I am not sure the line will go very close to anything, other than other residential neighborhoods. Atlanta's bus system is not very good, and is being cut back, so it may be difficult to use the rail for commuting.

Several connections with MARTA, the Atlanta subway, should solve that issue.

I have not followed the proposed Atlanta Beltline closely, but a lot of the traffic will evolve around it. I am reminded of when a new station (New York Avenue) was added to an old line (Red Line in DC). Almost immediately a forest of office buildings sprang up within walking distance of the new station.

In much longer time frame, the same should occur around new stations of the Atlanta Beltline.


Map of Marta today (six terminus, all of which interface or could be extended to interface with the Atlanta Beltline).

I checked and MARTA crosses the Beltline 5 times. At the Lindbergh Center, MARTA splits into two lines (Y) and this is where the Beltline crosses MARTA there.

MARTA will allow commuting and travel not only within the center of the Beltline but MARTA extends out a few miles past the Beltline as well.

With the Beltline feeding ridership into MARTA, this makes future extensions and improvements of MARTA even more viable. A virtuous feedback.

PS: Where MARTA crosses the Beltline should be great places for office towers, medical centers, governmental offices and small box retail.

I get the feeling that Atlanta might well be a difficult case. The point is that if the belt line rail project is to succeed it needs to have dense nodes developed near the stations and it also needs to have rail lines built that cross the center of the belt line.

The point about the bus system being weak doesn't surprise me in the least. Infrequently run buses, that wend their way through subdivisions are a huge waste of time. If any reasonable value is put on people's time it is easy to see why bus systems dependent this type of route usually go into a death spiral of fare increases, lower rider-ship, lower revenue, and more fare increases.

Transit doesn't work without density. The density allows more frequent service, increased riders-ship, increased revenue, and more frequent service

it also needs to have rail lines built that cross the center of the belt line

The rail lines are already built and operating.

All of the MARTA lines cross the Beltline and several extend outside the Beltline by at least a few miles.

MARTA is high capacity, fast Rapid Rail i.e. subway. The Beltline will be Light Rail and serve as an excellent feeder to MARTA (and vica versa).

Building even part of the Beltline will justify (even at today's oil prices) further extension and expansion of the MARTA subway/Rapid rail system. And I can see Light Rail spurs extending off the Beltline as well.

Best Hopes for More Urban Rail,


PS: Post-Peak Oil I can see a very natural migration of jobs and people to the various MARTA and Beltline stations. My forecast is most of the jobs would locate near MARTA stations and most of the people near Beltline stations with the transfer stations (MARTA to Beltline and the one MARTA to MARTA station) being the hottest properties. This should happen even during a severe recession or depression with almost no other construction.

The 'Location Benefit Levy' might be better as an implementation of Henry George's land value tax proposals (i.e., as a single tax system). Basically doing away with income taxes etc, and raising the majority of government revenue by way of taxing land owners based on the value of their land (ex improvements). Such a tax changes to reflect the value that society adds to a block of land by way of services provided and their accessibility.

Hence a block in the middle of a city right next to the train station and close to shops and work would be taxed at a much higher rate than one out in the backwoods without any services. Such a scheme drastically alters the land-use landscape, as well as the social and economic one. People are free to work as hard as they want and earn as much as they want, so it promotes economic activity. They're also driven to develop the land to the greatest extent possible. Land speculation is done away with, if you're not making profitable use of the land then you're wasting money in taxes.

It is encouraging that Atlanta has managed to get some real estate development money behind this project. Large vibrant cities have to give their citizens access to multiple opportunities and experiences. Access to these opportunities and experiences is, after all, why the vast majority of people live in cities rather than small towns. This access requires a functioning transportation system.

One way to provide this access in a less car dependent way is to build nodes that include housing, shopping, cultural activities, and employment and then connect the nodes with high capacity trains. If developers can see a way to make a profit, by providing the nodes it might just work.

Vancouver, BC has had some success in this approach (and some failures as well).

I live in a Historic Landmark District. Limited signs of modernity allowed (no satellite dishes but clothes lines are fine). They want central a/c hidden (window units OK). Limited styles of doors and windows (NO VINYL OR ALUMINUM !!) allowed.

The biggest issue regarding sustainability is that solar water heaters/PV must either not be seen from the street, or minimally so, or somehow "camouflaged" (recessed into roof for example) or solar shingles. One guy hooked his up looking like an old outhouse (privy) :-) Historically valid, so OK.

Homes can avoid a/c for an extended period due to their design (mid-June, high low 90s, is about my limit).

Best Hopes for old neighborhoods,


My understanding is that European cites are so different from US cities because the European cities were formed so long ago. There were no zoning laws anywhere in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries...

That early formation effect is supposed to still be noticeable in some of the oldest US cities (Boston, New York, Charleston, etc)

Well, I wouldn't say that, after all the English enclosure acts could easily be interpreted as nation-wide zoning restrictions.

Maybe the big US EPA Smart Growth program will lead to new zoning laws.

Examples from US cities.

To respond to this need, EPA's Smart Growth Program convened a panel of national smart growth code experts to identify the topics in local zoning codes that are essential to creating the building blocks of smart growth. This document, Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes, presents the panel's initial work. It is an evolving document, one that will be regularly revised, added to, and updated, and is intended to spark a larger conversation about the tools and information local governments need to revise their land development regulations.

Zoning can be and is changed all the time. One needs to file an appeal to the zoning board, and if a hearing is granted usually a period of time is allowed for public comments after public notice is posted.

Subdivision covenants are a whole different issue. Here you are dealing with idiots. One home in a Denver subdivision that only allowed asphalt shingle roofing made the owner replace a $60,000 metal roof. Never mind that metal roofing is more eco friendly. My neighbors did not want me to have a light color roof (mine is the only metal roof in my subdivision) I finally got an Energy Star color approved on the third try, after threatening legal action. No such luck with the locking mailbox that was rectangular, despite the fact that mail was being stolen in the neighborhood and a nearby city had an identity theft ring using stolen mail.

Not allowing garage doors to face the street is another bad idea, unless the lot is wide enough to make turning in easy. Several of my neighbors do not have enough room to turn their larger vehichles into the garage.

Federal laws overrule covenants on certain solar installations and such things as satellite dishes.

My city has outlawed cul-de-sacs bacause fire trucks cannot turn around on them and because they make travel routes longer.

Subdivision covenants are a whole different issue. Here you are dealing with idiots. One home in a Denver subdivision that only allowed asphalt shingle roofing made the owner replace a $60,000 metal roof.

Yes, there are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun by the developers who moil for gold. (apologies to Robert Service).

In this particular subdivision I am in, cedar shakes were mandatory because it looks so, you know, rustic. I could have dodged that particular regulation, but I put in cedar because 1) it looks good, 2) it lasts 50-100 years, and 3) I am right next to the town water supply so if there is a forest fire in the area I can get up on the roof with a hose and/or water bucket and flood it with water.

Somewhat belatedly they realized that cedar shakes were a fire hazard in a forest, and now they are prohibited. I've got a good 30-80 years left on my roof, so I don't think it will be an issue until I'm too old to care. Until then, I can still get up there with a bucket/hose and deal with with any fire problems. I knew that when I nailed all those cedar shakes down.

My city has outlawed cul-de-sacs bacause fire trucks cannot turn around on them and because they make travel routes longer.

Fire trucks are designed to operate in dense urban areas and most of them can make tighter turns than you would believe. It's just a matter of picking the right truck. However, automobile-oriented city planners often don't mention this because they have another agenda - designing the neighborhoods they want to design rather than the ones people want to live in. They only talk about fire trucks because they really want to build wider, straighter, more expensive streets than the people would choose if the had a choice. The fire trucks themselves can handle narrow streets and tight turns.

There's an interesting idea I have seen - back-to-back cul-de-sacs with a car trap between them. Fire engines, buses, bicycles and pedestrians can get between them, but not cars or light trucks. Fire engines and buses have a sufficiently wide wheel spacing to bridge the gap, and bicycles and pedestrians just go around it but cars - fall in.

This is often be a really expensive experience for the car owner, particularly if they back up and take a run at it, and they have been know to sue the city for damages. However, the city lawyers pointed out that there were flashing lights and very large illuminated signs leading to the traps that said:

And the judges universally felt the drivers had not been paying proper attention to them.

Drivers would see all these signs, back up, and try to run the trap. I've seen them do it, and I still don't believe it. I suppose it's an indication of the mental state of many drivers.

In California, general plans are revised every 10 years. We made incremental progress toward higher densities and more mixed use the last time around, 2006-2007. (I am a small town planning commission member.) New developments are encouraged to build for solar exposure. I've never heard of a municipality around here prohibiting solar clothes dryers. That is more likely to be a private deed restriction imposed by the developer. The rate of growth here is extremely slow, so zoning isn't really having much impact on the type of community we have.

In traditional cities that were well established before 1900, mixed use was the norm. You could walk/bike to various stores or the corner tap, church etc. This is a major aspect of what makes cities "livable".

Interesting post here about a bike rider / city planner touring the US and making observations on the layout and architecture of the cities he passes through. (One of my favorite sites besides TOD.) :)

For me, along with zoning and perhaps more important, is the idea about the layout of new buildings.
I would love to see a requirement that all new buildings have at least 50% of their roof line aligned with a south facing slope for present and future solar access (PV, SHW, etc.)

Along with solar access rights, I think this will help prevent alot of excuses and future regrets.

In regards to #4 Minimum sq foot requirements - many subdivisions and towns require a 2000 sq ft house minimum.

Hi Cumulonimbus,

Crazy Guy On A Bike captured me on one of his tours:

Like the ride! I am a few more years away from trying a recumbant.

I did not switch until I was about 64 - should have done it much sooner! All the pains in my back, neck and wrists evaporated the day on I got on my "high racer" (and I am definitely not a "racer"). Younger folk on this bike can keep up with any diamond frame hotshots - and definitely blow them off on the downhills.

nice bike :-)

This post is just......just ......just... AAAAAaaaaRRRRRRrrrrrrrGGGGgggggggggg!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I don't think Oil Drum readers are into group action. They like something like seed saving that they can do individually. It also shouldn't require too much capital expenditure, or too much long range planning.

I might have missed something here Gail as to just what you were responding to, however I would disagree that TOD readers are not into group action. I only joined many of my local groups because of the encouragement and inspiration from TOD contributors and commenters alike. I think individual actions are probably a little pointless if they are not part ofa wider action. It is only when we act as communitys tht anything worthwhile will be done.

I was going more by what people seem to get most involved in commenting on. Commenters seem to like to talk about little things they can personally do.

There's a definite mix. I think the little, personal actions get talked about more because more people can do them.

Most group actions require a sort of social Aikido to make harmony with your neighbors while getting them to do what they didn't want to admit needed to be done in the first place.

This is a skill that is often lacking in those of us of an analytical/engineering bent.

I am very interested in group action. Is there any way that The Oil Drum can serve as a facilitator or coordinator for group actions, including both large scale actions as well as helping members locate other members in the same cities? Once the groups start growing, can this site provide any resources for these groups to set up and maintain information on projects and campaigns?

I know there are areas in Boulder, Colorado where retail was consciously integrated within close proximity of housing units which in turn have a good mix of upscale, medium scale, and low income housing. In addition, there is liberal use of granny flats in backyards which increases density and provides some extra income for residents in this high priced area. Other places such as Langley, Wa have developed new codes where twice the density can be accomplished on a piece of residential real estate if the houses are kept under 1000 square feet. This encourages a more conservative use of resources and tends to create community around a common area which includes a community building and a shared tool shed.

In Boulder County, Co., however, density is discouraged and without an approved subdivision (very hard to get), one cannot build more than one house on a piece of property. This applies to property sizes up to 35 acres. One can have an accessory dwelling unit under special circumstances. This may not be such a bad thing because most new developments would just be another addition to suburbia and exurbia.

While more density should be encouraged from zoning and the approval of new planned developments, this is a continuing source of friction between those who want to keep their low density existence and those who are thinking about the greater good from an energy conservation, efficiency perspective. Nimbyism and the desire to keep the less well off out of neighborhoods are two important drivers of this conflict.

Another area that should be attacked are the prohibitions against turning one's yard into either nature preserve or a vegetable garden. Lawn order is still a prevailing requirement in most communities and needs to be changed to permit more localization of food supplies. I used to live in a community where spraying one's lawn with pesticides was mandatory and was done by the community whether you wanted to or not. And let one little brown spot develop on your lawn because of decreased watering and you got a citation. It was all about property values.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Detroit as they bulldoze most of the city because of the inability to maintain infrastructure. This is their chance for an urban renaissance based upon urban gardening, farming, and energy production.

The big thing that I would like to see happen though is zoning out or tight restrictions on the use of the auto within the city. This could free up even more space for density due to all the freed up parking lots and narrower roads.

I suppose there’s fixing zoning laws and changing zoning laws. Houston is probably the most unzoned major city in the country. With the exception of opening a strip club across the street from a church or school anything goes here. Ignoring subdivision codes I can build a 70’ diameter solar collector in the middle of a subdivision. I can open a car junk yard in the middle of an historic home district. But I don’t think many would vote Houston as ecofriendly or fuel efficient.

Lots of great ideas if we were starting with a blank sheet. But we’re not. I doubt any significant changes can be made in existing circumstance since grandfathering will be the rule and not the exception IMHO. It’s always easy to tell someone else to change. But even the devoted crowd at TOD would probably resist much significant change if they were the targets.

I attended a lecture by Andres Duany here in Houston last fall on "Agricultural Urbanism" (not Urban Agriculture!) which was extremely interesting. Along with his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, their firm DPZ have been at the forefront of this issue for over thirty years. He pointed out that the type of zoning laws in place in the US since WW2 have not accomplished anything. Compare Houston, which has no zoning to any of the other cities that grew up in the post-war period (LA, Phoenix, Las Vegas) and there is little substantive difference in the type of urbanism that arose. They all car-centric and sprawling, and continue to replace agricultural land at their periphery with a suburban subdivision and strip center/big-box monoculture.
More info:

He advocates a type of form-based zoning, looking at the transition from wilderness to urban core as a series of different collections of typologies and uses, each with their own unique rules and planning criteria. This idea stems from the ecological concept of the "transect".
Even more info:

They have also developed a free SmartCode which designers and municipalities can use and modify.

565 -- Don't want to be mean to Mr. Duany but that's a nice model if you're starting off with an empty environment with millions of folks ready to pioneer the effort. Fortunately that's not our reality. Exactly how would he force the millions of Houstonians to give up their homes and jobs? And who would shoulder the trilliion $'s in cost just to transform this one city? Yes...antagonistic sounding questions but they are also valid ones IMHO.

"Exactly how would he force the millions of Houstonians to give up their homes and jobs?"

the answer is that we don't have to. we just need people to use energy more efficiently. the market will do that. as energy costs rise people will conserve.

Kind of the same way that we trashed virtually ALL prime commercial property (in what is called "Downtowns") and the best located, well built, established neighborhoods (call "Inner Cities") in just twenty years (roughly 1950 to 1970).

That most of Houston is poorly built and will require major repairs in the next couple of decades will just make it easier.


Rockman, I don't think he is advocating razing whole cities and starting over! What needs to be addressed, though, are the forces and rules which shape development (and as Alan points out, re-development). In the post-war period the driving (pun intended) force was the automobile. Now, either because of Peak Oil, Climate Change, or just because we don't like the way our cities have turned out, we are looking for better, more appropriate ways of organizing the built environment.
So it's helpful to have models and patterns that we can look at to provide a goal.

And he wasn't picking on Houston per se, just pointing out that other cities which have zoning end up looking no different from Houston, which doesn't, in order to point out the ineffectiveness of current zoning laws.

Aside: As a Houstonian, I find that our lack of zoning actually adds some character to the city. People who haven't visited here, or only come for a sort while tend to think of it as a homogeneous highway/strip center wasteland, when it is actually quite a diverse place.

I'm a fan of the "new urbanism" type stuff myself. Of course you can't start the city over absent some major fire or something. Zoning has very slow motion effects. Bad decisions today, reversed by good decisions say in five years, would be almost the same as making a good decision today (in 30 - 50 years or so). It is not so much a question of making change happen, as it is allowing the good stuff to happen and discouraging the bad stuff. Car-centric sprawl is bad, local shops good, generally speaking, although obviously you need some limits.


565 -- perhaps i was too harsh with the fellow butI I took much of his thoughts as big "what ifs". Nice mental exercises but not very practical.

Yep. Houston is an odd bird re: zoning. So is Texas in general.

(Rant on).

I for one am sick to death of the confusion about 'green'.

Most people seem to think that green is about having a 'green thumb'.
If you go to any 'green' group a huge number people want to talk about gardening and earthworms.
Most of this gardening stuff has ZERO to do with the environment and the planet.
Another is an interest in animals(such as dogs and cats or llamas) and wildlife which is usually invasive not natural.
Another is weird spiritualism or something called feng-shui.
Then there are the shoppers who are interested in buying only 'green'...bizarre!

It's all about aesthetics and no knowledge.
This is at least 80% of the greenies I meet.

That's usually the end of their interest.

It's all a huge distraction.

(Rant off.)

Development patterns are not dictated by zoning laws : Zoning laws are written to reflect the desires of buyers and renters of housing. You could zone an entire city for townhouses, but if no one wants to buy them, they will not get built and people will move elsewhere.

The reason why development patterns in Europe are the way they are is because:
1. Most cities there pre-date the automobile age, and
2. Most of Europe is considerably more crowded than the US. In Germany, for example, 80 million people are crammed into an area the size of Montana.

In the US (and some other nations, notably Canada and Australia), you have lots of lower-density sprawl because:

1. There is plenty of room in which to build all that sprawl, with a correspondingly low population density (that is, it's not crowded like most of Europe), and
2. There is sufficient wealth in these nations to afford the single-family houses built in this sprawl.

Criticizing the zoning laws for American development patterns is like criticizing the police for the high murder rate in Detroit. The police in Detroit are not the cause of the high murder rate in Detroit any more than zoning laws are the cause of sprawl in the US.

Abundance, I don;t quite agree with you here;
The reason why development patterns in Europe are the way they are is because:
1. Most cities there pre-date the automobile age, and
2. Most of Europe is considerably more crowded than the US.

Many American cities pre date the automobile too - there are actually very few that were entirely built in the 20th century (e.g. Vegas). The layout of very wide streets started in the horse and carriage era of the 19th century - streets wide enough to turn them around, and with raised boardwalks either side, so people didn;t have to walk in mud and horse dung. With the exception of freeways and the like, many city streets were as wide 150 yrs ago as they are now.

In Europe, cities started as dense cluster primarily from the need to be able to defend them from invaders. This is much easier to do with a smaller city/town. Their streets are very narrow, and were paved, making horse dung clean up easy, and eliminating the need for sidewalks, if you needed to turn the horse and cart around, you did so at an intersection, or a pullout. American cities, of course, have not had to defend against land attack since 1812 (except for some place in Texas, I think). I don;t know for sure, but I suspect if you look at American cities from the 18th century, they were very dense, as are places like Old Montreal.

As for population density, In the 18th and 19th century, Europe was less dense than the US is today.

Agreed though about why American/Aust/Cdn cities sprawl - because they can!

Keep in mind that when most European cities were built, the population density was much lower than the US is today

American cities, of course, have not had to defend against land attack since 1812

You entirely forgot about the War of Northern Aggression.

Best Hopes for more historical memory !


"War of Northern Aggression"

very funny.

Good call, Alan.

I had to google that to find out what you meant - when you live in Canada, anything "northern" means Canada!

American cities, of course, have not had to defend against land attack since 1812

And if Americans had shown the good sense to not try to invade Canada in 1812, they wouldn't have had to defend against land attack.

Being Canadian, we have to apologize for capturing Detroit, capturing Chicago, burning Buffalo, firing rockets at Baltimore, burning down the White House and much of the rest of Washington, and chasing the President around in the woods. But we didn't start it, you know. And we can blame it all on the British because we were a colony at the time.

Many Americans seemed to have missed a lot of this in history class. I think most of it got edited out. That may be why the US has had so many instances of misconceived wars involving American soldiers being killed in foreign countries in recent years.

Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it - Edmund Burke

There is another reason. We are used to making do. Some of the zoning laws mentioned are a beaurocratic luxery that 90% of europeans would never have been able to afford in the past. So it never got enshrined.

That and the fact that they are seriously retarded laws.

Zoning laws are written to reflect the desires of buyers and renters of housing.You could zone an entire city for townhouses, but if no one wants to buy them, they will not get built and people will move elsewhere.

Well, while this might be true in the US. If these zoning laws are in effect all across a country or region, people will by townhouses very well. What else should they do if nothing else is available? In a country where zoning laws are enforced and enforcable (in Spain and Italy they build where they want no mattter what says the law...) this does certainly work.

The reason why development patterns in Europe are the way they are is because:
1. Most cities there pre-date the automobile age,

Yes and no. In the germany most cities were eradicated by allied air raids, and elsewhere the historic urban centers are often just a very minor part of the city.

There is sufficient wealth in these nations to afford the single-family houses built in this sprawl.

Real wealth in Europe isn't any less than in the US. The notion that american woodframe construction of houses embodies wealth seems quite laughable if one knows the substantially higher construction standards in northern europe

The real question is maybe why do we have different zoning laws?
I see two reasons:
The first is of course the greater population density that makes problems of sprawl evident much earlier than if you could just keep creating exurbs in the desert.
The second, and IMO bigger reason is that Europe still has a strong sense of urbanity. We desire to live in vibrant, interesting cities. Americans seem far less social and have a far greater need to live by themselves.
You only have to visit any old spanish or italian city to understand why people would rather want to live in the center of a vibrant town than in some nondescript ugly suburb. In europe people most often live in the suburbs because the can not afford to live in the city, not the other way around.

It seems that many zoning rules can become a big problem and obstacle to try some “out of box” approaches to fast coming societal and community problems. We are trying to develop our land (20+ acres upstate NY) for “one day hopefully useful activities” (gardening, trees cultivation, etc.). There is no house on our land (we live 10 miles away).
We faced soon problems and disputations with zoning board as they there are very limiting rules in a place about sheds, structures, wind mills etc. The problems are not only rules and zoning board itself but it appeared there is a strong narrow minded opposition from some neighbors down the road. There is no way to explain them anything. Their minds are blindly locked in their “American dream”, which is represented by a cheap house with a plastic siding on their house, mowed lawn, a pole with American flag and a RV on the driveway. They were very aggressive and not willing and trying (and able?) to understand anything. Zoning board listens to them and not to some stranger (especially some stranger with an accent).
It seems to us that it will be indeed a difficult and painful way to explain and to educate why certain approaches need to be changed. They do not want to even hear that American dreams could be over.
Any town which has at least a little bit informed and knowledgeable town hall people about coming problems will be in better position. Other way is to solve it a revolution from bottom. But this solution is not likely if there are so many deniers who are hoping to live their endless American dream.

Whoever wrote "the net effect [of Euclidean zoning] is to require workers to drive considerable distances to their workplaces, and also to require consumers to drive long distances to places where they purchase goods (like food and clothing) and services (like medical care and piano lessons)" is simply ill-informed. To illustrate, let's assume that in lieu of Euclidean zoning we lived in a world dominated by mixed-use zoning or no zoning. The writer's bias seems to be that in such a world workers wouldn't drive considerable distances to their jobs and to buy goods and services because presumably all of those desirable features are nearby. Logically, that suggests Ikea would be as close to my home as Prada, that Kia and Bentley are near my house and that the best plastic surgeon and the cheapest foot doctor work in the same neighborhood. This is utter economic fantasy. Even in New York City where density is about as robust as it gets in the United States, a large percentage of the population commutes some distance, including those living in Connecticut and New Jersey, by train, bus, subway and automobile to obtain all of the goods, services, housing and employment that fill their lives. The rest of the country, the other 99% of us, choose to live elsewhere. If you think someone will pay $5 million for a home located next to a junk yard so the commute from one to the other is reduced, you are delusional. Think supply and demand. Prime locations, be they banking centers or shopping centers, will always be able to pay more for those those buildings and the land under them than will the operators of subsidized housing facilities and thrift shops. Euclidean zoning provides a very important ingredient in deciding where to live and where to invest in real estate - reasonable expectations that these uses will endure, that a manufacturing plant won't open next to my kid's day care center or that a night club won't located next to a religious facility. Even in a Euclidean world there is great diversity with mixed-use boulevards, nodes of entertainment, business parks, government centers, university campuses, etc. Land uses in any zoning scheme change over time whether a result of white flight, changing demographics, gentrification, development of public transit station stops, new shopping centers, etc.

Your point is contradicted by my home. Except during JazzFest, about everything I want is within 3 miles and much is within walking distance.

for necessities:

Zara's Grocery - 4 blocks
WalMart - 7 blocks
Office Depot - 6 blocks
My tailor - 6 blocks
My cobbler - 12 blocks (another is closer)
Paint Store - 7 blocks
Hardware Store - 13 blocks
Farmer's Market (Saturday) - 8 blocks
Barber - 3 blocks

For work -
51 story One Shell Square - 1.1 miles
Tulane & Loyola - 3 miles
Medical Center - 2 to 3 miles
CBD - .7 to 2 miles
Port HQ - 1 mile
Wharves - 1 mile to 4 miles
25,000 hotel rooms within 1.75 miles
French Quarter - 1.1 to 2.5 miles away

For play -
US WW II Museum - .5 mile
French Quarter - 1.1 mile
Free Outdoor Music on Wednesday - .75 mile
World Class Restaurants - .3 to 3 miles
JazzFest - 5 miles (via streetcar)
Mardi Gras parade route - 3 blocks
Nearest bar - 2 blocks
Aquarium - 1.5 miles
Insectarium - 1.3 miles
Live Music - 3 blocks to 2.5 miles

Nearest Ikea - Houston (don't need it).

Best Hopes for Seeing the Possible,


I always have a problem with the American "block" as unit of distance...

For me it sounds all awfully far away.

Shops (bakery, supermarket, bike store, clothes, etc. etc.) 0-1000 meters
Railway station 1000 meters (I would take a bike but it is still walk able)
Nearest proper bar 300 meters
Present working place 15 minutes by train (plus walking/biking to and from) or 40 minutes by bike
The rest (DIY, hospital, Ikea,...) Maximum 5 km

No need for a car...

For me it sounds all awfully far away

But to an American, these distances sound incredibly, unbelievably close by.

New Orleans has an "European feel" (also a Caribbean feel), but it is still an American city (just the most unique one).

Best Hopes for Seeing the Possible,


PS: I need the exercise from walking the extra few blocks.

My home is above a shop (used to be where the shopkeeper lived) and built somewhere around 1900 in a beautiful city called Delft.

Still has some original windows!

But there is still shopping in the area and absolutely no place to park your car at the canals.

It's also an exception in The Netherlands but lucky to have it

I don't think that is what is being said at all. How often do you shop at Ikea? Prada? Ikea is also restricted by the size, shape and color of their stores...I've never seen one that wasn't a huge box, away from the city center, even in Europe. The key is to have places that you visit often-work, the grocery store, a drug store, a hardware store maybe, restaurants, bars-close by. That doesn't mean EVERYTHING must be close by. My brother lived in Paris for a while and would shop at the market just down the street for 'grocery' items, but if he was travelling by the suburbs anyway, he would stop by the 'supermarket' for more selection and lower prices.

Here in Florida almost all zoning codes are both restrictive and prescriptive-for instance my home is zoned R-1 so I may not turn it into a commercial business (and a home occupied business needs permission, a conditional use, from P&Z). Were I to turn it into a commercial business, I would be required to upgrade and provide certain things, for instance sufficent parking, bike parking (a recent addition, the 20k or so seat Orlando Magic arena was built without a single bike rack in the 80's), handicap access and other things. The neighborhood I live in was built from the 20's to the 50's, so it built with gridded streets around a center commercial street that has most of the essentials you would need for everyday life. Everything is built close to the street and parking is provided on street and behind businesses for the most part. This has now been adapted into the overall City code with an 'overlay district' that requires similar form.

After seeing what was developed after this, auto-centric strip malls in the 70's and 80's, most places responded with ever tightening requirements for landscape buffers, screening walls, parking space size and number, and other poor uses of space. Generally it seems most of the changes to zoning over this period was because of the car, both to protect it and to protect us from it (from having to see them, and from being run over by one). It seems many urban places in FL now are now in the process, or at least say they are thinking about, switching to a more 'form based', typically new urbanism based code with more flexibility than what exists currently. You can see early experiments like Seaside and Celebration, and I think the popularity of these mostly resort areas has attracted a lot of followers. There are still plenty of cul-de-sac filled, miles from anywhere housing developments that are being filled today, but the recession and to a lesser extent high gas prices have dampened their popularity.

It amazes me to this day that somehow it was thought an appropriate place for government to tell someone how many parking spaces their gas station needed to have, but not be able to make a decision on if it's in fact an appropriate place FOR a gas station.

that the best plastic surgeon and the cheapest foot doctor work in the same neighborhood.

How often do you need to got to the plastic surgeon? I hope not every day...

Honestly, the point is not that you can walk everywhere, but that most of the things you need daily are within easy reach.

This observation may not apply to the US but in Australia the coastal cities were founded by sea explorers who set up camp on small rivulets. Some 200 years later 1-4 million people are trying to live within a short radius of that little creek. In some cases most of the arable soil has been paved over and the suburbs stretch into semidesert. Clearly that has been enabled by cheap energy to irrigate, fertilise and transport food. Service industries like finance and government kept most people in work in those cities with the food, water and energy 'piped in'. That was until Peak Oil.

Now we will need to farm close to people and use waste products supplemented by minimal 'imported' NPK. That means we will have to set aside swathes of land in what are now inner suburbs. That in itself will create resistance even if the area has degenerated socially and economically. When and if urban farms raise the tone of the neighbourhood corrupt politicians will want it rezoned back again for gentrified housing. I say 'corrupt' not in the sense of taking bribes but believing that the magic of the late 20th century can return. We should start planning for this now.


I don't think it's really a case of needing to farm closer to the people, it's needing the people to use less oil. If Ancient Rome was supplied with grain from Egypt and Morocco, then Sydney can still be supplied from the western plains, via rail.
The loss of prime farmland around Richmond/Camden and the like is tragic though - dairy farm my brother worked on is now "estate housing", and they complain about the smell of the neighboring dairy farm - what do you expect when you move to the country!

But, now that the city infrastructure is built out, the best thing to do is make the most of it by densifying the inner areas, so that people can live with less oil consumption, and used the oil saved to maintain farming (though it too, will become less oil intense). You can never hope to grow enough in a city, to feed the city, though you can grow some
To reclaim inner areas for farming means people in the outer areas have longer travel - better to reclaim the outer areas and shrink the diameter of the city.
Realistically though, the best we can hope for is to just halt the sprawl, and densify the existing urban areas for a lower energy lifestyle.

Zoning is certainly a problem at the macro scale as you can't build your own roads and other infrastructure with teh co-opertion of the city. On you own land however I expect many unpermitted activities to start popping up, trade, commerce and home based industries among them. Many of these things are already going on and will only increase when the situtaion demands it. Good design that brings economic benefits will get zoning lawas changed by developers if they really push it.

I'm with Kunstler however in thinking that land developers are not going to have the money to do great 'new urbanism' and city councils will be too busy putting out spot fires all over the palce to create great strategice urban plans that may take 50-100 years to be built out. Starting with a grid of streets helps and earmarking the parks and gardens helps. Allowing the local communities to decide what goes in them is a next step. Unfortuntatly the consumer mindset of today wants an instant "experience" and is not invewsted enough in their suburb to contribute to its long term planning.

The Transition Towns group in our town is going to tackle this by assisting neighbourhoods to write their own sustainability plan which will include urban agriculture, industry, transport, community events /celebrations, governance, infrastructure and anything else that affects them. These neighbourhood palns can join up into a wider communicty plan which feeds into the city plan. I'm sure that zoining issues will come up many times in this process but as jaggedben said above, councils will only change laws when there is s push from constituents to do so. We recently ahd a city palnner address our group and this was one of the things he identified as as tumbling block: they cannot move too far ahead of the people and need the rabble rousers to help them to make good policy.

Overall, I would say the problem is not so much pure "zoning" as it is the design of the city overall, especially regarding transport. It is a good idea to segregate heavy and light industrial uses from residential, but where I think we have gone wrong is then segregating commercial/retail from residential.

Even before that, the real problem is the amount of wasted land area for streets. Old European cities have streets 20' wide, modern American ones have 70-100'wide ROW's, and then require setbacks for the houses. And of course, single family houses chew up plenty of land too. When everything spreads out that much, personal transport quickly becomes a necessity.

Get the planning right with a dense core, narrow streets, pedestrian plazas, and multi level residential above street level commercial, and you are on the right track. Interestingly, this is the model for almost all ski resort villages, (I used to work in one). The whole village is designed so that people don;t have to use their car. Whistler, BC, village has a core that you can't drive in, but has over 10,000 beds in that space, above shops and the like. The rest of the village is spread out along the valley, into discrete neighborhoods, but still they are quite dense compared to a normal city. There are, of course, some 5000 sq.ft McMansions, but they are on small lots and the zoning in many areas prohibits lawns!
The village has a great network of bike paths and an excellent bus transit system. The light industrial functions are clustered together outside the town, a 5 min drive or bus ride, or 10 min bike ride away. The place has a permanent population of 10,000 people (and over 50,000 "beds" in total!) and I would guess at least a third to a half of the adult population do not own, or need cars.

The village was designed so that people would not need cars when they vacation there, but neither do the people that live there. And how do you design for minimal cars - take the blueprint of any 300 yr old Austrian/German/French town near the mountains. They had little space to work with and made the most of what they had. The results are far better than any American/Canadian/Australian town I have seen.

All this is great, if you are starting from scratch, but most places are not. But densification is still the name of the game. If people insist on houses on 1/4 or 1/8 acre, you cannot densify. Initiatives like laneway housing (here in Vancouver, building a "granny flat" in the backyard), are just a drop in the bucket. What has been more successful is the densification that has occurred around the Skytrain stations (elevated light rail system)- it makes it plausible for people to live without a car, or be a one car family.
Changing the zoning to create these denser clusters (by allowing re-development of SF housing) is the starting point, but even getting agreement on that is often impossible.

The real question to ask is "how can this town/city be changed such that the majority (not all) of the people can live without needing to drive a car, or even own one?" if you take that as your starting point (as the ski resorts did) your ideas and decisions will be very different, though not everyone will agree. Eventually, Peak Oil may make the choices for us, whether everyone agrees or not.

One further 'economic" thought on cars. Almost all the money you spend on them leaves the local economy - 95c on the dollar for fuel, probably 90c on the purchase, 40c on the servicing, 60c on parts, 80c on insurance etc. It is a huge outflow of money from most cities and especially smaller ones. When people are not spending it on car related things, they have more to spend on other stuff. If they are living in smaller accommodations, they spend less on "stuff" and more on services (eating out, entertainment, even home renos, which are cheaper in smaller places). Because people are not sending 2hrs a day commuting, they are more productive/have more leisure time. The town is maintaining less miles of road (and water/sewer lines) per person, schools spend less, if any, bussing kids around, and on it goes - the economic benefits add up quickly, and the town is more prosperous.

Zoning changes are a start, but not sufficient - if people can;t live without a car, you haven't solved the fundamental problem.

The European example of clustered homes surrounded by farm land is not a function of zoning - it goes back to the Middle Ages. No one in their right mind would live on a isolated farm with Vikings and other marauders apt to show up at any minute. Hence the clusters of homes - mutual defense. In what is now the UK - land was owned in common by a village so again - clusters of homes surrounded by this commonly owned land. In Europe too - many towns and villages emerged out of estates - the worker homes were clustered. When the estates were broken up - the clusters grew into towns etc. There are still towns in the UK which are owned by an estate.

I'd guess the lesson here is that when people are faced with marauders they won't live isolated on single farms as we do now in the rural US. But I find the idea of clusters of homes which are surrounded by land they own in common and work in common to be an intriguing model for zoning/development. I'd love to see US cities adopt the plan common in the UK - every city is surrounded by green space used for allotments where apartment, town house etc dwellers can have space to grow their own food and even keep chickens.

I despise zoning laws which operate from bizarre notions of what the neighborhoods of the gentry should look like - obligatory lawns that must be kept trimmed, no wash lines, restrictions on pets, holiday decorations or even what you can have on a balcony or patio. Conform conform conform - everything must look the same.

And then there are the developments that do not want to face the homes of the peasants so they face away from the street and are surrounded by high fences. Really helps to integrate into the community when you do that. Cul de sacs should be outlawed.

I'd love to see zoning laws that require consistency in appearance and scale. It is common now where I live to see people buy a small home - knock it down - and build a McMansion which dwarfs the other small homes in the neighborhood.

In Hungary, zoning laws are also starting up, you cannot have commercial buildings in some areas, but this is fairly new and limited only to the wealthier suburbs. The restrictions pretty much end here.
Smaller towns usually have no zoning laws only wealthy suburbs and the big cities.

Most yards have fences, and you can grow whatever you like in your territory. There are no laws that you have to cut the grass, if you like you can have it waist-high. Or you can have your yard/garden filled with rubbish and no one will care.
Keeping animals is not allowed in some areas (urban and also some wealthier neighbourhoods). Clotheslines are not outlawed anywhere.

I lived in the US for more than a year and my impression was that it is an overregulated police state. Americans are always talking about freedom, but actually most European countries have more freedom.

Americans are always talking about freedom, but actually most European countries have more freedom.

Aw, you'll hurt their 'mercan feelings.


They also got guns so they can guard their property just like the Stasi guarded the State.

Scanning this thread I see a lot of talk and just one person who's doing the only thing that makes a difference in zoning issues: participating directly in the process.

Zoning laws are created by the local legislative body. Where I live in New York, that's the local city council or town board. Want to influence zoning laws? Run for the local legislative body.

Outside of very small venues, where both jobs are done by the local legislative body, zoning laws are implemented by the local planning board or zoning board of appeals (or both). Want to have a say in how zoning actually gets applied? Get yourself appointed to the local planning board or zoning board of appeals. No campaigning, no election, just pay attention to notices of openings and go in for an interview when something becomes available. It's typical to first get appointed to an alternate position (voting only when a regular member can't attend, which happens more often than not) and then be appointed to a regular term when someone retires.

If your place is anything like mine, you'll find local government desperate for capable people willing to serve on these appointed boards. I've been on our local planning board for a year now (out of a seven year term!) after serving for a few months as an alternate, and it's not only given me the only influence I'm going to get over local land use decisions, it's also given me priceless access to local decision-makers and a position from which to educate them about sustainability issues that I could not have obtained any other way. Perhaps most importantly, it's given me an insight into the problems local planners face in dealing with the public and in balancing individual property rights against the greater good.

Of course, it's a lot easier to just complain about how the system is going in the wrong direction. But if you're not willing to get your hands dirty through participation (or at least showing up and attending boring board sessions on a regular basis as a member of the public), don't be surprised if you're not taken seriously by local officials.


I have attended at least two dozen meetings and made several written comments during the post-Katrina planning efforts. The final master plan will be on the ballot soon.


I've attended Committee of Adjustment hearings and was part of a group that went against a developer before the hated Ontario Municipal Board (a province-wide court of last resort on zoning issues.) We lost, unfortunately.

I'm doing my part-- I generally ignore corrupt processes and do everything I can to not participate in them.

Reimagining cities, one block at a time . . .

In Dallas A Community Transforms a Street (short, fun video)

I lived in a 'growing town to small city' for 20 years. We are now zoning refugees and somewhat alienated from the process. I used to volunteer as a member of the town planning council, however, it was easy to see that members were herded by town planners and engineers into agreeing with their recommendations. Over the years the recommendations started with curbs/gutters/sidewalks for all streets and it took a restrictive petition to delay it in your neighbourhood....but it would come. Result? Flashy runoff and degradation to local salmon streams. New subdivisions of very dense housing and restrictive covenants, traffic lights when 4 ways would work fine, and stupid projects to project an image of wealth and up and coming progress slowly crept into a consciousness of 'the right way to run a city'. Local industry is now failing and the tax burden is switching to property owners and the rates are skyrocketing. We used to like to sit out in the backyard and cook over a small fire and drink beer/wine with friends and neighbours, until the newbies complained about the smoke. I have had the fire department called on me many times when we had no fire going at all. A friend of mine worked at 911 and would call me at home and say, "Paul, we got another call....who is burning"? Usually, it was a few blocks away. We heated with wood and got tired of the complaints about the smell of woodsmoke. The last I heard the subdivision behind us was trying to ban wood stoves. (All this in a forestry town!!)

Rural freedom saved us and enriched our lives. We get along with our neighbours in a way without having to implement restrictive codes to control behaviours. No one tells us how to live or think. So many believe they have the right answers and tell others how to live. I used to teach design and I understand that densely living humans need rules to promote civility and safety, however, it has to be monitored to stop the creep of 'empire building' planning. As BAU conventions decline with economics, common sense may one day become the only affordable solution.

Participating in local planning is an eye opening experience but timing is everything. If one wants to promote change, you cannot be too far ahead of the curve and not receive flak. I would put up the cells and heating panels and then if locals tried to shut me down I would start up with letters to editors, news reports, outside news organizations, etc in order to argue the convictions you hold dear. Confrontation and restriction way well prove to promote the ideals TOD members would like to see explained to an unknowing BAU audienece. If you are reasoned and not a crackpot, what an opportunity! (I've started building my own windmill and use a little trailer on my trail 90 to work around the place.)With gas $1.05 a litre and climbing, no one laughs anymore.


I had the misfortune of serving on my town's Planning board for over six years, the last year as chair, so I am all too familiar with zoning and its problems and downsides. Suffice it to say that I do not at all like zoning the way it is usually done in the USA. I can confirm that it does indeed carry a considerable share of guilt for the horrible mess we have gotten ourselves into today.

During my time on the board, I was constantly advocating for changes that would mainly refocus just on things that really were important - things that genuinely impacted safety and health, for example - rather than regulating just for the sake of regulating. I found that in a great number of cases, the zoning laws were designed the way that they were because it was easy to regulate that way, rather than with a really legitimate end purpose in mind.

Sometimes, I even saw the zoning laws utterly fail to do the first and foremost thing that they really and truly should be doing - protecting public safety and health. Someone wanted permission to build and asphalt plant upwind of town. There were at least three public health related provisions in our zoning law that - to my mind at least - would have been violated by locating this asphalt plant there, yet when it came time to vote, I was the only one on the board to vote against it. Yet, people can and are prohibited from doing things that will cause no real harm to anyone. A rather bitter experience, those six years on the board.

My belief was (and is) that unless there is a clear and compelling public interest that needs to be protected, people should be free to do what they want to do on their property. That most definitely includes putting up clothes lines, or solar panels, or gardens instead of lawns, or chicken coops, or accessory apartments over the garage. (All permitted in my town, btw.) One of my big efforts was to push for the creation and expansion of mixed-use districts, and to ease up restrictions on home-based small businesses. We were able to make some progress during my time on the board, though less than I would have liked.

All that being said, I must sadly tell you that making change in this area particularly is very, very long, hard, frustrating work. In spite of all my efforts, and in spite of being in a small town where much of the population is actually pretty much in agreement with the direction I was pushing for, I was not able to accomplish very much during my time on the planning board. Strangely enough, to a very considerable extent I was blocked not by people who actually disagreed with me and wanted to preserve the status quo, but rather by people who had their own pet projects and priorities that distracted the board from getting on with comprehensive zoning code revision, and by idealists who were determined to make the perfect (but unattainable) the enemy of the good enough (and achievable). Up until my last year on our board, we also labored under the handicap of grossly incompetent P&Z directors, thus causing the board to mostly flounder around rather than focus its limited time productively.

I'm here to warn you that my experience is probably not exceptional, but very much typical of what you are likely to encounter, even in the BEST CASE (which is pretty close to what we've got here). Worst case, you will be up against powerful and entrenched interests that will fight you every step of the way and make your life miserable, if not absolute hell. In that case, I'd suggest not even trying to change anything, except your address. Life is too short to waste on futility.

Amen. "Life is too short to waste on futility."

I have lived most of my life in Dallas. One thing not mentioned so far is the white flight that began after WWII and accelerated in the 60s. Racism was a factor. In fact, living in the suburbs and graduating from high school in 1971, I never sat in a class with a person of darker skin color. I am sure that the circumstances were similar all over the country.

The single-family single-use zoning dove-tailed with the desire of white people with rising incomes to move to all-white suburbs with "better" schools (that is, schools with few minorities).

Dallas is changing now. But it has been a long struggle.

Indeed Dallas is changing, it is turning into a war zone. Why anyone thinks living in these places long after P.O. is a good idea is beyond me.

Why anyone thinks living in these places long after P.O. is a good idea is beyond me.

Well, you are a "conservative" so that forms (and IMHO limits) your judgment.


Second that.

Part of the reason I'll be permanently moving away from the DFW area is that the people here are sleepwalking (or sleeprunning?) into the future, and I want out. I'm looking into the PNW vs. Upper Midwest but haven't made up my mind yet.

There's alot of talk in the media these days of the strengths of Texas in the present economy - but I'm fairly certain it's conservative attitudes, growth/sprawl dependent cities, auto centric way of life, and reliance on oil/gas industry will doom it over the long haul.

It seems to me that the only conclusion one can really draw is that the zoning regulations(and associated issues) can only really be viewed as anti competitive policies created for the benefit and behest of powerful development interests. In some areas (Like my local Hawaii) the situation is so increasingly complicated that it has simply become unaffordable for many to develop their properties, for much of any purpose, but of course for those developers with the capital to bend the ear of the planning department and the time to hire guns to get variances for them, most anything is possible. Worthless properties become valuable with the stroke of a pen if you can purchase the right friends--and if you're a big player you can get those for pennies on the dollar.

As I implied above, yes chaging zoning laws is a part of preparing for/dealing with peak oil. Form based zoning would hopefully keep a McMansion from moving in next door and blocking your garden or house from the sun, and getting rid of some restrictive zoning 'uses' would allow more mixing of commmercial and residential uses. However, it's easier said than done-even if changing zoning in a neighborhood to allow a market would 'fly' without the people next door throwing a fit, it's not easy to shoehorn in a commercial use into many neighborhoods built in the past 30-40 years.

Changing one aspect and not the other doesn't work that well-Orange City, FL, for instance, has a bit of a 'form based' building code, espically for commercial buildings, but in their desire to maintain the feeling of being out in the suburbs, if not the country, they also require 20 foot landscape buffers for commercial properties from the road and peaked roofs on buildings. To me, a blanket provision like the peaked roof one is just silly, and the it there to protect the street? To protect the business? Not a lot of wildlife lives in 20 foot wide strips. If the purpose is to protect nature, better to coordinate areas so they are connected and made larger.

3. What zoning laws have been successful in Europe in keeping cities compact and walkable?

this isn't just about zoning laws but here are my two cents:

- most important is the setting of priorities: Do you want a city to live in or to drive through ???
This then influences: narrow residential roads vs. wide fast roads
or: smooth flow of traffic vs. minimized traffic and walkable neighborhoods.

- Very important is also understanding that the amount of time people spend commuting every day stays the same, no matter what transportation or roads they use (this has been found out empirically) Therefore: If you build fast highways, people will not spend less time driving, they just drive further. This has huge implications on city and traffic planning.

- mixing residential and commercial usages

- very effective: car-free streets and city centers. Once you ban the cars the streets take on a life of their own and become attractive places to live

- good public transportation (if the city has a subway / trams it imposes a cost on you if you move to a suburb without there being access to the public transport system of the town: You need a second car, and you would need to drive your kids to school as well) In the city, ownership of a car isn't even necessary, bicycles are hugely poular in Germany. In my town, Dresden, a city of about half a million people and ca 200sqkm I can get anywhere on my bicycle as fast as by car. This provides an incentive to stay in the city, as i wouldnt want to have to cycle an hour just to get to town...

In the end, I think it is mostly a question of what people desire. If you mind other people, you will do anything personally and as a society to have something that is just your own and where you dont have to be bothered by others. If you enjoy a more community style of living, you want to live in a town with narrow streets and high density. There is choice for everyone and most europeans would certainly not want to live in an american suburb.

Here are a few general comments.

I live in suburban Houston, in a subdivision with its own covenants, but with no zoning laws.

The main effect of no zoning laws is that housing prices are lower than in a comparable city with zoning laws. If developers want zoning laws changed (and developers are the people who usually want them changed) all that zoning laws do is to slow development while the developer gets the laws changed, and increase costs to the developer, who has to borrow money to buy the land, and then pay interest while he works to get the laws changed. Changing zoning laws also has direct costs, for advertising, campaigning, and making campaign contributions (and other bribes) to the right people.

Subdivision covenants are another matter. The covenants are written by the original developer of the subdivision with the idea of making the subdivision superficially attractive to buyers. Once the subdivision has been built out, the homeowners are the ones in control (in theory). In practice, the ones in control are the very small minority of homeowners who have the time to attend meetings, and even those have trouble changing covenants, because they usually require a majority (and often a super-majority) of homeowners to make any change.

The future is not as bleak for making changes as this may seem. Actual enforcement of covenants is typically in the hands of a management company. As the economy gets worse, and more homes go into foreclosure, dues are no longer paid to the Homeowners Association on these houses. The Association runs out of money, and stops paying the management company, or perhaps other subdivisions do and the management company goes out of business. One way or other, enforcement stops. Then gradually compliance stops.

My experience with zoning started when I was growing up on a farm outside Sydney, Australia. Where we lived was zoned as "perpetual green belt" with minimum property size of 2.5 acres and land use restricted to farming or residential, one family per property. As development in Sydney picked up, the valuation of my parents' farm doubled every year, with the obvious effect on taxes. Eventually, my parents were paying so much in taxes we were forced to sell. A developer offered what was, to us, a princely sum, so we sold to him and moved to a suburban house several miles further from Sydney (outside the "green belt"). Six months later, the land we had sold was rezoned as Light Industrial, and its value more than doubled overnight.

Zoning and land use restrictions in Australia have multiplied like a cancer in recent years. Several of my family members now live on farms 300 km northwest of Sydney. Thirty years ago, the attitude of local government to development on a farm, like (for example) building a machinery shed, was, "You're the one who has to live with it -- we don't want to worry about it."

Today, such a building would require a seven page application, an environmental impact statement, and many pages of supporting documents (and a substantial permit fee), all delivered to a Shire Council 150 km away, far enough to require a long-distance phone call. Theoretically, the building inspector would have to make an inspection, though I don't know if he actually would. For my brother's farm, he would need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to get there, and would need to make the inspection in dry weather.

With red tape multiplying like this, it should be no surprise that Sydney is one of the most expensive cities for housing, relative to income, in the English-speaking world. It is second only to Vancouver, Canada. The housing median multiple (median house price/median household income) in Sydney is 9.1, where zoning and land use restrictions have gone wild, and 2.9 in Houston, a city of comparable size with minimal zoning ( [PDF]). Housing in Houston is obviously more affordable. Yet, there is little evidence that the restrictions in Sydney have led to much difference in practice. The urban area of Sydney had 2038 people per square kilometer (2006), while the urban area of Houston had 1471 (2000). Newer developments in Houston (or, more correctly, on the outskirts of Houston) do include a lot of "McMansions", but there are also many new apartments and condominiums with quite high housing density; so the figures are probably closer today. We'll see when the new census figures come out.

The primary reason why American cities look the way they do is because Americans "just like them that way." It is what they imagine -- a cultural style, like a necktie. It is not actually related with cars, although cars further enabled it. The basic suburban pattern is evident in small US towns dating from about 1790 or 1800 -- long before cars. Cars enabled this basic suburban pattern to multiply, and zoning fixed it in place.

To switch to a more European or Asian style, what I call the "Traditional City," the main step is simply to understand what it is, and then to want it or prefer it.

This item contains links to many essays on the Traditional City.

These items are particularly relevant:

The photo essays you linked to are terrific. And very funny too.
I like this: "Are you still fantasizing about your manor in the country? The lords and ladies of France left their country manors for apartments like these. Much better parties in Paris."

"Even beyond zoning laws, in some cities of the US, there are subdivision laws as well, which add additional requirements--what color you can repaint your house, whether you can have a clothes line (No!), and how frequently your lawn must be mowed."

What is all this? The land of the free being told when to mow a lawn? The colour of your house dictated. Stand up for your human rights, purple is a perfect colour for those wooden walls!

The difference between Europe and the US is history, cities developing before the development of the car, and space or in Europes case the lack of space.

Those developments are generally recent McMansions, and are the exception rather than the rule.

Plenty of odd-colored houses and interesting landscaping here if you stay in older neighborhoods. You can even put up clotheslines if you are so inclined.

Of course, America is also bringing the world the Apple Computer gated application community, so you don't get off completely free either >.>

What I found also very enlightening, particularly pertaining to the discussions here at TOD, and what confirmed my own somewhat less elaborate musings, is this: "Heroic Materialism began along with the Industrial Revolution, around 1780. Europeans can look back at 2500 years of civilization before that time. However, we Americans have nothing before 1780. There were the Native Americans, who were admirable for many things, but we aren't going to live in wigwams and hunt for buffalo with pointy sticks. In the American imagination, there is Heroic Materialism or ... nothing. Annihilation. Total collapse. Or a "return to nature" if you want to put it in those terms. I think that's why, when Americans look for an alternative to the industrial world, they tend to "go back to nature," which has a strangely colonial-era feel about it. They gravitate toward log cabins and self-sufficient farms, and making your own clothes out of buckskin. It's all very primitive."
A lot of the solutions to a decline in liquid fuels are actually very simple and not complicated, if we just go back to the ways of our ancestors. This is perhaps easier to see if one still lives in the place ones ancestors built.


Anti-livestock laws prevent huge numbers of Americans from having even a chance of providing for themselves.

In my neighborhood, there is a law limiting vegetable gardens to no more than 10 foot by 10 foot, and not visible from the street. Argh.

In Wisconsin I see three basic housing categories: towns(from villages to metro areas), rural (farms and forest areas), and places in-between (suburbs and xburbs). The question, I think, for TOD folks is: How do all sorts of government regulations impact our ability to deal with shortages of FF that we expect in the future?

Just focusing on the in-between category, I see this dichotomy: one one hand, one could envision the 'burbs to be an ideal place to survive. Housing in this category has the space needed for solar, wind, food production, green stuff for carbon capture, contained enough for community defense, supply of buildings for community needs, decentralized waste and water systems (not prone to collapse), and probably some more advantages.

However, we all know that "time is of the essence" for avoiding/mitigating some very nasty scenarios. Here we find the real problem: most typically (and definitely where I live) an overwhelming number of rules and regulations pertaining to "single or double family residences". It is not just zoning regulations. I checked the website for my local township regarding a host of regulations that I am supposed to comply with - it is dumb founding!

My particular issue is with the idea of requiring licensed contractors for almost any kind of work to build/remodel/repair your home. I am a dedicated Do-It-Yourself-er (DIY). I am also a strong supporter of most building codes. Most basic building codes that relate to the actual construction of some residential entity are well founded to promote safety. However, the administrative process in which these codes are usually wrapped are designed (intentionally or not) to discourage DIY work. Note that some enlightened communities truly support DIY work with positive approaches to inspecting the work for safey issues (rare around here).

Here on TOD, we often talk about the future need for localization, self sufficiency, adaptability and the like. Unfortunately, the result of zoning regulations and other local regulations is to encourage specialization (see Bottleneck) and discourage any DIY activity. As others have noted, eliminating all such regulations could have some very negative consequences. Sensible regulations that are attuned to the needs of this century could be very valuable. In my county, I see zero evidence of this happening. I see the net effect of these regulations will be a contribution to greater hardship in the future.

If I were king (I have since given up being king, and only write about it in my fiction, But I have in the past posted with this lead in. )

IF I were king, then all new construction would be in a mixed use format, and all homes built would have to be as self sustaining as possible. Earth Shelters would almost be the norm, though there are other designs that work to be used. Landscaping would be of the useful kinds, food, or medicine, or other useful plants first before you get to have a green lawn. Water collection would be built into the designs, both on the homes and into the landscaping. You could have a pool if you could collect the rainwater to fill it. Lots of little tricks of the trade would be used.

Businesses would have to provide some of their own power, would have to have swamp/wetland water treatment systems built into the designs, basically as eco-friendly as possible. There are a lot of new designs that are very much along those lines even in modern highrises.

Old cities would have to have makeovers, paid for by everyone using them, via carbon use taxing, and any other method to spread the cost across the board so as to be viable.


But since I am not king, I vote in people locally that have knowledge about these issues. I tell as many people as will listen what my ideas are, and why they might be better for us all, and listen to other people's ideas and use them to enhance my own where needed.

Just look what Detroit is doing, razing the old to hopefully better what is left and maybe have a better future.

I have always liked the live above the business storefronts in several cities I have lived in, Huntsville Alabama, even North Little Rock Arkansas. Both those cities had that as a zoning regulation at one time. NLR has been trying to restart that system for several years to no avail as of yet, in our older downtown, but it is possible.

Pushing for better laws like being able to have chickens and goats in larger yards in the city would be a plus. There has been recent talk of more sustainable living here locally. But most folks don't know why it is all really important besides they still don't have jobs, and eating is easier when you grow some of your own food.

One reason I think Europe is the way it is, is because of the time they have been around. The early city-states, every village had it's own king or lord and the cities were tighter in formation from the get go, whereas in the US we got to spread out, in fact that being a theme. Open Skies, Wide open spaces, no crowding, Land to be had for cheap, FREEDOM. It just was designed in the history books a lot different from the start, which for most of us was only from 1492 onward. While in Europe you have a history of thousands of years of village making.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed future.

I am an urban and transportation planner, and it is my strong conviction that zoning and parking regulations have been the biggest driver of car dependence in the North America, Australia and New Zealand.

I often hear people talk about a "culture" of the car and driving, saying things like "we have to get people out of their cars, but they love them". It's partially true, but I would argue the "culture" is largely caused by mistaken traffic engineering and city planning approaches that have subsidised private cars as a form of transport, and encouraged land use that fundamentally favours cars. I would say that it is not the absolute preference of 85% of Americans, Australians or New Zealanders to drive everywhere -- city planners and engineers have just made it much cheaper and more convenient to drive, so logically households choose it.

Believe it or not, in most cities the planning regulations REQUIRE a massive surplus of parking be provided with every new building. The regulations usually require that each land use provide for its own peak hour demand for FREE parking. Parking isn't actually free of course, but the demand for unpriced parking is much higher than for priced. So by planning for it to be free to the user, we have to provide much more of it. Also, the peak hour of demand for many uses are complimentary. You park at work for part of the day, and the shopping mall or cinema in the evening or on the weekend, and then at home at night. So, because each use has enough supply to deal with its own peak, there are 4 or more empty parking spaces for each car.

This drives up the cost of development, encourages development to locate where land values are cheaper (further from the centre), and builds the cost of parking into everything we do and buy. It is a massive subsidy to car trips: it shifts the cost of all that valuable land from the transport sector to the real estate sector. These regulations have led to parking becoming the single biggest land use in our urban/suburban areas -- and most parking spaces are empty for most of the day.

And of course, because parking is subsidised, it affects how people choose to to travel. It is a far bigger determinant than fuel prices, because it is a far bigger share of the cost of your average urban/suburban trip. Why take the bike, walk or take public transport or a taxi when you can drive yourself as cheaply and easily.

At once parking rules create a landscape in which it is less convenient to walk, cycle or take public transport -- and they make it artificially cheap to drive. It's a self-reinforcing cycle of car dependence as all the players in the society move out to benefit from cheaper land costs, even though the total transport costs to the nation are huge. (Way higher as a proportion of GDP than in Japan or Europe).

Parking presents a huge opportunity -- because city councils can get rid of parking requirements and get developers on board to support it. This allows compact development, think New Urbanism or European style neighbourhoods, to be built at a lower cost. Increased density supports walking, cycling and PT, and additional options for things like grocery shopping (smaller local shops, free home delivery). Over time, as cities attract more residents and jobs, the parking gets built out and eventually as the oversupply of parking dwindles, cities can charge money for its use -- to reflect the true value of the resource.

I am currently working with a number of city councils in New Zealand and Australia to change their approach to parking. It's a huge win-win.

Here are some more resources on this subject:

Yes, this is a very important point.
Here in Germany any new or reconstructed building also needs to include parking space. As in my town there is more reconstruction than new building (lots of old but beautiful buildings), this has the effect of turning what was once a beautiful garden or inner yard into a sterile grey concrete parking lot. Makes my heart bleed every time this happens.

It’s good to see The Oil Drum taking up the issue of zoning. With all due respect to the geologists and engineers here, most people have only a sketchy idea as to how codes shape their communities.

With regard to Houston, it has no zoning but it does have land use regulations that encourage sprawl. Three come to mind. One is parking requirements, which are pretty aggressive and ensure that a good deal of the developed land is asphalt. Another is street standards that require wide thoroughfares and high design speeds — not friendly to pedestrians. Another is setback requirements, which can be just as effective as minimum lot sizes in restricting densities.

In general, zoning is more important than the comprehensive land plans for municipalities in shaping the built environment. Land plans and visions cannot do a thing without a code to implement them. Zoning is the DNA of the built environment. Just like our DNA determines that we are human beings, the zoning will determine that a community is built in the form of subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, etc. Houston notwithstanding, virtually everything in America has been built according to zoning since after World War II.

I would add that European countries are not different from the US because they were built prior to zoning. They have had a good deal of development since WWII. We had a good deal of development prior to WWII. For various reasons, they have had different codes, practices, and market forces shaping development for the last six decades. We invented suburban sprawl and excelled at “urban renewal” in the US and have kept our fuel taxes low. This created a sprawl machine that is fully supported by zoning laws that mandate low-density, single-use development.

Zoning laws are difficult to change because there are thousands of them, and they have to be changed one at a time and the status quo is powerful. It’s a process that is already taking decades. Form-based codes are catching on, but they still make up a very small percentage of the zoning in the US. The first developers began challenging zoning laws to create more walkable, compact places about 20 years ago. It’s a very difficult process and takes an unusually committed developer.

Some seem to think that zoning variances are easy to get. That may be true if you want to get one or two. Many new urban projects have required 30 or 40 variances. Try getting that through.

1. What are your observations regarding zoning laws? Is it possible to get them changed?

Zoning was originally designed to prevent incompatible land uses occurring next to each other, e.g. a junk yard between two $5 million mansions. However, they may have been used by a lot of communities to prevent, e.g, poor people from moving in. The former is a legitimate use of zoning, but the latter is not.

Of course, you can get zoning changed, but land developers are better at it. If you want to affect the zoning in your own area, you have to go to meetings and tell people what you think about their plans. And if you really want to change it, you have to get on the local planning commissions and get involved in the planning yourself. The latter seems to be far too much work for most people. They prefer to just sit around and complain.

2. How about subdivision laws? Are these falling by the wayside, in areas with high bankruptcies? Have readers had success in changing them?

Well, once a subdivision developer goes bankrupt, the plans are more or less up in the air. Lawyers would argue that they aren't, but lawyers would argue that black is white and up is down. Realistically, a community that has to deal with bankrupt developers should be heating irons in the fires and readying the whips and chains for the day that the bankers and lawyers show up. There's no point in being nice to them just because they lost their shirts because of own their stupidity and greed.

3. What zoning laws have been successful in Europe in keeping cities compact and walkable?

In Europe, it was not zoning laws that determined the form of the cities, it was the fact than in the post-WWII era they could not afford to build new freeways. However, they could afford to keep the existing rail and bus systems running. Also, the fact that they could not afford to import large amounts of gasoline meant that they taxed it very heavily, which strongly discouraged people from driving. Hence, compact and walkable was the type of city they got.

4. Are there any zoning laws you find particularly onerous?

The ones that mandate, for instance, huge houses on one-acre (or larger) lots, with huge setbacks from the property line, and large amounts of nominally free parking. Huge McMansions on vast lots are not going to be viable in the post-peak oil era, so we shouldn't build them. You need at least 8 dwelling units per acre to support any kind of affordable public transit system, so that should be the minimum target density. You may not be able to afford gasoline or diesel fuel, so you need to plan for the wind-powered electric trains and electric trolley buses you might be able to afford to travel on. I wouldn't bet on electric cars being affordable for the non-rich.

I admit I don't know much about zoning laws, but this bit and this bit and their follow up at The American Conservative magazine (with links to other points in the political blogosphere) deal with the issue and were somewhat informative.

It's interesting and comforting that some conservatives are taking up the anti-sprawl message, in the name of the free market.