Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Zoning Straitjacket, Part II

Shane Phillips (at Better Institutions), Dan Keshet (Austin on Your Feet) [update: and Daniel Kay Hertz, at City Notes] both recently authored posts showing how the majority of the area in three large American cities (Seattle, Austin and Chicago) is set aside for single-family detached zoning. Shane estimates the area in Seattle to be around 80%, while Austin, to my eye, looks to be about the same. In general, the zoning maps continue to reflect the land use patterns and planning dogma of the 1920s, with a small, constrained downtown business district hemmed in by single-use residential districts through which snake narrow commercial corridors. This is the same pattern I previously noted in the case of Vancouver, where the zoning map is surprisingly unchanged from the original version drafted in the 1920s (however, Vancouver has only 60% of its zoned area set aside for single-family, and has allowed more density in these areas as well).

Although I've made several arguments against Euclidean zoning before, if a city is to be zoned, I don't think there's anything wrong in and of itself with having detached single-family zones — America's unique contribution to zoning, according to Professor Sonia Hirt — as one of a city's planning tools. The issue seems to be that these zones, and particularly low-density zones, are virtually impervious to change over the decades. Where a city has abundant greenfield land for expansion, this is somewhat less of a pressing concern, but consider a city like Stamford, Connecticut, which exhausted most of its undeveloped territory back in in the 1970s, and is bordered by insular Greenwich and Darien (the latter of which inspired Lisa Prevost's Snob Zones). At left is an image of the zoning map from 1965 (14 years after its initial adoption), and at right is today's map:

Sources: City of Stamford and Ferguson Library Digital Collection.
Although the total number of zones has more than doubled, going from 17 to 39, the major zoning boundaries in the north of town are entirely unchanged. In 1965, as today, approximately 80% of the city was zoned for detached single-family residential. Nonetheless, according to ACS data, only around 40% of the city's housing units consist of single-family detached (SFD) units, which highlights the prevalence of large-lot zoning in the single-family areas (the yellow areas represent 1, 2 and 3-acre minimum lot sizes), and the near-impossibility of adding any further SFD under the current zoning regime.

Population by city proper, from Census data.
For Stamford, this zoning policy, which was less a planning vision than a "paint by numbers" exercise in locking into the place the loose residential patterns built along the non-gridded street networks that were being laid out by land companies as early as the 1930s*, worked to accommodate population growth for a time. While there was still vacant land in the north, the city's population surged from 1950 to 1970, just as other established cities like Bridgeport and New Haven stagnated or lost residents. The exhaustion of this supply of land, paired with an immensely destructive urban renewal project in the early 1970s that virtually obliterated the city's entire downtown (and along with it, much of the city's low-cost attached and multifamily housing stock), resulted in a sudden reversal of fortunes in the 1970s. Most of the gains since 1980 have occurred through infill and densification in the existing downtown and multifamily areas, although this has been a slow process. In the 2000-2010 period, in fact, New Haven grew faster than Stamford for the first time in at least 130 years.

The SFD zones have therefore played a role strongly reminiscent of Smart Growth urban growth boundaries, requiring additional housing units to be built in already-dense, transit-accessible areas, although the establishment of the zones predated Smart Growth ideology by several decades. However, Smart Growth critics like Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox have never, so far as I know, gone after large-lot SFD zoning for restricting housing supply in geographically-constrained situations like this one [Note: in the comments, NickD points out that Cox has criticized large lot zoning, although often without much specificity]. O'Toole has even gone so far as to condemn upzoning of SFD areas on several occasions on the basis that these zoning changes are out of "character" for the area, and frustrate residents' expectations, observations which inadvertently highlight the growth-restricting role of these areas.

The ideological battle between Smart Growth advocates and the self-appointed defenders of the American dream obscures the real functional purpose of maintaining a reasonably clear break between city and country, which, in the United States at least, could be said to be permitting unencumbered and politically-frictionless urban expansion. The city which, like Stamford, forces new development to spread across large areas at very low density is, in effect, politically closing that area off to urbanization and possibly even modest densification in a way that urban growth boundaries, which can and are periodically adjusted by city and state governments, cannot achieve. Moreover, it makes it uneconomical to produce much additional SFD housing, a result that should be highly distressing to someone like O'Toole. It is an approach which seemingly leaves both sides dissatisfied.

This, if nothing else, seems like a fundamental, if not the only, purpose and challenge of city planning: accommodating population growth in a way that takes into account long-term development prospects and the political difficulty of upzoning low-density SFD areas. In light of this, can a zoning code like Stamford's, with a stated purpose of preserving existing neighborhoods in their 1960s form, and resistant to all but changes in the downtown area, really be called a "planning" document at all? The challenges that Stamford faces are not unique, but typical, and progress on them, as zoning approaches its 100th birthday, remains the exception rather than the rule.

Related link: Vancouver and the Zoning Straitjacket

*Historic aerial maps show that Stamford's urban grid was disintegrating as early as the 1930s, just before its major population boom, and that subsequent rights of way were generally winding and given non-urban descriptors ("Road" rather than "Street"). In other words, it appears that the city ceased taking a prominent role in guiding the framework for urban growth around that time. The zoning code did not cause this change, but it certainly has prevented any future adaptations or retrofits. Chris Bradford noted a similar change in Austin that took place at around the same time.


  1. "However, Smart Growth critics like Randal O'Toole and Wendell Cox have never, so far as I know, gone after large-lot SFD zoning for restricting housing supply in geographically-constrained situations like this one. O'Toole has even gone so far as to condemn upzoning of SFD areas on several occasions on the basis that these zoning changes are out of "character" for the area..."

    I wasn't surprised to see Kotkin take the same position with regard to upzoning in Los Angeles...

    I would sympathize with his arguments if LA officials proposed subsidizing or imposing densification regardless of market demand for same. But all LA proposed was to *option* densification *if* the homeowner/developer felt they wanted to do so.

    Traditional liberal economists would see this as deregulation, a move that you'd think today's putative "libertarians" - like the Cato-associated O'Toole - would reflexively applaud! (As they do in all realms other than land use and transportation, in which they turn into socialists.)

    But the fact that today's "libertarians" often come out against such deregulation reveals that, for all practical purposes, they're actually conventional twentieth-century statists. Which is a perfectly legitimate position - just please don't mask it as "libertarianism" or "free market!"

    1. I agree, Marc. The most charitable, Libertarian-esque spin I can put on O'Toole's (and/or Kotkin's) argument is that he sees residential zones functioning almost as property rights themselves, and that changing the zoning designation after someone has purchased a property, even if it causes their property values to increase (as upzoning almost invariably will), harms their investment-backed expectations (e.g., the moral or aesthetic expectation of living in an exclusively large-lot single family zone). Effectively this means that SFD zoning can or should never change. Talk about Antiplanning! (

      However, even if we accept this reasoning for purposes of argument, it contradicts O'Toole's own objective of promoting single-family detached homeownership for all, since if zoning really is unchangeable (sort of a perpetual restrictive covenant), large-lot areas can never be broken down for denser SFD development as a city grows. A three-acre property in Stamford's northern reaches could easily accommodate nine or ten very spacious single-family houses, but since zoning won't allow that, development is forced to occur downtown, where due to demolitions the SFD stock is actually declining, and ever-greater shares of the population are now living in attached or multifamily housing.

      In the article you cite, Kotkin actually comes out SFD infill directly, criticizing so-called accessory dwellings (which is essentially infilling SFD), because this would "leave us without backyards" (or so says a person he approvingly quotes). In other words, the recreational/aesthetic value of a backyards trumps even the importance of living in an affordable SFD home and increasing the SFD stock, the very thing Kotkin and O'Toole claim to be most concerned about! In the end, this results in exactly what O'Toole claims to fear most: a situation where only the very wealthy inhabit SFD, and the rest of the city is deprived of housing choice.

  2. I much prefer your posts that highlight (unfortunately all too infrequent) examples of good planning and development. This post is depressingly spot on. The SFD straightjacket is all too common across North America and a plague here in California. It's strange that such zoning is defended as maintaining existing housing and the way things have traditionally been done when many housing subdivisions were farmland in the recent past.

    I think the driving factor behind SFD zoning is to increase home values, especially the value per resident. In fact, the goal is precisely what you said Charlie (although you clearly meant it as a bad result): "only the very wealthy inhabit SFD, and the rest of the city is deprived of housing choice." The homeowners (aka, the city electorate) desire to be wealthy and are happy to push those who can't afford such housing to the next town (especially if they are minority/lower class/riff-raff/whatever group is currently undesirable). City planners are happy to oblige as higher home value per resident means higher property tax revenues per resident.

    This is a political combination that is very difficult to challenge. It will likely require regional/state level intervention, and/or reducing the ratio of homeowners to voters. California currently has a byzantine bureaucracy to force cities and towns to take their "fair share" of housing (including affordable housing), but the system is very cumbersome and unworkable. A simpler though indirect method would be to pool property tax on a regional/state level and distribute it to municipalities based on population.

    We could also stop subsidizing home ownership and let market forces guide housing choice. If fewer voters were concerned about protecting the value of their single-biggest investment, and more concerned about the overall wellbeing of the economy, perhaps there could be more flexibility on SFD zoning. Of course, this is pretty much the "third rail" of land use. Like most Americans, I benefit substantially from the mortgage interest deduction.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment, John. Connecticut does have a special law (Section 8-30g) that permits developers to override a town's local zoning laws if that town does not have 10% of its housing stock classified as affordable. It is also very cumbersome, and at least two towns have managed to obtain temporary exemptions from the law altogether. The law is clearly not a substitute for effective regional planning, which in Connecticut (which has no county governments) is virtually non-existent.

      I agree with you about the mortgage interest deduction, but as you say that truly is a third rail. Possibly more feasible are incremental changes that would phase out the benefits at a lower level, which would at least mitigate the regressive impact of the deduction.

  3. This is a good post. Broadly, politics ends when house owners expect and rely on the appreciation of their house values. The zone's role is to fulfill the expectation of appreciation. One feature of this condition here in the UK is that house owners become experts in Planning statutes and fierce defenders of their zones. Politics is replaced by an anachronistic, defensive popular understanding of Planning.

    House ownership is a good thing. It's good to own a piece of the city outright; it gives some security. This isn't the same thing as saying that it's good to have an appreciating asset. The first point refers to security as peace of mind about a plot of land that's yours and your family's outright; it may or may not hold or increase in value, but its use value qua home and more is real.

    Part of the problem of the financial function of ownership having priority is that it wipes out creative, experimental forms of occupation of the house. It's highly normative IOW. Someone who uses his home to explore a small engineering idea - basically treats it as a work setting - might affect house values. Yet of course one of the brilliant features of vertical divison of plots - row houses in the UK or SFDs over the pond - is actually support of individuation. The use-value of the home ought to open to wildly different interpretations. The home ought to be an incubator of many, many creative notions.

    One way out of the dead-end that SFD zoning creates, particularly when financialized by the expectation of house-value appreciation, is to for the Planners to allow extensions and enlargements for work purposes.

    1. I agree that placing paramount importance on the financial component of homeownership is problematic. But it goes beyond that in Stamford and other cities that have such a high percentage of single family zones. What happens is single family housing is equated with ownership, and multi-family housing with renting. Our language betrays this -- the assumption is that a multi-family dwelling is a rental (aka, an apartment), so there needs to be a word to differentiate an owned multi-family unit (aka, a condo). Note that there's no common term for a rental single family house. At least in the UK someone can live in a multi-family unit without declaring whether he or she is heavily invested in real estate (aka, in a flat).

      If there were less SFD and more MFD zoning, perhaps the perception of ownership could be disconnected from housing type. Then in turn it might be easier to change residential zoning as necessary to accommodate growth.

    2. The perception of ownership issue is dealt with in the UK with the consensus commanding phrase "mixed tenure".

      Broadly it means adopting the same building type for private buyers and public or private renters. Each new property has a front door onto the street. Behind it might be a house or flats. That's one model. It works quite well where I live, in a fairly "dense" part of London, where row housing is a norm. It can work with the flabby house developments produced by the big corporate house-builders in peri-urban areas.

      OTOH, there's huge pressure from developers to differentiate private sale homes from the quota of affordable homes that they're obliged to build in developments above a certain scale. Most developers in London build apartment blocks: for "lesser" accommodation they provide a separate entrance or even a separate block. And always, they use their obligation to put the quota apartments in the worst part of the site. There's an incentive in a way to have a "worst part of the site".

      The issue of ownership types, and snob zones, is part of the natural display culture very obviously.

      It absorbs a lot of resources and may not be compatible with resource-constrained times.

  4. You can actually often find Wendel Cox mentioning minimum lot sizes as a cause of land regulation (lumped in with grown boundaries), especially in Boston. However, it's not entirely clear if he's opposed to any minimum lot size or just minimum lot sizes that prevent the construction of convential suburban housing (ie 1/8-1/2 acre SFH).

    1. Thanks Nick -- I stand corrected on Mr. Cox. I've found a few instances of him criticizing minimum lot sizes, but only those which are "excessive" (suggesting that he'd approve of them in other instances, and in fact he has criticized maximum lot sizes as well). Unfortunately, I can't really glean from the few mentions he's made what he considers "excessive" and what would be appropriate, although in one footnote there is a suggestion that he considers 1/4 acre adequate. That's still quite a large lot for SFD housing -- my streetcar suburb in Nashville had .15 acre lots, with ample front and side setbacks, and still felt very spacious.

  5. Having lived through the 50 years or so of stupidity that is Stamford I don't think that there was a single urban renewal mistake the city did not make. Just looking at the map show a lot. All of the redevelopment was North of the railroad, devastating an active downtown and replacing it with huge monolithic structures that basically kill any chance of life outside the buildings themselves. Meanwhile the area South of the railroad, where a coherent development plan would have made sense remains a dead zone of empty and underutilized factories and warehouses. Yet the city continues to build yet more huge sterile buildings even as the previous ones decay and rot.

    1. I agree -- I was considering drafting a post documenting urban renewal in Stamford, since it appears to me that it has never been comprehensively addressed in any book or article, but I found the subject so depressing that I abandoned it and diverted some of the research off into what became this post. I may return to it later. As for the "renewal" itself, the monolithic, inward-looking nature of the structures seems to have been intentional. The white collar workers were expected to drive directly into secured garages, take elevators up, and leave the same way at the end of the day (presumably, everyone was expected to bring lunch, since many of the towers and complexes built lacked and continue to lack street-facing entrances, making it very difficult to exit by foot). Streets were obviously intended to be solely for traffic circulation into and out of the garages. Robert Rich's deathbed conversion to walkable urbanism came too late for the downtown, but the situation is not completely past hope.

    2. The inwardness was intentional to an extent. Part of it was the expectation of urban decay the fortress mentality of the early Seventies when most of those buildings were planned. Another part is that, whatever reasons the corporate headquarters did not want to be part of a community. I recently found William Whyte's "City" in the Strand and he covers the Corporate exodus the happened in the mid Seventies where many major corporations moved their HQs out of NYC and into Greenwich and especially the urban development area south of Tressor Blvd in Stamford. The arrangement may have looked great to the bosses of those companies at the time, who themselves were withdrawing from hoi polloi and the masses of NYC to the salubrious green for Greenwich. But in separating themselves they also focused the companies view inward. Considering what's happened to most of those companies since their moves, that wasn't a good thing.

    3. Great point about Whyte's book. Isn't that where he notes that most of these moves brought the HQs within just a few miles of the CEO's homes? The cluster of greatest wealth in Fairfield County forms a ring around Stamford (Greenwich-New Canaan-Darien), so it is a natural location.

      The peculiar thing about the "fortress mentality" in this case, though, is that Stamford's downtown was essentially created from scratch. The urban renewal photos show that the downtown was literally scraped clean, with the exception of a church, the city hall, the library and one block of commercial buildings along Atlantic Street. My guess is about 90% of what existed was demolished, and many if not most streets were demapped and replaced, too. The CEOs got to create their own personal downtown, built just for them, and yet the buildings were designed as though they were advance fortifications built in hostile territory. Apparently no positive vision of public space was conceivable. Even the downtown shopping area (Stamford Town Center) is private space, with minimal pedestrian accessibility.

      I like the way the guy at this site puts it (scroll down for a 1970s rendering of the envisioned, but never completely realized, downtown plan:

      "This version of Stamford was seemingly designed to appeal to major corporations that were fleeing NYC in the 1960s and 1970s due to the increase in crime. The purpose was to isolate the corporate parks from the city by having the office towers turn their backs on the street. Here we even have 2 extra skyways to make sure that the white-collars' feet never shall touch the ground. Down into the heavily secured garage and out you go onto the forbidding landscape of Tresser Boulevard, hoping you're still alive and breathing by the time you reach your home in Greenwich or North Stamford. How they must have feared the scary urban reality that they paid FD Rich to create for them!!!"

    4. The idea was that Rich was building a city over the traffic that could then run smoothly underneath the skyways and that the apartments, Town Center, Landmark and the HQ office buildings would all be part of the harmonious new city. Sort of a mini archology. It never worked out that way. The apartments were never built over Town Center for structural reasons. The skyways were never built and all of the rest went up as the fortresses one by one without any coherence or realization of being livable. As for being afraid of Tressor, well it was never that bad and the neighborhood that I always thought of as the slums was West, on RTE 1. That area has been redeveloped, but when I was growing up, it was dump.

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