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Successful cities aren’t like the suburbs

Insightful L.A. Times op ed by Mark Vallianatos and Mott Smith entitled L.A. isn’t a suburb. We need to stop planning it like one. The three core characteristics of vibrant central cities are walkable, high density and mixed use. The core characteristics of suburbs are the exact opposite.  They were designed for driving, low density and single use neighborhoods.

What Vallianatos and Smith explore in their op ed is the cost imposed on cities when many adopted years ago suburban style zoning ordinances. They trace this kind of suburban style zoning to Herbert Hoover. They write:

In the 1920s, suburbanization became national policy in the U.S. when then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover launched the “Own Your Own Home” program and assembled a committee to draft model-zoning laws that were subsequently adopted across the country.

These laws promoted two core principles of zoning. One of these was that cities should create a regular process for subdividing raw land into new lots for houses. The other encouraged cities to divide up land into zones of different density and “use” (houses, apartments, businesses and industry). Hoover believed that this sort of regulated suburbanization would strengthen America’s economy.

Hoover’s zoning program, however, was created specifically to facilitate master-planned suburbs on virgin land. It was never designed to work in existing, built-out areas. So it should come as no surprise that today’s city planners struggle to shoehorn urban diversity into suburban zoning schemes that assume car-dominated mobility and a neat separation of uses.

Vallianatos and Smith offer Daniel Burnham as the better historical model to follow in designing cities that work. They write:

There was a time before Hoover’s suburbanization initiative when city planners did what common sense tells you they should do: They regulated buildings, built infrastructure to improve public health and made cities more beautiful and productive. Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett wrote a plan for Chicago in 1909 that, unlike most urban American plans, created the change that helped define one of the world’s great cities.

Unlike L.A.’s community plans, which micromanage what thousands of property owners can and cannot do with their land, Burnham and Bennett focused on the public realm – reshaping parks, roads, the lakefront, civic buildings and so on. Their effort produced a physical framework for a growing city — a street grid, an effective transit system, a network of parks and other useful infrastructure — that guided development better than any zoning code ever could.

L.A.’s Hoover-style attempts to indirectly shape every plot of land in the city, on the other hand, have largely failed.

They propose that: L.A. should jettison parts of zoning laws that attempt to regulate the city like a vast homeowners’ association. Eliminating parking requirements and relaxing bans on appropriately scaled commerce and apartments will make neighborhoods more walkable and diverse.

Decades of downzoning has created a self-inflicted housing crisis. L.A. should return to allowing housing units for up to 10 million residents, as it did until 1970, when the city began slashing capacity.

Community planning and zoning have helped exclude low-income residents from “high opportunity” neighborhoods by limiting where multi-family housing can be built. More affordable housing in wealthy areas and more market rate housing in low-income communities can help desegregate L.A.

In Michigan Grand Rapids is ahead of the curve in moving to zoning and regulation that makes walkable, dense, mixed use neighborhoods the default development with their form based codes. Detroit, and many other Michigan cities, are still stuck with the old style zoning that makes suburban style development the default.

What has created demand for cities, that hasn’t been there for decades, is that they are not the suburbs. Folks moving to cities want neighborhoods that are high density, mixed use and where you don’t have to drive or own a car to get around. Its long past time for Michigan cities to make that kind of neighborhood  what they are designed for.

 

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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