Zoning may not mean a lot to you, but it has a profound impact on your life. For it is with zoning that we have created the human habitat that you live and work in. In Lexington, nearly everything you see and nearly everywhere you go has been shaped by the rules of zoning. Every time you get in your car, thank zoning. Every time you pass an ugly strip mall, thank zoning. Every time you worry about your kids becoming isolated video game zombies, thank zoning. (Well, not thank, and you DO have some responsibility about that….)
The sad part is that the tool which has created such disaster of a cityscape was ushered in a century ago under the guise of it being the one thing that would provide for our health, safety, and welfare. As we move rapidly into a world of new conditions, it is vital that we take true stock of where we want to go.
Zoning at its simplest is nothing more than a theory of apportioning the necessary units of human activity into areas – zones – with a goal of making our lives more manageable and pleasant.
Zoning began as a reaction to unregulated and unethical building and development practices in the early part of the 20th century. In 1916 in New York City, a tower was built in a residential area that literally touched the buildings next to it, blocking windows and limiting ventilation. This outrage was so bad that the city enacted the country’s first ordinance to prohibit this sort of thing from ever happening again. Other cities had similar stories of hog rendering plants and smoky factories going in next to houses. The worst of the late industrial revolution clashed with the newly growing middle classes who desired a bucolic suburban lifestyle, free from the ill effects of city life.
Zoning caught on. Communities bought into the idea of protecting residents from the ill effects of rapid industrialization, conflicting land uses, and unsightly conditions. In 1924 a national model zoning code – the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act – was introduced.
And in 1926 the US Supreme Court ruled that governmental control of private property through zoning was legal within our constitutional framework.
This ruling was central to the understanding that governments could shape the future of cities through their police powers to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.
But now after nearly 100 years we can clearly judge how it has worked out. Has zoning enhanced our health, our safety, and our welfare?
In fact, at this distance we can see that zoning has done nothing but to diminish our personal and collective health, safety, and welfare.
Consider health. We have an obesity crisis in this country. 68% of all Americans are overweight and 34% are obese. Much of this is due to the rapid shift to industrialized food over the last 20 years, but much is also due to the fact that zoning has made human powered mobility irrelevant. Zoning mandates differing land uses be separated from each other. Thus near one’s house or apartment, there is nothing that can be easily reached on foot or bike. No shops, no offices, no schools, no parks, no libraries. Nothing. This is the very heart of sprawl. If we want to go to those places, we must get in our cars. So at the very time we needed more physical activity, we got less.
It’s not just physical health. The harmful mental and emotional effects of living in zoning created sprawl have been long documented. Miles of soul crushing ugliness confront us each day as we commute to work or school. We waste hundreds of hours of our limited lives in traffic each year, time that could be spent with family and friends.
And it’s not just personal health – it’s environmental as well. All this driving around, and all the pavement needed to accommodate our cars, has contributed to a degradation of water and air quality. You know, the little things that we like to have around in a clean condition.
Safety is another justification for zoning. Yet by forcing us into our cars, zoning forces us to accept thousands of auto related deaths every year. We just accept that as part of living – isn’t that very weird? And since the auto is king, we accept thousands of pedestrian and bike rider deaths as well.
Welfare is the last pillar of zoning’s temple. It fails here too. By restricting the areas where housing can be provided, zoning has led to both class and racial segregation. It has severely limited broad housing affordability, leaving many people to live in substandard conditions. Zoning has limited many individuals’ economic prospects by segregating work from where they live. If you don’t have a car, you can’t get to most jobs in Lexington.
Zoning makes our lives more expensive than necessary by demanding that we remain dependent on increasingly expensive oil. Zoning makes our taxes higher than need be due to the costs of maintaining such far-flung infrastructure. By keeping us completely carbon energy dependent, zoning has helped exacerbate climate change. This will cost us more as we are forced to replace inadequate storm water and electric infrastructure.
And here’s an often over-looked fact: when zoning began, the US was the world’s largest oil producer. It appeared that we could live this sprawling lifestyle forever. Yet US oil production peaked in 1970, leaving us ever more dependent on foreign oil and more vulnerable as a country. This led to a massive military buildup that we pay nearly $1 trillion a year for. Because of zoning.
Where’s the welfare in all of that?
Zoning’s time has passed. Lexington must re-imagine how we can retrofit our city with a new system that truly benefits our health, safety, and welfare. I‘ll share my ideas of what we must do in the coming days.