Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It by M. Nolan Gray

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Posted 2022-11-15

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

With clarity, precision, and brevity, urbanist M. Nolan Gray tears down assumptions about zoning and leaves the reader stunned at the century-long hypnotic spell zoning has wrought. He clarifies what zoning is and what it is not. He offers alternatives. His punchline is powerful: "In no uncertain terms, zoning should be abolished." (p. 181).

I can't help but wonder, after reading this book: was zoning created to ruin cities on purpose? Why, in a country of supposedly free markets, is there such a mismatch between the supply of housing and the demand for it? Why, in a country with civil rights and fair housing laws, are cities segregated racially and economically? Why, in a country with freedom of movement, are people locked out of highly productive, job-filled cities? How are current landowners able to suppress new housing supply--and thereby prop up their property values through scarcity? Why, in a country facing environmental, health, and livability crises in urban areas, are cities locked out of the ability to achieve a mix of uses and blend of population that have shown, for centuries, to be effective patterns for thriving, vital cities? How can NIMBY homeowners encase their entire neighborhood, as if in amber, so that no new housing gets built in it for decades?

Through federal regulations and Supreme Court rulings and through having the false cloak of beneficience and the invisibility cloak of a boring and obscure topic, zoning creates a neat system to promote existing landowner and special interests and locks urban areas into patterns that are well-summarized by this book's title: "Arbitrary lines" that "broke the American city."

Gray first firmly tears off, as in removing a sticky bandage, the lie that zoning has entrenched in the popular imagination. The lie is that zoning is requisite for a better life through regulation of land use and density to an extent that, without zoning, slaughterhouses would spring up next to churches, factory smokestacks would sprout right in your child's schoolyard, and a strip club would open across the street from your house. Gray patiently dismantles these misconceptions and points out that many conflicts of land use are not solved by zoning at all, but by other means, including the common-sense choices businesses make about their location. What people think zoning is doing, it often is not. Zoning is not planning; zoning is not historic preservation; zoning is not parks management; zoning is not traffic management; zoning is not building codes; zoning is not environmental regulation; zoning is not the free market; zoning is not health and safety; zoning is not the only way to regulate land use; and zoning is not regulation of noise or bad smells, bad vibrations, or bad taste in colors. And, what is worse, what zoning is really doing--separating uses unnecessarily, fostering segregation, driving up housing costs, driving up automobile-dependence, suppressing the growth of cities, increasing development costs, fostering sprawl, serving special interests, suppressing the economy, and wasting valuable urban land--people do not see zoning as doing.

Gray's most effective means to illustrate what zoning is not is to discuss where it is not: in Houston, Texas, the fourth most populous city in the United States. Houston has no zoning laws. Houston addresses problems about land use (such as the nighmare scenarios of slaughterhouses, smokestacks, and strip clubs) effectively through other means (pp. 151-156). Gray's extended discussion of Houston (Chapter 9) describes the alternatives to zoning, including deed restrictions (p. 150) and focused ordinances (p. 155). Houston has grown rapidly and added housing at high rates, including affordable housing. In Houston, the invisible hand of the market--free of the shackles of zoning--is at busy at work, matching supply to demand in a mix and blend that has been the trademark potpourri pattern of cities for millennia. Houston is not without its critics, pointing out that this growth is often a hodge-podge of automobile-oriented sprawl.

Gray's work relates to insights about urban history and geography that examine what policies have detracted from the value of cities. Gray makes a direct reference to David Owen's Green Metropolis which extolls the value of cities to address environmental challenges and climate change. Edward Glaeser in Triumph of the City has also examined how the elite preserve and hoard good neighborhoods. Like Gray, Glaeser cites Houston as a city able to produce affordable housing (Glaeser, 2011, p. 187).

Gray also celebrates the city as a center that holds a special appeal. Center cities have drawn people to an agora filled with activity (Whyte, 1988; Ezell, 2004; Ehrenhalt, 2013). Cities are settings for economic development because of agglomeration effects (Florida, 2017; and the inherent power of urbanism (Leinberger, 2008). Gray seeks to overturn assumptions about zoning that degrade the operation of cities, much as urbanists have examined the damaging implications of automobile-dependence (see: Asphalt Nation, Suburban Nation, Geography of Nowhere, and others).

As Donald Shoup did with parking (Shoup, 2005; Shoup, 2011; Shoup, 2018), Nolan Gray has done with zoning--taking on a snooze-fest topic and revealing how it cuts right to the heart of contemporary urban problems. Under its anodyne cover, zoning has wrecked havoc on what would otherwise be healthy cities. Cities have grown based a certain zeitgeist in the air, resulting from an agglomeration of talent, creativity, ideas, and resources in a certain place (Reader, 2004, Florida, 2004, Florida, 2017). As Gray shows, zoning has a way of deflating this growth. Gray's call for the elimination of the arbitrary lines of zoning may be a key to unlocking this zeitgeist for cities and for the people who call them home.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©