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Thursday 29 March 2001

Markets and Planning

The Duany/Plater-Zyberk philosophy is that more regulation is necessary in order to reduce sprawl and to produce a decent habitat for people, instead of the car-tailored suburbs we’ve been building in this country for the last 50 years.

I say that this is hogwash. Less regulation of building — certainly less than we have now — will achieve the intended effect. Stiff zoning laws, even when they’re well-intended, result in unintended consequences.

This, above, is Celebration, FL, darling of the New Urbanism set, as seen from a spy satellite. The town was developed by Disney, with the same care given to all of its features as is given to the elements of a Disney theme park — which is to say a lot. People living in Celebration can walk to shopping, restaurants, movies, and all the essential services of the town.

Below is a picture of a London suburb, not far from Wembley Stadium. Nobody in particular planned it, except to make the houses attractive enough that they could be leased. It’s not as beautiful as Celebration — it’s not in Florida, either — but it’s just as functional, possibly more so. Residents of Celebration still have to own cars, unless they can pay for their $400,000 houses with jobs at the (walkable) cinema. There aren’t even any sidewalks leading out of Celebration. But people living in the neighborhood below can (and do) walk to the train station (top right) and go into London.

Here’s a few blocks of Georgetown, in Washington, DC (left), and Beverly Hills, California (right):

Here’s a section of Islington (London) and one of Kenilworth, IL, a suburb of Chicago:

All of these areas, with various levels of planning, built by different people in completely different ways, over a span of hundreds of years, show a certain similarity. This is because they were all built to serve the same purpose: human habitat.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of Jerusalem, a city far, far older than any of those above:

Notice that Jerusalem shows the same general pattern, the same density, the same freedom of flow and the same mixture of uses that you see in London, Georgetown, Beverly Hills, and Celebration. (It’s a bit hard in pictures this small to see the mixture of uses, but you can infer that the smaller buildings are houses, and the larger ones commercial establishments.

These cities were shaped by market forces. People wanted and needed certain things from their cities, and builders and developers answered with what was required.

Now, here’s a picture of Franconia, VA, a suburb of Washington, DC:

(I have been asked about the scale of this photo. The Franconia photo is at slightly larger scale than the London and Jerusalem ones in order to show detail, but not much.)

Notice that this is a complete departure from all the other pictures. There is not a commercial establishment in sight, and the vast majority of houses are on cul-de-sacs, with only one entry and exit. Only three houses front on the road running horizontally across the picture, and I would be willing to bet they pre-date all the other houses. This is a neighborhood built all at once by a developer; the sole goal was to comply with the zoning laws and to sell the houses for the maximum profit possible.

The picture below is of part of Reston, VA, another suburb of Washington. Reston was designed as a single entity, to correct the flaws of places like Franconia.

In Reston, the houses — on the right — are on little cul-de-sacs, but they are in close proximity to shopping, offices, banks, etc. However, the commercial "pod" and the residential "pod" here are separated by a six-lane road (Reston Parkway), to which none of the residential streets connect. A person living in a house near the tennis courts and wanting to visit the huge store (a Harris Teeter supermarket) at upper left needs to get into his car and drive two miles to travel a net 500 feet. If he decides to walk, he’ll find that there are fences and trees and steep embankments to discourage him from even trying to cross Reston Parkway, and that he’s risking his life in doing so. Even from outer space you can see that there are no crosswalks.

Once he survived that, he’d have to cross a giant parking lot before he got to the store. The next time, our pedestrian would take the hint, and drive to the store.

We’ve got to have roads, though, you say. I agree, and I admit that it might be possible to construct a defense (though probably not a good defense) for the Reston design pictured above. But consider this one. I have numbered several points for easy reference:

This is a view, again from outer space, of a ten-story office building (#1) and its grounds. This building was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, one of the world’s foremost architecture firms. (They designed the Sears Tower, among other things.) The building is located in Reston, a town with strict zoning laws, a strong sense of the merits of planned development, and a heritage (if not a current reality) of dense, walkable neighborhoods.

The site has two vehicular entrances, #2 and #3. #3 is equipped with a gate and is only accessible to certain people (how they’re chosen, I don’t know), in order to keep down traffic on the side road.

#5 and #6 are heavily-used, paved jogging/bike paths. It’s hard to see it in this photo, but the path marked #6 (it runs diagonally across the picture, from the bottom right corner, under the bridge, and off the top of the picture) is separated from the building’s grounds by plants by a 45-degree embankment. At no point does the system of paths on the grounds connect with the other paths.

Path #5 is on the same level as the grounds, but it’s been carefully sealed off from the building by means of a 6-foot-high fence that runs from #3 to #4. From #4 out to the main entrance, a berm and trees keep people out.

All of this means that a person who works in the building and who lives in one of the houses at the bottom of the picture is better off driving to work than attempting to walk. Even though no roads are in the way in the rear of the building, it’s just as effectively sealed off from its surroundings as if it were surrounded by a moat.

(It should be noted that none of this is for security purposes; it’s very simple to get onto to grounds — in fact, I believe that they are open to the public, as one of the conditions of the zoning variance that allowed the building — just not from anywhere you’d actually want to get onto the grounds.)

And it was built according to all sorts of regulations designed to eliminate offensive buildings from our midst. The rear entrance is gated as part of a government attempt to shape the flow of traffic. Most of the ground is left in a semi-natural state as part of legal requirements to mitigate rainwater runoff problems, and to provide a habitat for migratory waterfowl. The paths on the grounds are there because this building is the headquarters of a quasi-governmental financial institutioni (Sallie Mae, if you’re wondering), which has to provide amenities for its workers. (I have never seen anyone using those paths.)

And yet the building is a monstrosity, a gaping hole in the middle of town, hostile to the needs of its neighbors and inhabitants alike. An additional ten feet of paving at #4 would have resulted in another point of access for the building and for the neighborhood at the bottom — thus further reducing traffic at #3 — but that wasn’t done. Eliminating the fence at the rear of the property would have actually made all that open space valuable for the people who live next to it, but that wasn’t done either. The building stands completely apart from its environment, and contributes nothing but property taxes to the community.

The law requires that the builders provide a habitat for waterfowl, but not for people.

The supreme irony is that this kind of design costs more than the rational approach. Every piece of idiocy in this building — and in the other Reston photo, and in the Franconia photo — is a result of wrongheaded zoning.

The builders couldn’t connect #4 to the road, because the county fears that that would increase traffic. The gate at #3 does nothing, because everyone who would otherwise go out the gate instead goes out at #2, makes two right turns, and winds up on the side road anyway. In between, they face four (!) traffic signals, and travel further on the side road than they would if they could use the Forbidden Driveway.

I can’t come up with any reason why the zoning people would require that fence at the back of the property, or the hostile landscaping everywhere else, but I am sure that they did. The builder would not have spent money on them otherwise.

Posted by tino at 15:00 29.03.01
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