Sunday, September 17, 2006

Keeping Out the Riff-Raff: the Morality of Sprawl

While browsing on the assorted web postings featured one day on Pajamas Media, I came across this brief essay by ‘sammler’ over at A Chequer Board of Nights and Day on the topic of zoning. The writer argues that neighborhood zoning is a way for settled citizens to control subversive behavior that threatens the stable moral foundations of most middle to upper class communities. With no recourse to policies of overt segregation, zoning that proscribes specific housing densities and economic activities was the one legal way for conformist communities to prevent deviant ways of life from emerging. The essay implies that while many of us value our freedom, few are willing to embrace it totally when making decisions on where we choose to live.

Freedom for many seems to involve rights, a belief that one is entitled to do and go wherever he or she wishes. For others, though, freedom often entails the choice to remove oneself from other people or objectionable conditions. When it comes to making decisions on where to dwell, it is often less a matter of what one wants than what one doesn’t want. Discrimination is fundamental to the way we make choices, although few would openly share some of the reasons they opted to leave in one area over others. We are free enough to exert a certain amount of control over the social environment we live in, but we are at the same time captive to others' efforts in denying us the right to live the way we’d like at a particular location.

Americans have tolerated life along the edge between freedom and the restriction of their own freedom for its entire history. Our country’s vast and relatively unexploited spaces have allowed us to wander and resettle ourselves far from troublesome places in our past. If your lifestyle was impeded by the surrounding community, the solution of moving away to a better future was always an option. The very lack of density in much of our territory has likely helped diffuse potentially violent social tensions that have commonly erupted in densely populated countries in old Europe. Everyone here is happy so long as one doesn’t have to put up with other people’s mess.

The dominant urban pattern since the rise of the industrial economy has been the out-migration of people from the city center out to the surrounding suburbs. Whether the reason for this is due to a desire for improved environmental conditions or a longing to own an affordable home, or to live near a good school district, it is important to consider factors that drove households away from their old city home. As most recent émigrés from the older major cities to the newer suburbs will tell you, there are many things cities can do to make living within ever more difficult and not worth the hassle. From blindly ensuring that their schools decline in quality to levying property taxes to fund inefficient and often corrupt municipal services, the flight of a city’s most productive citizens to the suburbs is, contrary to many critics of sprawl, a rational phenomenon.

Still, a problem won’t be necessarily solved if there is no assurance that it won’t emerge in the new location. Zoning restrictions have become the most effective guarantee against unforeseen problems migrating from undesirable locations. Seen as major hindrance by many contemporary urban designers, zoning laws were originally legislated to preserve property values by restricting the arbitrary construction of buildings that would cause surrounding properties to rapidly depreciate (e.g. dirty factories, dump sites) Zoning laws also helped control the amount of noise, the desired amount of open green space and the extent to which neighbors are willing to share their space with others. Because the aim of zoning is to ensure predictable stability of a place, there is little tolerance for urban experimentation, iconoclastic expression or any effort in adopting new visual identities. As communities grow, zoning makes sure they do not change in the way the community once saw itself at the time they implemented rules dictating that communicates supposed ‘character.’ This determination of what a community ‘is’ depends largely on what that community believes it isn’t.

One thing most community founders who create restrictions on future development don’t seem to want is for their community to change. It is obvious just from looking around from one new suburban development to the next that there is a set image that they would like to preserve, with every lot precisely defined to maintain a particular stylistic theme. Any individual deviation is forbidden, as harmony has supposedly been achieved in the new residential subdivision. As an enthusiast for dynamic and eclectic cities, I am no fan of zoning. One of my most beloved big cities is best known for its lack of zoning, and as a result offers a wealth of visual interest, contradictions, and unique spatial relationships that I find lacking in many newer suburban developments. Even as I myself live in an outer ring suburb of Dallas, I explicitly chose to live in an older neighborhood of a heterogeneous character. Each house is distinct from the other in spite of having been built within the last three decades, many of them transformed by major additions and other sorts of remodeling experiments. And still I’m reminded of the reason my neighborhood originally came into being, as an isolated retreat separated from the dirty sprawl of Dallas’s older established suburbs by a brand new reservoir lake. Soon my neighborhood would be joined by thousands of new homes elsewhere in the town, most of them governed by notoriously intolerant homeowners’ associations.

The fact is that most people aren’t like me. In spite of all the values we pretend to live by, such as being open-minded to all peoples and lifestyles, most of us would rather not be bothered at all. Keeping out the “riff-raff” through zoning is a way most of us would prefer to preserve the order we work hard to achieve. I believe it’s a natural impulse, one that in my opinion too few idealistic urban planners fail to appreciate. It is one thing to smugly suggest to people that living in greater density is a better way to live and it is dellusional to deny this truth. It is more important to understand the deeper social issues at work that define the reasons sprawl has be come the preferred pattern of human settlement in the U.S. It has become quite difficult for those who have internalized the density of the bustling city life to understand what satisfaction suburban life can bring. Enjoying a safe environment that is quiet, where neighbors share common values, where there is abundant parking, open day-care spots, efficient municipal services, large parks and small associations looks quite good to what city dwellers typically face: noise pollution, transient neighbors from who-knows-where, no parking, standing in a smelly train rubbing other bodies, over-loaded parks, failing schools, and a city bureaucracy that does its best to waste your tax contribution.

Sprawl is a physical manifestation of the priorities most people have when it comes to envisioning how they would like to live. Traditional urban typologies that include dense multi-story apartment blocks, row-houses, and zero-lot detached houses, though useful for many centuries have lost their appeal to spacious ranch-style homes, inconspicuously introverted low-rise apartment complexes, and the two-car driveway. The former typologies might be more attractive, more charming, or even more distinguished, but they no longer fill the needs of a majority of homeowners of today. It is less helpful if the older urban typologies become infested with gangs, the drugs and other criminal activities. The supposedly ‘superior’ architectural typologies embraced by designers are no match to the bland landscapes of the exurbs if social stability and comfort are not provided.

If cities are to win back those who have long left it for greener pastures, the best urban plans and the most attractively designed neighborhoods will be of little use. City leaders and their bureaucracies must assess what their city’s social values are, what is important to those they wish to move to their city. The mere value of tolerance for all of its citizens is often counterproductive. In a place where tolerance is the rule without any sort of moral standard or enforced distinction between better and worse, the more decadent elements in a diverse social environment always wins out. If those who wish to instill public virtue are undermined by relativist points of view regarding such virtues, a cherished diverse social fabric frays and disintegrates. The vitality of a city is not found in its diversity and tolerance alone. It requires the additional element of socially enforced moral standards that allow a modicum of order and predictability.

My parents have spent many long years as proud residents of some of theworld's most cosmopolitan cities. They love where they live and revel in all of the big-city amenities it offers and the convenience they enjoy in diving short distances to the most frequented spots in their region. But now they feel that they can’t bear living in their beloved city any longer. Their leaders and their city’s insipient political culture have made it clear that their opinions and wishes are of little concern to them. The values of civic virtue, and of patronizing the arts, of clamping down on crime or of teaching children well are not those of their home city. Their city does not care to serve them meaningfully. Rather the city functions to serve its most needy, its most helpless, its least contributing sector of its residence—those who exhibit the least civic virtue to strengthen their communities and improve the lives of younger generations. My parents feel used and don’t want to put up with such dysfunction. Now they hope to resettle in a better-run established suburb next door. For you aspiring urban planners, there’s little that buildings can positively change until public virtue reinserts itself into the broken fabric of so many older cities.

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