How to fix zoning? Get rid of it, he says


September 08, 1996|By Brian Sullam

IF JAMES HOWARD Kunstler were advising Anne Arundel County citizens and officials revising the county's general development, his advice would be simple: Get rid of zoning.

In a provocative article in The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Kunstler argues that post-World War II zoning codes have produced sprawling American suburbs of "stupefying ugliness."

The commercial squalor that lines most suburban thoroughfares is obvious to all, yet we find ourselves unable to change it.

Mr. Kunstler, the author of the 1993 book "The Geography of Nowhere," a blistering critique of American suburban development since World War II, says the jumble of grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, muffler shops and convenience stores is no accident. This incredibly alienating ugliness is the product of developing by the book -- that is, the volumes of zoning books that local governments have created over the years.

Zoning's intent

Zoning wasn't intended to create ugliness. Community control of land use was intended to make cities and towns more livable by congregating compatible land uses together. Zoning would insure that an oil refinery or steel mill was not placed in the middle of a residential community or that a nightclub would not be built next to a nursing home.

While no one wanted to live next door to a noisy, smoky, smelly steel mill, zoning has evolved to point where it has segregated certain activities -- living, shopping, working and recreating -- in their own geographic spaces in the suburbs. As a result, it has become impossible for communities to have neighborhood stores in the middle of a residential street or place living units above shops.

"The model of the human habitat dictated by zoning is a formless, soulless, centerless, demoralizing mess," Mr. Kunstler writes. "It bankrupts families and townships. It disables whole classes of decent, normal citizens. It ruins the air we breathe. It corrupts and deadens our spirit."

Except for urban planners, architects and a smattering of citizens, most Americans have been oblivious to development issues unless the parcel next door was being developed.

But this indifference about development is changing. In the past decade, "growth" has become a major public concern. People, particularly in the newer suburban communities, have mobilized to contain growth, which is really another word for suburban sprawl.

The loss of forests, farmland and open space is one of the factors behind the movement, but also undergirding it is the belief that more strip malls, office parks and cookie-cutter residential developments will degrade the quality of life in the suburbs.

Most citizen efforts to halt development have been singularly unsuccessful because most of the "growth" is being built according to zoning and allowable under the current rules. While it is easy to say it's time to junk these rules that produce such uninspiring wastelands, the difficultly is finding an alternative way of planning for development.

Among the planning and development cognoscenti, a "back to the future" movement has emerged within the past decade or so. This movement seeks to create the feel of America's small towns in new developments. Architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck, creators of Kentlands in Montgomery County, are the best-known proponents of this "traditional" planning.

Under this concept, new developments want to replicate the scale and feel of turn-of-the-century small towns, with corner groceries, tree-lined streets and houses with front porches and rear alleys.

Developers are responding to this by creating houses with porches and Victorian ornamentation, but the current zoning codes prevent them from narrowing the street widths or mixing commercial and residential uses as in authentic small towns.

Rather than tinker with existing zoning codes -- which are nothing more than detailed instruction manuals on everything from how wide to build residential streets to how many parking spaces are needed for an elderly high-rise -- Mr. Kunstler advises junking them altogether. Get rid of "master plans," too, he says.

The old-fashioned way

Planning used to be done by consensus before the advent of zoning, Mr. Kunstler says.

Decades ago, communities agreed that stores along Main Street should have more than one story, streets should be laid out in a grid to facilitate traffic, sidewalks should be tree-lined, public buildings should be of high quality and located in conspicuous places and there should be a variety of housing so families of different sizes and economic stations can live close to one another.

To its credit, the Anne Arundel citizens steering committee working on the general plan revision is looking at these issues. How they are able to integrate some of these concepts with current zoning and building requirements will be a tremendous challenge.

But don't expect the county's zoning manuals to end up in the trash. No one is ready to take that step just yet.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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