State simplifications can be considered part of an ongoing “project of legibility”, a project that is never fully realized… The radically simplified city plan, provided it is viewed from above, is practical and efficient… The logic behind the spatial segregation and zoning is at once aesthetic, scientific, and practical… it led to visual regularity – even regimentation… it reduced the number of unknowns, for which the planner had to find a solution… too many unknowns in urban planning rendered any solution problematic, or else requiring heroic assumptions… urban planning, is a short step from parsimonious assumptions to the practice of shaping the environment, so that it satisfies the simplifications required by the formula… Compared to uniformity, diversity is always more difficult to design, build, and control. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed – James C. Scott.
Zoning was the heaven-sent nostrum for sick cities, the wonder drug of planners, the balm sought by lending institutions and householders alike. City after city worked itself into a state of acute apprehension until it could adopt zoning ordinance. Mel G. Scott, 1969 American City Planning Since 1890.
With a T-square and a triangle, finally the municipal engineer could, without the slightest training as either an architect or a sociologist, ‘plan’ a metropolis, with its standard lots, its standard blocks, its standard street widths, in short with it standardized, comparable, and replaceable parts… Lewis Mumford, 1961 The City in History.
Over the last three centuries, a set of instrumental and reductive tools emerged in pursuit of simplification, legibility, and control over territory. From the early surveyors’ metes and bounds system to the Jeffersonian grid, complex systems of subdivision, land use controls, building codes, special districts, and Euclidian zoning have evolved into the DNA of North American urbanism. The institutions of land use regulation arrived in North America from Germany in the first decade of the twentieth century. On a continent abounding in open land, grounded in an agrarian economy, and characterized by persistent fears of density, racial and ethnic intermingling, and a strong foundation in private property rights, land use controls were enthusiastically adopted. A clear product of the influence of ecological paradigms on American law and policy, zoning remains the most influential and pervasive regulatory tool ever deployed. It is largely responsible for the shape of twentieth-century land development in North America, and to some degree, planning regimes around the world.
Despite the blame so often cast on it, from social malaise to environmental degradation, to social fragmentation, Euclidean zoning has proven remarkably durable as an institution. Through its successive iterations and elaborations, from incentive to performance to overlay zoning, it has remained steadfast in its original goal: the well-defined separation of the uses of land. Such normative divisions have produced static conditions that overlook local nuances, and are especially unmindful to factors of time and change. Ultimately, these instruments have proven marginal in dealing with the “complex and unwieldy reality” of contemporary urbanism, especially in the face of increased vulnerability created by indeterministic, unknown, and unpredictable environmental forces. It is no coincidence that some of the most dynamic and variegated urban conditions, such as post-industrial sites, historic urban cores, dynamic estuaries, peri-urban fringes, and informal settlements, resist zoning’s reductive categorizations. It is in those conditions where design innovation renders such legislative standards irrelevant and inapt. It is in the relative absence of such recognizable order and hierarchy, on the fringes of the poly-nodal metropolis or on flood-prone coastlines, where conditions become ripe for programmatic flexibility, social and spatial experimentation, and economic innovation.
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