Zoning Doesn’t Help Lower Classes

Someone shared this on my FB. My desultory comment:

I first heard the argument for wholesale abolition of zoning from my first-year design lecturer.

Two observations, though. Firstly, the term “zoning” may be used in wider and narrower senses. In some contexts it refers only to what land is used for; in others, like Cape Town where I live and work, “zoning issues” comprise things like setbacks, height restrictions, etc. as well. It is hard to tell how broadly or narrowly the term is used in the article.

Secondly, it is clear that zoning is only part of the picture. That Houston should, in the absence of zoning, produce the same horrible urban form as most American cities, contrary to all economic logic, certainly suggests that there are other background conditions involved.

That is, though the relationship between urban form and economic model is reciprocal, the latter will dominate, ceteris paribus, where the urban form represents a trivial anomaly in terms of its wider context. Zoning is all about maintaining the conditions which best suit the dominant economic model. As the economic model concentrates all productive capital into a small number of privileged hands, just so the urban form is designed to concentrate all productive real estate into those same hands by rendering the vast majority of properties economically sterile through myriad measures. This is the single thread which runs through each and every zoning provision: your house shall not be productive capital.

I’ve said before, get the choice of technology right, and the architecture will pretty much design itself. At a larger scale, get the political economy right, and the city will pretty much design itself. In the case of Houston, simply subtracting zoning from everything else in which the surrounding political economy manifests was not enough to make a livable city design itself.

Conversely, however, the political economy cannot be got right while zoning remains in force.

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