Reason.tv has launched a multipart series of videos on how the city of Cleveland can turn itself around using free-market approaches and limited government reforms. Unfortunately, the video format didn't provide enough time to explore the ways economic decline fundamentally challenges the concept and practice of urban planning in older cities. In a companion analysis, I discuss whether cities facing more complex and dynamic development environments need less conventional planning and more flexible, market-oriented land-use regulation such as the framework in play in Houston, Texas.
Ironically, the complexity of urban redevelopment projects and infill-development in already built-up cities-demands a nimble, flexible and expeditious regulatory process to minimize development costs and allow the market to adapt quickly to more finely grained tastes for housing. Conventional development regulation, in contrast, is heavily dependent on end-state zoning and negotiated outcomes for projects large and small, simply gets in the way.
Zoning maps in cities large and small have become detailed and prescriptive, giving planning commission more discretion over land and, consequently, increasing the uncertainty of the regulatory process. I surveyed 32 cities Ohio's major metropolitan areas in the 1990s and found the average city (population averaging 65,281) had 17 zoning districts, including seven residential districts, and five commercial districts. Cleveland's land development regulations include 13 general chapters of the land-use and planning code, 30 chapters of the zoning code and 17 chapters describing various use districts (including nine separate residential districts such as single family, "limited" single family, two family, townhouse, multifamily, "limited" multifamily, residence-office).
Compounding the problem is the implicit assumption driving the planning process is that zoning plans for growth. Cleveland is trying to manage decline. Cleveland's zoning code reflects a bygone era of a large city that was the economic engine for the region. Cleveland ranked as the nation's fifth largest city in 1920. The 52-floor Terminal Tower stood as the tallest building outside New York City when it was built in 1930 (and held that record until 1964). As World War II ended, Cleveland's city population breached 900,000.
Yet, by 2008, the city's population had plummeted to less than half the number at its peak and its national population rank had fallen to 40th. By 2008, only one fifth of the metropolitan area population lived in the city of Cleveland as outlying cities in Cuyahoga County grew is absolute and relative terms along with suburban counties such as Lake, Geauga, Lorain, and Medina.
Within the city, the effects were palpable. In 1960, near the city's peak, 26 of Cleveland's 36 neighborhoods had population densities exceeding 10,000 people per square mile. Six neighborhoods had populations near or exceeding 20,000 people per square mile. By 2000, none of Cleveland's neighborhoods had population densities exceeding 15,000 people per square mile and just six had densities over 10,000 people per square mile.
Cleveland's experience, in my view, bears testimony to the increasing impracticality of zoning-based land use regulation rooted in master planning. Cities have been unable to effectively determine what land uses need to be where using long-range comprehensive planning because the future cannot be forecasted with reliability, political wishfulness often trumps sound data analysis, and economic and social dynamics shift constantly.
The effect is to create a highly uncertain, process-driven approval process that limits innovation and adaptation in the housing market with a bias toward protecting the status quo. Uncertainty in the approval process discourages new housing development. Land use transitions-whether to lower urban densities or from empty warehouses to residential lofts and condominiums-squeeze already thin profit margins and can easily make profitable development little more than wishful thinking.
The alternative is a regulatory approach more closely resembling Houston, Texas. Houston focuses more on infrastructure-based performance standards and puts a premium on processing applications administratively. Since the city of 2.2 million people does not have zoning, the neighborhoods transition based on the demand for certain types of land uses and functions. The result is a planning process that allows high-rise residential buildings and mixed-use projects to be built and leased within a year of purchasing the property. The city's swift approval allows the urban real-estate market to adapt quickly and innovatively to changing demand in older urban areas, promote infill, and contributes to the resilience of the city's housing market.
The Houston model is not a panacea for urban decline. But, more often than not, conventional planning and zoning is doing more harm than good in older cities by imposing a static, end-state vision for land use that allows change only under very cumbersome procedures that make cities inhospitable places to invest and do business. Freeing up the land market is more likely to foster the kind of investment needed to encourage revitalization than sticking to the conventional, if safe, path.