Highway Zoning?

Greg Smithsimon's picture

The Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others recalls that famous question about governments who spy on their citizens: Who will watch the watchers? (Answer: Alberto Gonzalez.) A similar, if less cloak-and-dagger question applies to planning: Who will zone the zoners? While governments use zoning to keep polluting uses away from homes, what if the biggest polluter in a city is a government use?

In most cities today, the most common polluting use is exempt from zoning: highways.

The dangers of highways to health is clear: children who live near a highway are twice as likely to develop asthma. If all that soot came from a single factory's smokestack, it would be in an industrial area far from homes. But along the edges of every interstate highway are fields that will one day be filled with houses, families, and children-a dangerous and incompatible use if there ever was one.

So if the land adjacent to heavy industry isn't zoned residential, doesn't it make sense to zone the land adjacent to highways for non-residential use as well? California has already considered a law requiring elementary schools be built at least 500 feet from highways, and New Haven residents are protesting plans for a new school next to two interstates. Prohibiting highways in residential areas and precluding new residential zoning along existing highways might change the calculus of highway building. It would no doubt be labeled an unfair burden. But the buffer zones may be less an unfair burden than a full assessment of the health costs of road building. They may even save money by preventing respiratory illness.

Keeping highways out of residential areas, or rezoning space along new highways for nonresidential use may make zoning once more an effective way to plan and protect citizens.

Gregory Smithsimon is an assistant professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

Comments

Comments

NEPA

Most highways typically involve some sort of Federal funding, and these issues should also be addressed through the National Environmental Policy Act.

Unfortunately, I don't know that these aspects are always considered in Environmental Impact Statements. Planners should be advocating the consideration of these issues in the NEPA process, particularly the consideration of the highway as a land use.

Highway zoning

It seems from the air pollution standpoint, a worse location would not be along an interstate highway, but near a busy intersection, where there is great amount of vehicle idling. Idling engines create more air pollution than vehicles traveling at highway speeds because of the differences in combustion efficiency.

In Florida, the fact of the case is that new development follows new highways. Look at what happened along the Central Florida Greeneway, a toll road built around Orlando. The main buffering is stormwater retention areas between the highway's often raised roadbed and the surrounding countryside.

This is not a simple question.

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