Examining Zoning's Origins to Shed Light on Current Critiques

As traditional zoning comes under increasing criticism for its exclusionary practices, strict separation of uses, and controls on density, Daniel Nairn explores its genesis and the arguments of pioneering planner Edward Murray Bassett.
May 28, 2012, 11am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Nairn summarizes and examines a pamphlet written in 1922 by Bassett, who authored the first comprehensive zoning ordinance for New York City, for insight into the early intentions of those propagating the newly established tool. Nairn explores the nine primary arguments in favor of zoning made by Bassett in his attempt to convince more municipalities to adopt the emerging land use tool, and is struck as much by what comprises his case, as what does not.

"Notice the complete absence of social, moral, or ideological language. These are not the words of a utopian academic envisioning the city of the future, but rather a politically-astute pragmatist addressing a chamber of commerce or some other worldly audience. Bassett deliberately distanced himself from any 'radical experimentation' even while presenting what was on the regulatory cutting edge of the time. Unlike some previous planners, he did not present zoning as a tool for class segregation. He didn't even really mention class, or housing conditions, or city beautification, or any of the other movements popular at the time. His focus was squarely on return on investment."

Nairn concludes his essay by questioning how Bassett may have viewed the outcome of the landmark Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. case, in which the justices granted more power to zoning than he had anticipated.

"I'd like to think that Bassett, at least in some honest moments, felt a little like Dr. Frankenstein. He had persuasively (to me at least) argued for a community's responsibility to form some order out of chaos, only to see zoning grow to reinforce the benefit of 'favored localities' at the expense of others. He wrote that zoning 'should follow nature and it should not be forgotten that the city has a history,' yet this tool had begun to artificially restructure the 20th century city into a form never before seen. He had expected the courts to be a bulwark against taking this power too far. But that did not happen."

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Published on Thursday, May 24, 2012 in Sustainable Cities Collective
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