Emily Talen on Better Ways to Govern Land Use

Matt Bevilacqua talks shop with Emily Talen, whose new book explores the way land use regulation has shaped American cities and how it's all about to change.
July 5, 2012, 10am PDT | Ryan Lue
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Land use regulation may not be the sexiest facet of urban planning practice, but when it comes to defining the shape and character of our cities, it takes center stage. Urban planning professor and Journal of Urbanism co-editor Emily Talen considers the role of land use rules in her new book, City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form.

Talen observes, for instance, the "radically negative consequences" of American planners' traditional focus on separation in land use planning, tracing that focus to America's unique development history: "The U.S. had a lot of open space when it first developed. People had this notion of unlimited capacity to just spread out... the U.S. is composed of so many heterogeneous groups, and rather than trying to live together in close proximity, we translated all that diversity to uncomfortableness. We translated it into just moving away from one group to another."

The legacy of that mindset persists in planners' ongoing struggle with NIMBYism. Fortunately, for Talen, the answer is simpler than you'd expect: "I think the key is good design. People have been legitimately griping about some mixed-use [development]: That could be a 7-11, with a huge parking lot in front of it, next door to you with glaring lights all night. The devil is in the details."

"The irony is that most people - when you show them a wonderful design of mixed-use, where things fit together, and where it produces a vibrancy and quality of place - people love it! They flock to cities that have that kind of diversity. So, it really comes back to bad rules, and having rules that don't protect those design qualities."

Ultimately, the way to better design may begin with a shift toward form-based codes. "Form-based coding, I think, is taking off. I wish it would go faster. I wish more people would adopt it. But there's really been progress in the last year with these major American cities taking it on. Yeah, I'm hopeful. I think it will happen."

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Published on Tuesday, July 3, 2012 in Next American City
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