How City Zoning Is Squashing Sustainability

In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.

Speck explains that, paradoxically, the most valued and valuable areas in almost any city are older constructions that would be illegal to build or duplicate under modern zoning laws. Doing away with zoning laws isn't feasible -- and wouldn't solve the problem anyway -- but some cities are taking steps to modify their regulations in ways that promote walkability.

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Audience Member: The way a lot of cities were built before zoning regulations would actually be illegal today. Things like the width of streets, handicap ramps and things like that, and also parking regulations.

We almost force ourselves into building cities unsustainably now, because of the laws that are in place. What would have to change in order to build cities more sustainably, in terms of parking minimums and things like that? What kind of changes would have to take place on that level, to allow that?

Jeff Speck: We're seeing that happen already. The first great discovery of the new urbanism movement, the new town, new urbanism movement, which I came out of, was that wherever we go -- this is my bosses before me -- Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk were hired to make new communities in existing places.

It was places where there were tons of office parks and housing subdivisions and shopping malls rising up, and the idea was, why couldn't we combine these things and make traditionally organized towns again?

What we learned as we went from place to place to place, was that we would take them to the best part of their community, like we'd take them to Georgetown here, when we were building Kentlands, which some of you may know, out in Gaithersburg. We'd say, "Look at Georgetown. It's impossible to build more of this."

The best places in almost every American city, that people identify as their favorite places with the highest real estate value and where everyone wants to be, are illegal today because of the zoning.

The answer is not to get rid of the zoning entirely, because we have now a complete economic regime, from lending to building to selling, financing, you name it, that's all wrapped around single-use zoning, and you can't just make the rules go away and make that regime go away. That regime will still be there.

The short answer, which you probably know because I think we talked in the elevator, is that there's this whole new set of codes called Form-Based Codes that -- at least at the level of the subdivision regulations and the zoning ordinances that are controlling how places are built -- replace the conventional standard of statistically based planning and what I call "legalese-based" planning, with pictures that control how the buildings frame the street, where the parking goes, how tall the buildings can be; issues that are much more palpable than just something like floor-area ratio, which is what a typical zoning code measures today.

The more complex, but also optimistic discussion is that a lot of cities are building a lot of places; for example, in D.C., eliminating its parking requirement for commercial areas within a certain distance of Metro. They're changing the rules.

The more advanced cities, the more walkable cities, are changing them faster, but we are seeing a lot of recognition that things need to change, and that's making change in cities.

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