Some Thoughts on Urban Planning

The other week I was thinking about why so many city areas in America are unwalkable, why a vehicle is necessary for even the smallest chores.  Luckily I live in south Arlington, and I have two supermarkets, my insurance agent, an auto mechanic, a major bicycle trail, a Goodwill, a pharmacy, a hospital, a movie rental place, a home furnishings store, a craft store, a dry cleaner, an auto parts store, and several restaurants all wiithin a mile’s walk of my apartment.  Having grown up in the countryside of Indiana, I always thought I’d be uncomfortable with the congestion and noise of city life.  But I have come to like having so many useful things just a short walk away.  I’m being spoiled by it, and I’d miss the convenience that it offers.

However, Evelyn and I have been peeking at condos and townhomes in the last year, and it looks like quite a challenge to find a place that is as good for walking to errands as my current place is.  As our housing budget pushes us farther out of the city, our options for walking communitites get narrower.  If we want to buy a house, we might not even get a sidewalk, let alone a shopping center within a mile’s walk.

I am convinced that housing and shopping spaces are artificially separated by zoning regulations.  Apparantly the city planners feel that there are many reasons why commercial lots should be kept away from people’s homes, and I think some of those reasons are valid.  However, I’m convinced that many city dwellers would love to have things closer to them.

Consider the area where I work, M Street in southwest DC, down by the Navy Yard.  There are several tall office buildings for companies and the Department of Transportation, a metro station, and a few gas stations.  But I only recall seeing two sandwich shops in the area, a Quizno’s and a Subway.  Where are all these office workers going to eat?  More importantly, in a region where the only parking is curbside, where are they parking?  There are a few lots, like at the eastern end of M Street, but there don’t seem to be many convenient parking lots in the area.  Many of the people in my office admit there’s a major parking shortage there already, and the DoT isn’t even open yet!  I believe that zoning laws have repelled restaurants and parking garages away from a lucrative area.

Someone is building a condo building just off M Street.  I don’t predict a successful run for them.  The building’s future tenants will have a hard time living there.  There are no supermarkets, pharmacies, mechanics, hardware stores, day care, or entertainment anywhere near that building.  Anyone who lives there will find it a great inconvenience to travel so far for even the most mundane errand.

I think it is senseless to carve up the districts of a city by arbitrary lines into residential, commercial, and industrial.  It prevents people from living near their workplace.  It prevents businesses from opening near their industrial customers.  And it adds to traffic, as people now have to commute from a more remote residence.

What I propose is a regional election process; get rid of these annoying zones.  Instead, the people in the area (homeowners, landlords, businesses, etc.) get to vote on any proposed land uses in their area.  Each resident and business gets a vote.  When any development is proposed in an area, each voter within some reasonable distance of the development site gets to vote on it.  The needs of the community will be addressed by the outcome of its voters, residents and businesses alike.  Development would be guided by the people it affects the most, not an urban planner in their ivory tower at city hall.  If a residential neighborhood doesn’t mind a gas station amidst their houses, and votes for it, then why should arbitrary zoning laws prevent them from having what they see as a useful and beneficial service?  If a proposed development is unwelcome by its voters, then it will be voted against.  Thus the job of urban planning wil pass from the hands of an elite few, and into the hands of a local democracy.

Another benefit of this is community discussion.  Voters in a region would be aware of their neighbors wants and needs, and encourage active discourse in the true needs of the community as a whole.  Typically under the current zoning system, a community only bands together if it strongly opposes a particularly unwelcome change in their community.  Otherwise those groups of people passively consent to any developer’s wishes, since they have little influence on the project.

Another advantage is that the voting method creates a more dynamic city.  A propsed project will get different voting results, and thus a warmer welcome, by carefully choosing to put their project in a community where it is most needed.  I sense that community needs are rarely addressed in the details of selecting a project site, that convenience or cost wins out over community needs.  Under the voting system, an urban project would have to strongly consider the opinions of local people in their planning, and put their project where it is needed.

Enough for now.  I’m sure the ideas I’ve mentioned here are sketchy and undeveloped.  If you have any questions, let me know, and I’ll elaborate on an answer in another session.

Speaking of which, it is becoming harder and harder for me to have time in front of my computer to really devote my efforts to writing here.  Of late I’ve managed only two or three updates a month.  I really want to write more often, but the realities of Having a Life dictate otherwise.  The Ryanarium may only be seeing two or three updates a month for the indefinite future.  Get used to it.

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