Bikes in Williamsburg hint at two sides of recent zoning activity in New York: the 2005 rezoning in this Brooklyn neighborhood, which led to residential and industrial displacement, and the move by the city in 2009 to tweak zoning rules to encourage developers to offer more parking for bikes.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Bikes in Williamsburg hint at two sides of recent zoning activity in New York: the 2005 rezoning in this Brooklyn neighborhood, which led to residential and industrial displacement, and the move by the city in 2009 to tweak zoning rules to encourage developers to offer more parking for bikes.

The following is adapted from “City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form,” a new book from Island Press.

We live in a world in which the physical character of cities is a largely a product of rules. Mostly these rules are not helping us create better cities. In fact, they are making it much more difficult.

Analyzing the effect of rules is a form of social history, and much is revealed: what do these rules say about how American society values place – as well as neighborhood functionality, community organization, and social integration?

Rules are a reflection of values, but now, given the disconnect between rule and effect, it’s hard to imagine that what people really want is sprawl, bad urban form, and monotony. This is certainly not what early city planners thought they were creating.

If there is any hope of changing the rules that have disfigured the American landscape – sprawled-out and often disorienting, while at the same time, almost paradoxically, hyper-segregated – a keen understanding of the source, historical evolution, and effect of these rules is essential. Through their manipulation of pattern, use and form, rules have a strong impact on quality of life, affecting everything from patterns of daily life, to the demographic makeup of schools, or who lives next to whom.

Are good urban places the result of a conscious coding effort? What specific rules do we have to thank for the great places we have, or to blame for the other, dispiriting ones? When we experience a great city, neighborhood, street or place, how much of it can be attributed to rules?

Understanding this connection can help to avoid the types of rules that have resulted in bad places, and embrace and build on those that have created good ones.

Zoning dominates this story – it’s the mother-lode of city rules. Other kinds of rules – utility regulations, deed restrictions, neighborhood review panels, impact fees, federal laws – can affect urban form, sometimes dramatically, but zoning has had the broadest effect.

New York was of course the first U.S. city to adopt a comprehensive zoning ordinance, in 1916. The code is a great example of how early regulations thought much more about the link between rules and their effect on place. New York’s code was trying to solve four very specific physical conditions: factories bringing pollution into retail and residential areas, skyscrapers blocking light, overly congested streets and sidewalks, and overcrowding in residential areas.

There were sometimes perverse motives involved (trying to keep out a certain class of people via building rules), but there is evidence that New York’s code was a reflection of deeply held civic values. Evidence of this is in the rich record of public input prior to the code’s adoption. A broad swath of society became involved – schoolteachers, children, ambassadors and heads of major institutions like the New York Zoological Society and the Municipal Art Society weighed in on issues of “value”, “beauty”, and “human scale” and how zoning was intricately tied to those ideals.

Now, however, the view of zoning by planners, real estate developers, environmentalists, and citizens is largely negative, and in the decades since its adoption in the early 20th century, zoning has taken on a significant amount of baggage.

But there is nothing intrinsic about zoning that should elicit such a negative response: zoning is simply a set of rules tied to a specific location. Curiously, rules by any other name, such as deed restrictions, often escape a more negative judgment. Deed restrictions did significantly impact the public realm, but in many areas, their control of built form was subsumed by zoning and subdivision regulation in the early 20th century (with the notable exception of Houston, which never embraced zoning, but which continues to control urban form via restrictive deeds and covenants).

Despite the mythology of rugged individualism, rules have always been an integral part of the American experience, and in the early 20th century, it seemed natural to have all kinds of rules guiding our behavior. Rules are essential to city-building – even Adam Smith knew that. The question is what kinds of cities do rules create?

The answer is something of a mystery. Though rules often function as the default urban policy position – perceived as a way of getting something for nothing, without having to spend public dollars – it is a policy position we promote recklessly. Rules guide what gets built where, often without a clear objective. The character of place that results, de facto, is usually not pre-conceived, let alone desired. With no one and nothing in charge of maintaining an overall idea about what cities should be like, rules become the default overseers of urban form.

While there are many other forces to blame for the disfigured American urban landscape, city rules are not helping. Over the course of the last century, American urban development has been characterized by inner-city disinvestment, sprawl, segregation, and a general lack of quality when it comes to urbanism. Rules not only contribute to this, they actively block better ambitions. The places we love and flock to – places like Nantucket or Annapolis – can be built in very few places without a team of lawyers enlisted to get the rules changed or circumvented.

Without a clear connection between rule and objective – or better yet, between rule and physical outcome – city planners are left holding the bag on rules they probably care little about, trying to defend them in the face of a public that is apathetic at best about regulations. Planners can only dream of a world in which a clear connection between helping to create good cities is linked to the rules they are required to enforce. And rules, once put into law, are not easy to get rid of. Plans and politicians can be ignored or voted out, but rules last. Case in point: two years after New York became the first U.S. city to adopt a comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916, the Planning Committee and its staff were fired. The basic outlines of the code endured for decades.

Rules affect urban pattern and form in a myriad of large and small ways. A seemingly simple rule, such as the requirement that apartments must have a second means of egress, can affect building size and configuration, and ultimately how cities are experienced. A bay window may require approval from a public commission, with the result being that bay windows become a rarity. Maybe a certain density level triggers design review, resulting in lower densities. Rules about minimum distance between stairs may determine how many units front a street. Laws might be used to stimulate the consumption of certain materials, like brick and steel, which in turn impacts the character of urban form. The number of parking spaces required for each housing unit can have a profound effect on building configuration. Chicago’s anti-betting law of 1905 had the effect of converting race tracks to housing. Consider the federal tax code and its effect on urban form via rules about loan guarantee. Federally-backed mortgages of single-family detached housing has been one of the biggest generators of suburbia.

Many planners in the U.S. have now entered a phase in which they are trying to turn the rules of city building around. The effort is monumental, and results have been gradual and mixed. Most urban advocates are convinced that different kinds of rules – more adaptive, more form-based – are needed to produce better places.