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Making place or planning chaos [broadband recommended]

ablarc

     
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MAKING PLACE OR PLANNING CHAOS


A lot of people these days think you can’t improve a natural environment with buildings. In this mindset, pristine nature is the only truly virtuous environment; and all human efforts to modify it with buildings only serve to degrade it. Basically, the world has been going to hell in a handbasket since Adam and Eve.


Maxfield Parrish: Adam and Eve

We have become such pessimists!


Jim Buckels: Princes Kept the View


Jim Buckels: Deux Chevaux

Maybe what we really mean is that we’ve forgotten how to do it properly-- since Inigo Jones rearranged England’s landscape and since every fifth Provencal peak sprouted a village of rock hewn from the hill itself.


Maxfield Parrish.


Maxfield Parrish.


Mad King Ludwig.

Some may grudgingly acknowledge exceptions: perhaps, after all, Fallingwater improves the humdrum Pennsylvania gulch it spans; maybe Mad King Ludwig’s castle aggrandizes the Alpine foothills around Neuschwanstein; possibly the sudden apparition of the Temples of Paestum yields a pleasure greater than yet another stretch of Mediterranean pines; and conceivably Mount Rushmore’s effigies are more rewarding than the anonymous granite escarpment they alter.


Jim Buckels.


Jim Buckels: Son et Lumiere

Why, I even think the Jersey Meadows are possibly better filled with trusswork and cranes, with flame-belching smokestacks, truck-trailer mesas and hazy skylines than in their former incarnation as reedy wetlands.


Charles Sheeler


Charles Sheeler

Some pessimism seems justified; the Three Rivers Dam is regarded as an environmental disaster, as is the clearing of Brazil’s rain forest. These days, we seem able to do anything; and to the authorities that seems justification enough.


Guy Billout

But personally I find the big projects much easier to swallow than the ubiquitous smaller offences that routinely vandalize our landscape with visual blight and dismaying mindlessness.


Jim Wark photo from A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden. Could anyone who knew how this would turn out have actually wished for it? Here all the parts are optimized by a set of non-negotiable rules called zoning, and the whole is as awful as an environment can be. Here is the apotheosis of the trivial: everyone’s driveway is wide enough and pitched below 1:12; and the roofs match…

It’s naïve and artless to believe that the application of formulas cooked up for any place or every place could yield a worthwhile outcome in some actual place; we might with equal justification anticipate a masterpiece from paint-by-numbers.

In city planning, paint-by-numbers is called zoning.


Leon Krier.

Each place that zoning makes is no place in particular. It can’t be distinguished from its peers, because under zoning no building can respond to its setting with specificity or with the tiniest insight or joy, for no building is allowed to deviate from the abstractions of setbacks and coverage ratios. The poor building must conform to numbers in place of the rich guidance that tangible and particular reality might provide. The purpose of regulation is to enforce conformity; and conformity is what we get.


Leon Krier.

Then we have the gall to complain of monotony and blame the developers. The real villains are the eunuchs we appoint to guard us from the developer with a bunch of silly rules.


Noble Experts Lay Their Plans (for us all). Michael Wolf.

* * *


Leon Krier: San Leucio.

In a memorable place every component responds specifically to the particulars of its locale. Overall harmony is achieved organically by a colloquy of characters that agree to produce coherence at every step --even if that coherence changes over time. The whole that they create is always complete and greater than the sum of its already estimable parts. This condition is impossible under zoning.


Jim Buckels: Sans souci.


Alex MacLean: Zoned Lots.

* * *

Zoning strays the instant it passes from proscription to prescription --from preventing vice to promoting virtue. It’s only good for immunizing against the abominable—such as, for example the strip-malling of the English countryside or the installation of a nuclear power plant on leafy Main Street. Such limited goals accomplished, further elaboration quickly promotes disease.

Today’s voluminous regulations promote the disease called Suburbia.


A place designed without reference to pre-existent zoning formulas: Poundbury by Leon Krier.

Instead of more regulations, we need talented individuals to take over with flair and insight—as they have so often in the past-- when not overruled by theoreticians, ideologues or morons.


Guy Billout

Mistakes are risked, but with zoning they are guaranteed. The zoning itself is the mistake; every project designed under its leaden rule is doomed.


Leon Krier: Atlantis, a resort town in the Canary Islands, designed without benefit of zoning.

What makes Poundbury and Seaside successful is that each began with a concrete vision, not a set of performance specs (or worse still, a set of non-negotiable rules). Sure, there got to be rules --but not until after the design concept was nailed down. That way the rules wouldn’t get in the way of the design process.


Leon Krier: Conceptual sketch, Poundbury High Street with Market.

After the design concept is nailed down and developed, zoning starts to make sense as the guarantor of the concept against revisionists and the weak-minded. But the concept must be first concrete, specific and visualized in three-dimensional drawings.


Rendering by Carl Laubin after Leon Krier, Poundbury High Street with Market.

Architects are able to do this; that is what empowers them to advance the vision of city planning—something that utterly eludes planners, who are not trained to design. It’s why a reasonably-educated layman asked to name major planners will rattle off a list of architects: Michelangelo, John Wood, Nash, Burnham, Tony Garnier, Mizner, Corbu, Niemeyer, Duany…


Leon Krier: Portrait of the theoretician and planner, Le Corbusier. Mistakes will be made.

The numbers men—like Ebenezer Howard—came up with the suburb: the elevation to primacy of all things trifling. They’ve been in charge ever since.

”MINIMUM REQUIREMENTS: 10 years of progressively responsible experience in municipal planning, with considerable supervisory and administrative responsibility. Masters’ degree in Urban Planning or related field. Must possess excellent communication and interpersonal skills, and working knowledge of various software, including database, spreadsheet, word processing, GIS, IRIS, and Arcview. APA membership and AICP certification preferred. Driver’s license.” –from a job announcement on Cyburbia for Planning Director of Raleigh, NC.

Nowhere does it require the director to be able to draw. Draw? For goodness sake…


A possible alternative outcome for Poundbury, with the numbers in charge (Leon Krier).


* * *

After San Leucio was deconstructed to yield an understanding of its specifics, it was reassembled and fleshed out to form a town, and its potential reality documented in clear, three-dimensional drawings. This would have taken a wholly different form if the designer had been thwarted by prior decisions of existing zoning:


Leon Krier: San Leucio, a place designed without reference to pre-existent zoning formulas, but strongly rooted in the physical reality of a not-fully-realized place. The design is site specific and the drawing concrete enough so you can probably see where improvements could occur.

Another example:


A town for a large junkyard, once a farm. Certain surviving features of the farm, and all topographical traits have been preserved like archaeological remnants; an old tractor trail meanders through the otherwise gridded town as its Main Street. Tractors are as good at planning as Boston’s legendary cows, and for the same reason: they choose the easy path. So do pedestrians.

This design deviates from Krier’s dogma by incorporating a mixed-use high-rise and four largish, ground-floor retail parking structures to supplement on-street parallel parking. Can you spot them?

This town devours less land than most malls with their parking lots, and even manages a little suburban fringe. The bridge links it with a cul-de-sacked subdivision which is appropriated as additional suburb.

Without a prior program of square footages or other numbers, the town was designed entire, as a physical entity fitted to its site. Afterwards it was deconstructed and described in square feet, housing units and types, population, dollars and other statistics. The developer finds the numbers to his liking -- not surprisingly, as the organism created was a familiar urban type that is known to work. It is, however, quite illegal under existing zoning and requires a PUD. (Fortunately this mechanism for getting around the inanities of zoning is getting easier, as the authorities grow dimly aware that zoning often impedes the best projects. Progress.)


Here’s the principle that divides making place from planning chaos: You have to be able to see (and therefore, draw) a design BEFORE you make up rules and statistics to describe it.


Leon Krier. Two scales.

Design is physical, not numerical. All the well-intentioned numerical rules—setbacks, F.A.R.’s, height restrictions, turning radii, parking ratios, space requirements, landscape demands, lane widths --and all the other petty numbers-- applied in the absence of a prior, concrete physical vision will serve only to guarantee the standardization of chaos through the enforced primacy of the secondary. Optimize the parts and relegate the whole to the junkbin.

Here are some products of the tyranny of numbers, which produces, unsurprisingly, machine order:


Math-based zoning principles generate the physical reality of a cul-de-sac subdivion. Alex MacLean photo


Similar rules applied to a trailer park. Alex MacLean photo.


Zoning has been around a while; here, the streetcar suburb of Somerville, MA shows its effects. Alex MacLean photo.


Beach Houses placed according to a set of rules. The trivial enshrined as law guarantees standardized chaos. Alex MacLean photo.

[Yes…that’s right: of course these illustrations have been chosen to optimize the point. Would you prefer less trenchant images?]

The rules that zoning presently enforces are nonsense; it seems they’re made up in a spiritual and artistic vacuum by no-talent bird-brains. It’s quite impossible that everybody involved in the practice of planning is as stupid as the rules they produce. No, the problem is with the theory. The result, however, is the same: the whole that emerges is invariably less than the sum of its parts. How could it be otherwise: the parts are at war with the whole?


A concrete diagram of a simple-hearted idea. Alex MacLean photo.

Thus we can praise a zoning-generated design for its wheelchair-accessibility or its provision of generous parking or its arrangement of mixed deciduous and evergreen trees, but we can be quite confident that the whole is crap. And the reason the whole is crap is precisely that each of the parts has been so generously and non-negotiably rendered to an independent level of perfection.

By contrast, an imperfect place is full of compromise. But it is a place. Perhaps by its drawbacks shall ye know it:


Poundbury.

Suppose you set out to create a near-perfectly handsome face. Would you get there by optimizing the parts? Maybe you could combine Cary Grant’s chin dimple with Paul Newman’s profile; you could throw in Richard Gere’s handsome head of greying hair, Robert Redford’s mole, Paul McCartney’s bedroom eyes and Errol Flynn’s roguish smile. Would you end up with a great-looking guy? Or maybe a monster?


LK

The look of true pluralism applied to a town:


LK

* * *

Whether they can do it or not, planners are involved in the business of urban design; in fact it’s probably what many planners thought they were getting into when they applied to school. Even if their education was defective due to bad theories, the fact remains that planners need to learn how to draw. This crucial faculty unlocks the power to imagine and to dream; that is how to visualize. But if you can’t draw, it’s pointless to dream because you can’t get it down on paper. (Actually, you can’t even imagine it properly.)


Parrish: Poets Dream. Bureaucrats shouldn’t even try.

Planning is visualization; it’s the only way to predict an outcome. And it goes without saying: you need the good judgment to choose an appropriate outcome to visualize.


Jim Buckels: Venice [enhanced with Giudecca as Lower Manhattan]

Then you can rise to the boldness of Nash at Regent Street, or Haussmann in Paris, or even wrongheaded Le Corbusier (mistakes will be made):


Corbusier


Buildings in a Park. Plenty of green space for all!


The Radiant City.


Mistakes will be made...


…even by those who can draw.


And the mistakes will even get built, although they also get blown up after a while. (Robert Wolf photo.)


It’s a risk we have to take, because with zoning the mistakes are enshrined in law. There is not just risk of doing harm; there is instead a positive mandate to do it. (Robert Wolf photo.)

I’m not opposed to all zoning, but I am against stupid zoning, and I’m against voluminous zoning. The authors of the latter pretend to wisdom they don’t possess, and their picayune opinions turned to law amount to tyranny. To prevent this, zoning ordinances should be limited to ten pages of not very fine print, with amendments accompanied by equal-sized deletions.


Guy Billout.

Planning without a visual basis is not planning at all. Its outcome is likely to be dominated by unintended consequences of plausible theories (that is how we came to the present farcical state of suburban sprawl).


Jim Wark photo from A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden.

It is at once folly and tyranny, resting on flawed and arbitrary opinion comic-operatically made law. It should be opposed by all citizens of a democracy who value freedom and reason –even those who agree with its goal: perfecting the suburb.

* * *

SONGS WITHOUT WORDS


JB.


LK


MP


LK.


JB.


LK.


GB.
 
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mendelman

Unfrozen Caveman Planner
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#2
Very nice!!!

I agree with you on many of the points. Since health and building codes have taken care of the concerns about "health, safety, & welfare" I don't really see the use of zoning codes....other than as a means for a particular and predictable image for the locale. The volumious or "bulk" regulations in many zoning codes are unnecessary...especially the distinction between types of residential. Is there really much difference between a 15,000 sqft and a 9,000 sqft lot.

Now, zoning is useful when dealing with "uses". The "use" of a property can be exclusive of the design, depending on the proposal.
 

BKM

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#4
mendelman said:
Very nice!!!

I agree with you on many of the points. Since health and building codes have taken care of the concerns about "health, safety, & welfare" I don't really see the use of zoning codes....other than as a means for a particular and predictable image for the locale. The volumious or "bulk" regulations in many zoning codes are unnecessary...especially the distinction between types of residential. Is there really much difference between a 15,000 sqft and a 9,000 sqft lot.

Now, zoning is useful when dealing with "uses". The "use" of a property can be exclusive of the design, depending on the proposal.

Ah. It is most definitely of importance to the homebuyer, because his family and their 15,000 square foot lot shouldn't have to exist all jumbled together with the lower orders, as shown on ablarc's idyllic scenes of urbane perfection :)

"My family earns $100,000. I shouldn't have to associate with a family earning $60,000 per year." (Direct quote).
 
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#5
I wonder what the effect would be of tossing out most of our zoning codes. Would builders soon experiment with different development types? If so would they mostly be closer to Krier's illustrations, or would they be bigger and badder Home Depots? Would the status quo keep getting built anyway due to expectations of lenders and the homebuying public? (The Houston argument)

I think as long as we all drive everywhere we won't see significant change no matter what the zoning regs say or don't say. In our society we're more likely to see the LeCorbusier towers then the picturesque villages of Krier's illustrations (lowered expectations again)
.
 

ablarc

     
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Seabishop said:
I wonder what the effect would be of tossing out most of our zoning codes. Would builders soon experiment with different development types?
Things would improve gradually, not overnight, as risk-averse developers catiously discovered new and more profitable development patterns. They’re so used to doing things in the way that’s mandated that it will take years of watching their more adventurous brethren running off with bigger profits before they start to try radically new things. Architects will have far more influence as they’re trained to think innovatively.

Some of their ideas will be truly wretched; some experiments will fail, but the situation will be better from Day One than it is right now, when virtually everything built is a failure in all ways except commercially (and some even that). At least the good nonstandard development patterns currently stifled by zoning or not even contemplated will see the light of day. Only a few at first, then more. There will be genuine progress and innovation after nearly a century of stagnation.

Seabishop said:
If so would they mostly be closer to Krier's illustrations, or would they be bigger and badder Home Depots?
Freedom is freedom. Some things not presently allowed would be good, even dynamite; some things would be bad. But almost everything built under zoning is bad, so there would be a net gain, modest at first but accelerating.

There is no such thing as a badder Home Depot; they are already terminally bad. If you mean a Home Depot without bushes in the (now smaller) parking lot and no useless patches of grass, that would be an improvement; it would reduce sprawl, to say nothing of saving your intelligence and sensibility from being insulted by such shoddy attempts to put lipstick on a pig.

Seabishop said:
Would the status quo keep getting built anyway due to expectations of lenders and the homebuying public? (The Houston argument)
That is indeed the Houston argument, but I don’t think there is much to be learned from it. Here’s what I can glean: 1. Houston is neither better nor worse than places that have zoning, so at the very least the zoning is unnecessary, and those who enforce it can go out and get useful jobs; 2. Houston is an unprogressive place with no cutting edge aspects whatever (sorry Houston). Nobody should be surprised to find a lack of innovation there. If you lifted zoning on Long Island or in Florida, you would see plenty of innovation pronto.

Seabishop said:
I think as long as we all drive everywhere we won't see significant change no matter what the zoning regs say or don't say. In our society we're more likely to see the LeCorbusier towers then the picturesque villages of Krier's illustrations (lowered expectations again)
Things wouldn’t get hunky-dory right away or everywhere, but at least some meritorious projects that you can’t do under zoning would see the light of day. As they proved successful, they would be imitated, and there would be progress instead of stagnation—as in the auto industry. Face it: except for some New Urbanism, human habitat hasn’t gone anywhere positive since the Twenties and Coral Gables. Innovation? There has been some: shopping malls, big box stores, landscaped parking lots and similar despicable junk.

Ugh.

.
 
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#7
Have you seen Troy? The set they built as the ancient city was spectacular. Leon Krier could almost sue them for ripping off his design for that "Atlantis" resort. Get the DVD and watch the documentary about the sets. They admit to artistic interpretation, especially for grandiosity, but still, I thought it made a pretty cool place. I have a suspicion that we will be seeing some images of it with your thoughtful commentary here.
 

noj

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#8
As always, ablarc, a very interesting well thought out entertaining post. Unfortunately I am somewhat ignorant of ‘zoning’ (most of my knowledge is based on assumptions) but I can see the fundamental point you are making; that essentially constraining development by standards covering every detail does not allow for organic growth (which, after all, is what makes so many great cities great). I certainly agree with the main point behind this, but as always in planning, feel there needs to be a balance. There needs to be certain regulations and codes to allow for some degree of certainty but there also needs to be exceptions to allow flexibility and spontaneity. That is my take on it anyway.

I would however disagree with one of your comments:

The numbers men—like Ebenezer Howard—came up with the suburb: the elevation to primacy of all things trifling. They’ve been in charge ever since.
Ebenezer Howard could possibly be considered as a ‘numbers man’ by your rationale, but I would disagree that Howard came up with the suburb. Howard, inspired by the pioneer industrialists with philanthropic leanings (Owen at New Lanark, Salt at Saltaire, Cadbury at Bournville and Lever at Port Sunlight) invented the Garden City. This vision had the basis of combining the best of town and country living; that is all things at the heart of the town, including jobs, entertainment with the best aspects of country living with access to countryside and parks green spaces. This was in many ways the idea of a sustainable city which many of us try to propagate now. It was certainly not the promotion of a suburban sprawl – Howards ideal Garden City size was 30,000 population at a density of 15 to the acre (37 to hectare), surrounded by 5,000 acres of green belt.

Some of Howards ideas were developed by his followers; Unwin and Parker went on to build Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. This was a classic dormitory suburb, but nevertheless has many redeeming features in the quality of design and the mix of tenure and house size. IMHO its probably one of the triumphs of twentieth century British design.
 
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#9
Ah ablarc, if your analysis were only as good as your images. And while this is your most direct attempt to counter the fact that development is as it is due to market dynamics (which zoning simply mirrors), it still fails. Indeed, the evidence you present as an alternative to development regulated by zoning argues powerfully against your own point.

The spaces you idealize grew up over hundreds of years. Modern development doesn't happen that way, so it can't possibly look that way. It is going to look mass-produced because it is, and will always be unless well-designed regulations counter the market. What you are seeing is capitalism at work, not zoning. I do not believe any of the positive examples you present evolved in a capitalist economy. Most are the product of tyrannical feudalist and mercantilist regimes, NOT of democracies. The exceptions simply reflect the reality that the wealthy can, if they choose, build nice buildings.

That zoning is the tail, not the dog is nicely illustrated by richmond jake's recent post. The planners took a visual approach and were told not to do it again by their democratically elected officials - it is not consistent with what the market wants. I cooked breakfast this morning while Karen analyzed the visual failings of another proposed Quizno's, all the while knowing that it will be approved regardless of what her staff report says. My ZA just sent some restaurant developers from Florida on their way because they are unwilling to meet the town's design guidelines, which are a part of our zoning.

Does zoning create visually dead places? No. It may accede to them for political reasons, but developers do that, and reap the profits. I have an email from our local home builders' association this morning decrying the design guidelines and other things that add cost, but not, of course, the basic regulations that we all need, i.e. all of those specification standards you are railing against.

Do local zoning regulations and decisions reflect the market? Yes, they do. Does that lead to crappy development? Yes, it does. But one does not cure a disease by mistaking the symptoms for the cause. Your frustration is going to continue unabated until you get the message. Yes, there are one or two developers who might try something different if the regulations were altered in some specific way. But they are the exception that proves the rule. Capitalism homogenizes all that it affects. And that is not an unintended side effect. It is structurally inevitable. If you read The Wealth of Nations you will be reminded that Adam Smith used common pins as his example of the ideal coomodity - you can't tell one from the other. You will also find that Smith pointed out quite clearly that markets in land are not the same as markets in commodities - but that is another story. Curiously enough, you will find that Marx wasn't that accurate - but that too is another story. The bottom line is this: Condemning community's efforts to counter the market reality, however unsuccessful and sad they often are, not only misses the point, but it lends considerable comfort to the folks who are profiting from the problem.
 

ablarc

     
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#10
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Thanks for your comments, noj.

noj said:
…constraining development by standards covering every detail does not allow for organic growth (which, after all, is what makes so many great cities great).
Bullseye!


noj said:
I certainly agree with the main point behind this, but as always in planning, feel there needs to be a balance. There needs to be certain regulations and codes to allow for some degree of certainty but there also needs to be exceptions to allow flexibility and spontaneity.

The question of course is how to achieve this logistically. If the regulation has primacy it slaps down creativity when the two come into contact; if human judgment is allowed to overrule the regulation, you risk corruption (wrong motives). You could speculate that it would work fine if we had philosopher-kings (like the ones in Plato); but you’ll never please everyone: we have sort of a philosopher-king in Charles (well, at least a philosopher-prince), and people are pissed off at him right and left, even though he’s mostly on the money.


noj said:
Ebenezer Howard could possibly be considered as a ‘numbers man’ by your rationale, but I would disagree that Howard came up with the suburb.
Technically you’re right; the Brenta Canal’s lined with suburban McMansions built for Renaissance-era Venetians, and archaeologists can find whiffs of Suburbia in Mesopotamia, but Howard made the Suburb into a smash hit, especially in America. Sold it to the public through the Town and Country Planning Association, which is a not-so-distant ancestor of America’s principal planning association. That partly explains American planners' suburban bias.


noj said:
This vision had the basis of combining the best of town and country living; that is all things at the heart of the town, including jobs, entertainment with the best aspects of country living with access to countryside and parks green spaces.
The fly in that particular batch of ointment was, of course: how varied a selection of either jobs or entertainment can you provide in a town of 30,000? “The best of town living”: maybe not. Entertainment for hicks, and jobs for the same: definitely. The liveliest people had to commute out of these utopias from Day One to get what they needed, and there’s nothing you can do to change that, for that’s enshrined in the numbers, too.

Come to think of it, you can’t even get the best of country living in a Garden City, can you? Living in a suburb just isn’t the same as living in the country, though the greenbelts help. But wait a minute… you can get the greenbelts in the city too: residents of Richmond, Hampstead and Greenwich don’t have too shabby a deal in that regard. And they can hop on the tube to the West End and really get the best aspects of city living.

No, like all hybrids the Garden City was sort of compromised from the get-go.


noj said:
This was in many ways the idea of a sustainable city which many of us try to propagate now
I’m glad you’re propagating that, noj; I am too. It all comes under the rubric of New Urbanism, which if you scratch it turns out to be Howard’s Garden City with a new name. Better than undesigned Suburbia, to be sure.


noj said:
It was certainly not the promotion of a suburban sprawl
No, but closer to it than we should be comfortable with. It’s often pointed out on these forums when New Urbanism is discussed that it’s just a slight improvement on the suburb.


noj said:
Howard’s ideal Garden City size was 30,000 population at a density of 15 to the acre (37 to hectare), surrounded by 5,000 acres of green belt.
That’s a density of 9600 per square mile, less than the density of a typical American streetcar suburb like Somerville, Mass. (about 15,000/sq. mi. today; 20,000 a half-century ago).


noj said:
Some of Howard’s ideas were developed by his followers; Unwin and Parker went on to build Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London. This was a classic dormitory suburb, but nevertheless has many redeeming features in the quality of design and the mix of tenure and house size. IMHO its probably one of the triumphs of twentieth century British design.
That is one heck of a pretty place, but dull to walk; it suffers in fact from an early case of zoning. A much better place to hang out and live is Hampstead itself, which doesn’t.


noj said:
Unfortunately I am somewhat ignorant of ‘zoning’ (most of my knowledge is based on assumptions).
Stick around this forum; you’ll get plenty of exposure; you know: “how many square inches of sign should we allow in an area zoned for…” –that kind of thing. Where I live they’re about to pass a provision limiting the number of angels allowed to dance on the head of a pin.

.
 
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#11
Thinking out loud

That was a fun read, why didn't you put some pics of Brasilia? The ultimate planned "community" disaster - inspired of course by Le Corbusier and designed by Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa. Great documentary about Brasilia, The Line: Lucio Costa and the Modern Utopia (Risco: Lúcio Costa e a Utopia Moderna, O)
I'll have to do some studying about the "Renaissance in the Tropics"
 

ablarc

     
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Lee Nellis, thanks for your comments.

I’m painfully aware of the truth of much of what you say, having to deal with it daily, though I think you're inflating the positive contribution planners make in safeguarding the environment. Your argument also subverts itself: you are at one and the same time protecting the world from greedy developers and powerless to keep their minions, the politicians, from ordering you to enforce the laws those developers foist upon you (and us). Isn’t that called a vicious circle?

I want things to change. If I wanted them to stay the same, I would make excuses for the status quo as you do. Change is always difficult: private change or change in the public arena--ask any gay who's come out of the closet, or ask the ghost of Martin Luther King--but it's rarely impossible. Just difficult. Not impossible. Let me have my dream, and if you agree with it as you might, then encourage me; I'm trying to influence people and change their minds in the public arena, which includes this forum; and it's not impossible, just difficult. I can use all the help I can get.

You can change people's thinking individually and collectively; that's what teachers, politicians, leaders, theoreticians, psychiatrists, philosophers, ideologues of all stripes do. And often they succeed--even with hare-brained ideas like communism or the Ville Radieuse or for that matter, Ebenezer Howard's Garden City. The fact that they don't accept reality the way it is doesn't mean that they're uninformed, naive or deluded.

Lee, your little lesson in reality was pungent and to the point, but you didn't tell me anything I didn't already know about what planners do and why they do it. I know what they do, I don't like it, and I want to change it.

Self-serving goals: developers are accused of having these, and they do—along with you, me and the rest of mankind. The key to change is to point out to developers that there are unexplored and unimagined realms of self-interest with even greater profit-potential than the narrow spectrum of possibilities that they have had their politician-lackeys install as law. Has anyone ever maxed out the profit potential of his field? But with all these regulations in place you have to admit there’s precious little evolution or progress, and I’m sure you can easily see how the rules trump change.

If there's anything I've discovered it's that people often don't know everything there is to know about how to get what they want (which, in the case of developers, is undoubtedly money). Mostly their methods resemble each other because they get their expertise from a common source. I do, however, know a developer cut from a different cloth: he only does projects that no-one else would do, because that way he has no competition. This developer profits handsomely from his policy, but he is especially hampered by the regulations. This means: 1. he invariably has to get variances or PUD’s to do the projects he envisions; 2. he can only do large blockbuster projects to justify the cost of #1, rather than the benign infill he would rather do, and that would yield even more environmental benefit. No question here that the rules work to the public’s detriment.

As for the Market…ah yes, the Market. Well, it’s an article of faith not only that the Market exists but also that the Market can be influenced, changed, even created from scratch (why else do advertising agencies exist, and other, more subtle forms of public persuasion?). Do you remember when there were no home computers? Do you remember the days before laptops? Do you have a crying need for the very next thing? Do you even know what it will be? Whatever it is I’ll bet you’ll get one when it comes along.

Do you see anything near that kind of rapid innovation happening in the built environment?

I’ll bet you can give me several good reasons why not, but one of them just has to be the mountain of regulation.

People can be made to want something they don’t presently want. Ten years ago they wanted to smoke, today they want a smoke-free environment; forty years ago they wanted Kennedy's liberalism, today they want Bush's macho fundamentalism, on and on...

People are especially deluded about what they want from their environment and how to get it, and they are particularly (yes!) uninformed, naive or deluded about matters of planning. That's why, for example, it's possible for so many of them to think the solution to sprawl is reduced density.

That's also why the razor-sharp, cultured and totally aware planning director of a major city can joke with me, cocktail in hand, about how he has to play the game and go along with the misconceptions of the high-rollers who look to him to implement the policies they think are in their own self-interest (and he, the technician, knows are not). But does he attempt to enlighten them? Not he! He wants to keep his cushy job till retirement, and he knows the key to this is to avoid controversy. I'm different from that.

I think we all know more than enough about how things are.

So I think I'll go on talking about how I think things should be.
 

Gedunker

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#13
I get it. Paraphrasing the Bard: First thing we do is kill all the planners and burn all the zoning regs.

Put the only true thinkers --the architects and the developers -- in charge.

Give me a break.
 

BKM

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#15
ablarc said:
Lee Nellis, thanks for your comments.

I’m painfully aware of the truth of much of what you say, having to deal with it daily, though I think you're inflating the positive contribution planners make in safeguarding the environment. Your argument also subverts itself: you are at one and the same time protecting the world from greedy developers and powerless to keep their minions, the politicians, from ordering you to enforce the laws those developers foist upon you (and us). Isn’t that called a vicious circle?

I want things to change. If I wanted them to stay the same, I would make excuses for the status quo as you do. Change is always difficult: private change or change in the public arena--ask any gay who's come out of the closet, or ask the ghost of Martin Luther King--but it's rarely impossible. Just difficult. Not impossible. Let me have my dream, and if you agree with it as you might, then encourage me; I'm trying to influence people and change their minds in the public arena, which includes this forum; and it's not impossible, just difficult. I can use all the help I can get.
Things WILL NOT CHANGE until the underlying social and economic forces change. If we are moving out of the cheap oil era, we will indeed be seeing dramatic changes. That's one thing that James Howard Kunstler recognizes. There is no incentive under current conditions for anyone to change. Once that underlying economic system changes, then zoning ordinances and regulations will quickly follow. Again: tail wagging the dog.


If there's anything I've discovered it's that people often don't know everything there is to know about how to get what they want (which, in the case of developers, is undoubtedly money). Mostly their methods resemble each other because they get their expertise from a common source. I do, however, know a developer cut from a different cloth: he only does projects that no-one else would do, because that way he has no competition. This developer profits handsomely from his policy, but he is especially hampered by the regulations. This means: 1. he invariably has to get variances or PUD’s to do the projects he envisions; 2. he can only do large blockbuster projects to justify the cost of #1, rather than the benign infill he would rather do, and that would yield even more environmental benefit. No question here that the rules work to the public’s detriment.
Again, paraphrasing my response over at urbanphoto: there is little economic incentive to change currently. The big box stores are more profitable, they attract more customers. Maybe their patrons and builders are self-deluded, but zoning is not the primary motivating force behind the giant "power center" at the freeway off-ramp.

Do you see anything near that kind of rapid innovation happening in the built environment?
I don't know. Lifestyle centers and power centers are pretty innovative and developed very quickly to meet market niches. High land prices in my city are resulting in new housing types (high density single family) that you may not like but are certainly new and responsive to market forces.

I’ll bet you can give me several good reasons why not, but one of them just has to be the mountain of regulation.
A pretty minor part.

People are especially deluded about what they want from their environment and how to get it, and they are particularly (yes!) uninformed, naive or deluded about matters of planning. That's why, for example, it's possible for so many of them to think the solution to sprawl is reduced density.

That's also why the razor-sharp, cultured and totally aware planning director of a major city can joke with me, cocktail in hand, about how he has to play the game and go along with the misconceptions of the high-rollers who look to him to implement the policies they think are in their own self-interest (and he, the technician, knows are not). But does he attempt to enlighten them? Not he! He wants to keep his cushy job till retirement, and he knows the key to this is to avoid controversy. I'm different from that.
No, you post pictures of fascist utopias by European traditionalists or aristocracy who have built very little in the real world (Seaside, as lovely as it is, is not the real world) I am suspicious of our expertise or the expertise of architects who simply KNOW BETTER how to build the world. As your own posts illustrate and clearly admit, many architects are as deluded as the purported uneducated.
 
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#16
Speaking of what developers want, I know one who spent his career building run-of-the-mill subdivisions and office "parks" He even subdivided the acreage on which his old Pennsylvania estate house stands, to build McMansions. He next move was to buy a villa in Tuscaby to spend his retirement in. When you paint yourself into a corner, I guess the only sensible place to flee to is someplace where the government doesn't let you paint yourself into a corner. You can't build anything new in Tuscany, unless it is on the footprint of a structure that once stood there.

Have you considered a pied-a-terre in San Remo or maybe Urbino for your retirement, ablarc?

You really put the wire to the nerve here! Interesting discussion going on.
 

BKM

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#17
boilerplater said:
Speaking of what developers want, I know one who spent his career building run-of-the-mill subdivisions and office "parks" He even subdivided the acreage on which his old Pennsylvania estate house stands, to build McMansions. He next move was to buy a villa in Tuscaby to spend his retirement in. When you paint yourself into a corner, I guess the only sensible place to flee to is someplace where the government doesn't let you paint yourself into a corner. You can't build anything new in Tuscany, unless it is on the footprint of a structure that once stood there.

Have you considered a pied-a-terre in San Remo or maybe Urbino for your retirement, ablarc?

You really put the wire to the nerve here! Interesting discussion going on.

Well, I understand that Italian suburbs are pretty horrific. Outlawing new legal construction just means illegal construction. The Berlusconi government just issued a blanket amnesty for all illegal construction, including hotels and housing built IN NATIONAL PARKS with no permits :)
 
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#18
I am in total agreement with Lee Nellis. If you believe that our world looks the way it does because of zoning, you are sadly mistaken. And if you believe that if we simply lifted zoning, we would have the aristocratic settings you describe above, you are out of touch with reality.

Your reference to Houston as an example, if anything, proves the point that no zoning does not do any better than having zoning. I find it hard to believe that a city of millions can categorically be dismissed as 'unimaginative'.

There are serious issues to be dealt with here, and this nostalgic and imaginary world you are describing does not help address them.

Yes, be creative and be forward thinking, but do so constructively in a way that deals with the reality of the economic forces at play and more importantly with the complexity of issues that draw individuals to live in the places they live (i.e. suburbia if that is the case).
 

noj

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#19
ablarc, thanks for your comments on my post

The question of course is how to achieve this logistically. If the regulation has primacy it slaps down creativity when the two come into contact; if human judgment is allowed to overrule the regulation, you risk corruption (wrong motives). You could speculate that it would work fine if we had philosopher-kings (like the ones in Plato); but you’ll never please everyone: we have sort of a philosopher-king in Charles (well, at least a philosopher-prince), and people are pissed off at him right and left, even though he’s mostly on the money.
I know ashamedly little of the US system of planning and so am not sure of the primacy of regulation. Unfortunately I can only really speak of the English and Welsh system in which I practice. We too have regulations covering the many things, but I like to think that the regulations have an inherent degree of flexibility built into them, which enable good, innovative design to be built where possible. This has, combined with higher density living now espoused, recently produced some stunning buildings; and also some tat as well. All planning, to me, is about balancing – all development has an effect on the environment, and practically every development has positive and negative effects. Inevitably you are going to get development which falls within a grey area where effectively you could legitimately decide either way – approve or refuse. This is where the human judgement comes to pass, for better or worse. It may be devolved to a planning officer, it may be done by an elected member, but the effect is the same.

Technically you’re right; the Brenta Canal’s lined with suburban McMansions built for Renaissance-era Venetians, and archaeologists can find whiffs of Suburbia in Mesopotamia, but Howard made the Suburb into a smash hit, especially in America. Sold it to the public through the Town and Country Planning Association, which is a not-so-distant ancestor of America’s principal planning association. That partly explains American planners' suburban bias.
Again, unfortunately I have no idea of how Howard sold his ideas in the US. In the UK however, my point about Howard is that he did not propose a suburb, or anything like it. As you say later on, his was the idea of entirely new garden cities, (and indeed a string/radii of them when each one hit the 30,000 population target). The suburb was promoted later on by his various acolytes, including Unwin and Parker. Whilst I am a fan of Hampstead GS for its architecture and mix of housing, some of their other schemes such as Wythenshawe in Manchester were pretty much a disaster.

The fly in that particular batch of ointment was, of course: how varied a selection of either jobs or entertainment can you provide in a town of 30,000? “The best of town living”: maybe not. Entertainment for hicks, and jobs for the same: definitely. The liveliest people had to commute out of these utopias from Day One to get what they needed, and there’s nothing you can do to change that, for that’s enshrined in the numbers, too.
I’d like to think that this particular fly was unfortunately a product of its time – Howard was writing at the tail end of the 19th century, when life expectancy in Manchester was approximately 29, and he could hardly be expected to foresee the consequences of liberating the car (it was only in 1896 that Parliament removed the requirement that a car must be preceded along the highway by a man with a red flag).

Come to think of it, you can’t even get the best of country living in a Garden City, can you? Living in a suburb just isn’t the same as living in the country, though the greenbelts help. But wait a minute… you can get the greenbelts in the city too: residents of Richmond, Hampstead and Greenwich don’t have too shabby a deal in that regard. And they can hop on the tube to the West End and really get the best aspects of city living.
And of course the Green Belt here that the good residents of Richmond, Hampstead and Greenwich can gain easy access to is was made possible by the 1944 Greater London Plan by Patrick Abercrombie, directly influenced by Howard, Unwin and Patrick Geddes.

Maybe I’m being a bit defensive of Howard here; but learning about him in Geography at school and being taken to Saltaire by my parents led me to taking up planning, so he is a direct influence to me. Unlike many of the Planning ‘Seers’ (and in this bracket I would include Le Corbusier, as well as people such as Wright, Perry and Soria y Mata) Howard did not subscribe to the vision of planner as an omniscient ruler who should create new settlement forms, and perhaps destroy the old without question. The complexities of planning in a mixed economy where private interest will promote much of the development that actually occurs and in a participatory democracy where individuals and groups have their own, often contradictory notions of what should happen are all absent from the writing of these planning pioneers. Howards ideas (along with Patrick Geddes) may have seemed utopian, but he never avoided the practical details of how the places would work and how they would be developed. They understood that planning should start with the world as it is and should try to work with trends in the economy and society, rather than impose their own arbitary vision of the world.

Finally, I realise I've gone off topic here due to lack of knowledge over zoning - my apologies.
 
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#20
It is not my intention to rain on your parade, ablarc. I appreciate many of the same things you do. I am simply pointing out two things:

1) Whatever else the "mountain" of regulations is, in most communities it is a reflection of what the developers want - they hold the cards.

2) if you want things to change, you have to change the fundamental system, you have to start change at the economic roots. I am working for a place right now where the developers do not hold the cards - but half of the regulations we have don't work right because the economy makes it impossible for developers to follow them - they can't get financing, they can't lease the spaces we want them to build. Our best developers actually like the concepts - at least some of them - from their own personal point of view. But they throw up their hands over the practical consequences. IF you want things change, you have to change the economy.
 
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