Remembering shelter, not standards

This blog is getting better all the time. Yet another genuine land use expert joins the fray, Chuck Wolfe. Chuck Wolfe is an environmental and land use lawyer with a graduate degree in regional planning, and 25 years of experience in environmental and land use law, innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques. Chuck knows the code. But he’s also got a wide range of expertise in planning and how to apply it to solve problems and help cities achieve their sustainability goals. His myurbanist blog has become standard reading for urbanists and general interest readers alike (and now you can read him on the Huffington Post, too). I am honored to have Chuck post here on the implications of what he’s learned on a recent trip to Tanzania.


Inherited forms of shelter are to residential zoning what oral histories are to Gutenberg—the backdrop of rich tradition for codification and institutional creation. If safety and well-being are maintained, such institutionalization may be laudable for preserving practices or legends otherwise lost with time.

However, if the result is lost functionality, needless complexity, discrimination or prohibitive expense, the institution may need reexamination.

For instance, what if a zoning code is no longer cohesive, or impedes rather than accomplishes societal goals?

Sometimes the contrast of a different place and tradition can refocus priorities, and warp time.

Consider the iconic Maasai village, with a perimeter of brush to discourage animal invasion, and a central open space for market or celebration. Consider further the adjacent huts built of dung and sticks with cramped entry spaces and “room” division with spaces little more in size than our natural reach.

The form and function works, as it has for countless generations.
What if we tried to zone this tradition, with setbacks and ratios and heights and densities? What acronyms would we develop? Would we fall prey to increased allowances for cultural status based on cow ownership?

In the end, ironically, would such codification ultimately prevent the type of shelter that the regulatory effort set out to model?

When the questions are posed, and we contemplate zoning classifications such as IH-1 (Indigenous Hut 1) or CAR (Cow-Area Ratio), the dialogue sounds absurd. And that may be the very point.

Through the complex evolution of initially well-meaning institutionalization, perhaps we risk losing our way.

When necessary or appropriate, let’s remember to reassess, with simplicity in mind.

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