The first in a series of essays on the other reasons why density and cities are important.
Land as Economic Engine
It may sound like a slogan but it is true that to create jobs and economic growth, land, in cities, should be allowed its highest and best use. Government sets the limits of that use, but so do the market place, and the principles of health and safety. These three limits—government regulation, supply and demand, health and safety—all change over time.
Government, through code, can set limits that are more restrictive than the other two. It can, for example, limit the number of housing units that can be built on a parcel of land to 50 when an analysis of the market shows that 100 units on the site would be financially viable and 150 technically feasible.
Government ought to carefully assess the outer limits of each of these limitations on land use, and introduce no regulation that would be more restrictive than the other two, especially in areas with a high supply of public transit.
Use Versus Form
When government conditions use by setting limits on building form, it is really setting limits on the economic potential of the land, extending its authority beyond the market and health and safety. Land use decisions are too often characterized by debates over what new buildings will look like rather than how they will function. Government should stop facilitating discussions about building form and allow user demand to drive what buildings look like and how tall they are. There are three parts to this suggestion.
First, debates about form (“it’s out of scale!”) are generally about something else other than building form. Form based opposition is usually a feint by neighborhood groups or simply a Red Herring. Fenestration, roof lines, paint colors, view blockage, height bulk and scale, are all kitchen sink arguments intended to exploit aesthetic and architectural weaknesses to limit use and potentially kill a project. Neighbors have figured out that for a developer time is money. When the City bogs everyone down in discussions about whether Juliet balconies should have clear or frosted glass it isn’t supporting democracy its just limiting job creation and growth.
Use Versus Process
Second, form based discussions favor the status quo. How can things change in the built environment without significant changes in building form? Changes in form are the most visible aspect of significant change, even though most use will happen, sight unseen, inside a building. When the process begins by asking questions like, “will this project significantly impact the neighborhood?” the die is cast, since the answer will always be, “yes.” Any significant project that will benefit the local economy will reorder the form of the whole neighborhood. An open ended process about building form allows people who already live in the neighborhood to engage in a Goldylocks operation in which the City and developer must try to make the building form not too big, or too small, but “just right.” And, in such a process, there is zero representation from future residents and users, only the ones who live nearby now.
Use Versus Planning
Planners plan. Planners believe in planning. Planners believe that without The Plan, there would be chaos. Planning is based on the careful study of what has worked in the past to create great public spaces. Ask planners what creates community in a city and they will have an answer that involves some kind of form based plan that channels or shapes or supports human behavior. Implement the right plan, they’ll say, and the outcome—all things being equal—will be community and great public space.
But planning doesn’t lead to community. People are the basis of community and economies. Communities create great space, not the other way around. Planners obsess about form because it’s something that is tangible, manageable, and programmable while communities can be unpredictable and the way people use space can be surprising. And that’s the point; chaos is our friend. More people, more chaos, more spontaneity is good for the economy, community, and public space. One need not look further than Burning Man for an example. A thousand people, even in a desert, will build a city, a community, and an economy—without urban planners.
Land Use, Rules, and Baseball
Baseball provides a useful analogy for how we should pursue land use regulation in a way that does not retard economic growth. There is a liturgical quality to baseball in our country. People go to “the game” because they like the sport, but there is another sense in which people go: they want community. The Game is where the people are, and where there are people there is an opportunity to simply be with other people while participating in the same activity.
The rules of baseball are set when we get to the ballpark, there is no sense in which I can influence those rules that day. The players, the managers, owners, coaches, and even the umpires cannot change the rules no matter how unfair they think they are. The umpires can interpret the rules and apply them, and the often make mistakes or make calls that are questionable. But at no time is there an opportunity, that day, to change the rules. Taken together, several seasons of play, might reveal that rules need to be changed. Perhaps, for example, the pitcher’s mound needs to be lowered or raised because there are too many or too few strikes being pitched.
Land use should be like baseball. We all love it but we don’t agitate for rule changes when there are bad buildings built, when someone gets a windfall, or when a project we like fails (even if we get upset). What we do is legislate broadly and sit back and watch what unfolds. If we don’t like what we see, we make adjustments, but we do not make rules up for every project; that makes as much sense as having the rule making body for baseball making rules up before every pitch to ensure the outcome.
Ceaseless tweaking and fussing by elected officials, planners, land use attorneys, and neighborhoods is keeping us from realizing the full potential of land in our city for the public good and the common wealth. We need to think through what we want to accomplish, make rules that set some broad limits, and then let things unfold. As long as buildings are safe for occupancy and effectively accommodate more people, it is less important how many units are built, what they look like, or how they are priced. A land use code for the 21st century would create space for innovation–and mistakes.