Every community across the land can and should revise their zoning and subdivision regulations — a move that will build sustainability and resilience, increase affordability, and improve quality of life, say the authors of a new book published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
In Reinventing Development Regulations (Paperback / $35.00 / 213 pages / ISBN 978-1-55844-372-3) two well-known experts — urban designer Jonathan Barnett and real-estate lawyer Brian W. Blaesser — argue for major adjustments to land use regulations that are within existing legal frameworks and respectful of property rights, making the politics of the necessary changes much more manageable. Their recommendations include integrating development with natural ecosystems and using regulations to manage climate change locally — particularly urgent for communities confronting wildfires, floods, and volatile weather, which will become even more serious problems as global warming continues.
“This is an eminently practical guide to transforming development rules to deal with some of the most pressing challenges faced by communities today,” said Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chair of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute. The work spells out “a robust set of measures that can be implemented primarily at the local level.”
Development regulations determine the urban form of our cities, suburbs, and towns, and have a huge impact on the natural environment, influencing how, when, and where real estate development occurs. Development regulations can help solve pressing land use and environmental problems. But current regulations have structural deficiencies and biases that must be corrected to achieve public objectives for land use and development in balance with market realities.
Most zoning maps show only zones, roads, and property boundaries — omitting buildings, topography, streams, flood plains, and other natural features. Changing official zoning maps so they incorporate these elements of a living ecosystem and pinpoint locations of existing buildings will make it easier to develop sustainably and adapt to the effects of climate change, the authors argue. Most current zoning regulations and subdivision regulations also encourage undesirable growth patterns — such as the ubiquitous suburban corridors along highways with narrow strips of commercial buildings surrounded by parking lots, and housing tracts with hundreds or even thousands of similar houses on same-sized lots. Instead, the authors say, walkable neighborhoods with a mix of different housing types and compact, mixed-use business centers could be built today, if the regulations that stand in their way are modified.
While some advocate jettisoning outdated zoning and starting over, Barnett and Blaesser lay out strategies to amend existing regulations to promote better land use without disrupting the basic governance frameworks and real estate markets of cities, towns, and suburbs. The right regulations can help cities, towns, and suburbs preserve the natural environment, create desirable civic places, conserve historic buildings, reduce housing inequality, ease the pressures for urban sprawl and deal with floods, erosion, and wildfire, without infringing upon fundamental property rights.
- Relate development to the natural environment. Current regulations recognize land as a commodity, but not a living ecosystem. The authors show how to incorporate modern environmental information into a regulatory framework that, up to now, has been largely blind to it.
- Manage climate change locally. The consequences of a changing climate, particularly flooding and wildfire, have an increasing effect on land use and development. While the problem is global, there is a significant role for local governments in both mitigating climate change and adapting to it through changes to the way development regulations are written and implemented.
- Encourage walking by mixing land uses and housing types. Walking is the most efficient form of transportation for distances of a quarter of a mile, and very competitive with buses and even taxis for up to half a mile. Walking is also important for maintaining health. Current regulations make it difficult to develop walkable neighborhoods and business centers.
- Preserve historic landmarks and districts. Much of the success of historic preservation has been achieved in opposition to zoning and other regulations that are designed to facilitate new development. There are ways to bring designated historic buildings and districts into harmony with regulations where permitted development creates an incentive to tear down a historic structure.
- Create more affordable housing and promote environmental justice. Zoning and subdivision regulations have been used as a way to exclude low-income people from some communities, and the location of industry and infrastructure has had a disproportionately negative effect on low-income communities. The book addresses how to mitigate these biases in the existing regulatory system.
- Establish design principles and standards for public spaces and buildings. Zoning and subdivision regulations have been written to prevent the worst development, not to encourage the best. Regulations can be used to foster better design for the places most important to the public.
- Implement regulations while safeguarding private property interests. Any overhaul must be informed by an understanding of fundamental legal principles essential to safeguarding private property interests in the formulation and implementation of regulations, and in government decision-making on proposed development projects.
Reinventing Development Regulations made its debut at the 18th annual Big City Planning Directors Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The gathering of city planning directors from the U.S. and around the world, many of whom say their cities are overhauling zoning, is a partnership of the Lincoln Institute, the American Planning Association, and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
Christopher B. Leinberger, author at the George Washington University School of Business and The Brookings Institution, described Reinventing Development Regulations as “readable … technically and legally rigorous,” and a comprehensive look at “how we invest society’s wealth in where live, work, and build.”