Collective Individualism

I am quick to defend individual property rights – the right to build pretty much whatever one wants on the property they own. Every ground up project is initially prescribed by regulation – both zoning and building codes impose limits that define forms and mass before an Architect ever puts pen to paper. I recognize the value of zoning limits and, to a degree, I find this legislative intent important to consult but I am a sure skeptic of governmental oversight of land use. It is on the one hand obvious that separating slaughterhouses from day care centers is a good idea but on the other zoning regulations can often be too strict or far reaching and the consequences affect not only individual liberty, but also a macro-diversity in the built environment which is both pleasing and which fosters community in the best sense of the word.

Zoning codes reflect a well intended effort to bring order to the burst of growth in the early industrialized and newly populous cities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This willy nilly development was characterized by density and mixed use (factories next to apartments) and the resulting places were dirty, smelly, unsafe and unhealthy. Various “city beautiful” movements sprang up in response to these conditions which when coupled with inadequate building safety regulations and sheer criminality led to episodes like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory tragedy. But as is so often the case, the best of legislative intent took the form of governmental overreach and the result is a sprawling, disconnected and inefficient built environment. The situation has only been amplified over time as the conditions these codes were designed to address gave way to much more complex and interdependent social and technological sets. Perpetuating anti-density and anti-mixed use sentiment has had disastrous implications for America’s cities and suburbs. Cities, like Philadelphia has undertaken a total reordering of their zoning codes in response to new realities. It is a huge and difficult task on that scale – to formulate broad reaching controls for a huge swath of land populated by economically and ethnically diverse groups; studded by very old buildings; and steeped in history. The city was right to recognize that the old rules simply didn’t apply anymore and I applaud their forward looking efforts. The new code has to be enduring; has to strike a balance of so many different vital elements of different weights. I imagine an incredibly complex Calder mobile with a thousand pieces of different colors and textures and images all of different weights suspended over the whole city. Perhaps the greatest challenge is in the writing and the associated interpretation because zoning codes must have a deft touch – not too strong and not too weak. People must have the freedom to do what they want, to take chances and push boundaries. It is time for all municipalities and regional authorities throughout the land to take a new look at their zoning ordinances. Their outdated rules have resulted in a stultified uninspired landscape. Next post I’ll discuss the other factors conspire to commodify the built environment. These too run counter to the notion of American individualism. Because even while theoretically people might be free to put whatever they want on their land, they most often choose to put the same thing as everyone else.