When local governments make residential land use determinations, the primary responsibility is to promote measures designed to strengthen the wellbeing of the citizens they serve. For most people, this means safety, security, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. When it comes to city planning, governments have been unwittingly pursuing the wrong course for decades. Many of us reflect on the nostalgic notion of bustling main streets filled with people, shops, and cafes. We think of town squares and public places where neighbors socialize with each other and reinforce their sense of community.
Now think of modern suburbia. Cities are planned in distinct zones to segregate land uses. The streets are wide enough for a train to turn around and sidewalks are so narrow two people can’t comfortably walk side by side. To get anywhere, a car is necessary. Setbacks for commercial and residential uses alike result in enormous parking lots and long driveways. Fences abound, further encouraging isolation. As we have come to learn through sad experience, good fences make good strangers. Once a fence goes up, casual interactions, which are the life breath of communities, wither and fade.
All these attributes of development have their proper place. When it comes to development and redevelopment, the role of government of officials is to foster smart planning and usage. The biggest problems today are the policies and ordinances which continue to promote segregation of uses and discourage pedestrian traffic. More than an overused cliché, variety really is the spice of life. Thoughtful application of mixed land uses is the best antidote for urban sprawl. Integrating a variety of densities where commercial and residential uses comingle is a good start.
This is where the traditional model of builder-developer subdivisions fails the general public. Developments controlled by builders complying with commonplace zoning ordinances create segregation and prevent variety. Production builders offer a limited number of stock home plans meeting a specific demographic. The joke prevails that when driving through a subdivision like this, the only way to know which home is yours is to push the garage door opener and see which one goes up.
Fortunately there is a better way. Movements incorporating design principles like New Urbanism are an attempt to reverse these trends. Although new urbanism doesn’t solve every problem, and other planning philosophies exist, it is a great place to start. Government officials have a responsibility to understand the long term impacts of the policies governing their jurisdictions and plan accordingly. In an environment where mixed use is strongly encouraged, variety is restored and communities are strengthened.
Governments everywhere are called upon to revisit their zoning ordinances. Every aspect of the traditional planning model should be reexamined. Allowing integration of housing types accommodating a variety of sizes, income levels, styles, and densities has desirable outcomes. Incorporating wider sidewalks and narrower streets while mixing a multitude of uses inspires a pedestrian friendly, community oriented lifestyle.
A good starting point is to require builder-developers to open their developments to all builders and allow for the sale of building lots on the open market. Home builders will still be able to carry on their business, and will actually have more options for meeting the needs of prospective buyers. In the end, variety will prevail and everyone wins.