City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form (Book Review)

City Rules
Promo image. City Rules; Island Press

City Rules; Island Press/Promo image

The internet, the magazines and TreeHugger are full of everything from wonderful new tiny prefabs on wheels to glorious green towers, innovative and different forms of housing that everyone thinks are so wonderful and the answer to our problems. But we never actually see them happen, because we all forget one thing: they are, in so many cases, illegal, because they don't fit the rules.

That is why Emily Talen's new book CITY RULES: How Regulations Affect Urban Form is so interesting and important. It makes totally clear that architects and designers don't determine how small or big or what form to make our houses, the rules do. And those rules are often arbitrary, capricious and stupid.

It was a daunting book to pick up; one doesn't usually think "lets get comfy and sidle up to the fireplace and read about how regulations affect building form." But when you see Jim Kunstler blurbing on the back cover "The fiasco of suburban sprawl begins with the nuts and bolts of our laws, which guarantee a tragic outcome", you are intrigued. Then when you start reading, you are completely sucked in.

Because the fact of the matter is, this is the reality of architecture and urban design, the rules and the bylaws determine everything, even when they don't. It is true that they are made to be broken; I recently had a conversation with a prominent lawyer in Toronto who does rezonings and her interpretation of the zoning bylaw is that when it comes to height and density, "that is where you start." I have admired the work of architects like Toronto's SuperKul who treat the zoning bylaws and the building codes as intellectual games to twist and turn like a Rubiks cube.

But for the great majority of the world, the rules rule, and what we get is what they tell us we will get.

New York Zoning Map

City of New York/Public Domain


The surprising thing about zoning rules is that they actually were formed to protect the poor. In New York, economic pressures were pushing for higher densities, and planners were worried about the effects.

Studies suggested that congested streets led to juvenile delinquency, and excessive stair climbing was bad for women....Zoning was initially case as a means of keeping housing costs down for the working class. The way European planners saw it, apartment buildings were inflating the cost of land, and density reductions via zoning would alleviate that pressure. Aspects of this logic transferred to the United States. In 1912 a Philadelphia engineer wrote in the American City that zoning rested on the principle that "the economic progress of the nation and the integrity of its social fabric should transcend the prerogative of the individual."

Of course, the opposite happened; Talen notes that where zoning was supposed to address public health, it "contributed to health problems by spreading people out, increasing their reliance on cars and a sedentary lifestyle", and we are now seeing a lot of old people trapped in their houses and unable to get to a doctor because there is no transit.

It was also supposed to protect the poor, and instead it "segregated the wealthy away from poor people and did nothing to promote better urban form in poor areas."

Urban Patterns

It is interesting to read how building restrictions once existed to stop the spread of development into agricultural land; in Elizabethan England, you could only build on top of existing foundations. In 1875 Prussia, the bylaws "prohibited construction on greenfields that lacked public utilities and infrastructure."

Now, we get bylaws that just about prohibit anything but sprawl, that can "be used to exclude certain segments of the population by making higher density , more affordable housing types infeasible." We get example after example of plans with weak limits on block length, weak connectivity, and zero attention to the pedestrian realm. Instead we get the promotion of private, rear yard space and a public face that is little more than a wall of garage doors.

Zoning conflicts new york

City Rules; Island Press/Public Domain


One can see a logical basis for restrictions on use; you don't want to put an abattoir next to a residential district. On the other hand, you don't want to put the factories too far from where the workers live. Or, you don't want to put poor people where the rich people live.

Unfortunately, these bylaws and rules carry over to today; in many municipalities, zones have minimum floor area requirements specifically to keep out small houses; so much for the Tiny House movement. They don't allow for second units on a property, that might turn into a slum; so much for the granny flat and back lane housing movement. Everybody talks about the need to increase density, but literally, not in my backyard.

It is a difficult job, finding the right mix; in 1916 New York they tried "to separate the stores from the residence districts, and yet not put them too far away, but always have them within reach." Today of course, within reach means driving to the mall, the same principle blown up to a completely different scale.

The use rules are also coming back to bite us; many people now working from home are in fact, doing it illegally. Cities are beginning to wonder about if teleworkers should be paying residential or commercial tax rates.


© City Rules; Island Press


Restrictions on building form make Manhattan the wonderful sight that it is, with the setback requirements giving buildings their distinctive wedding cake shape. But Talen also explains how rules on form can be much more subtle and just as important, with something as simple as the curve radius required at corners. As curve radii go from five feet to fifty, you get a completely different pattern and scale.

Rules determining street width, building height, setback, and lot coverage have produced an urban form that in twenty-first century America, has little ability to define space. Instead, rules have prioritized traffic flow and parking provision, health effects and fire prevention, often based on reasoning that no longer holds.

But what is the alternative?

Today, zoning rules are under attack from economists like Edward Glaeser and Ryan Avent, who claim that they are keeping density down and increasing the cost of housing. But as the planners of 1916 knew, and is still true today, the price of land is a function of the allowable zoning, and if you double the density, it doesn't halve the cost of land. Look at Toronto, in a building boom; the towers get taller but the price per square foot doesn't go down, it goes up. Zoning drives the economics of the development industry, but if smartly done, that can be a very good thing.

On the other side, we still have officials and planners that defend sprawl as the American Dream unfolding before your eyes", and don't get me started on Agenda 21.

Yet in a system with proper controls, Andres Duany writes that form-based codes can "actually protect the public realm from politicians, fire marshals, corporate interests, engineers, the architectural avant garde and the "vicissitudes of ownership."

Talen concludes:

gaining better, more sustainable cities, places that are walkable, diverse, compact, and beautiful- will require strong public support and, along with it , a new approach to the rules of city making.

Looking at what is happening in North America today, I wonder if we are up to it.