Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why central governments should intervene in zoning

Recently, both Charlie Gardner on Old Urbanist and Brandon Donnelly on Architect This City wrote about zoning and the role of central governments in it. In the United States, and largely in Canada too (except Ontario), zoning and planning is a very local affair, with cities being almost exclusively in charge of it. The basic idea seems to be: "the more local the decision-making, the better it is", even urbanist circles tend to like the idea of local communities being involved and taking charge of their development.

I've already given my interest in the Japanese model where the central government defines allowed zoning practices and described how local dynamics protect zoning changes, but I'd like to return to this point about why, according to democratic principles, central governments are justified to intervene in zoning and planning of cities or at least to establish clear guidelines to limit local control.

How central zoning and local zoning differ

In general, the more centralized the zoning, the more it allows density, development and redevelopment. The more localized it is, the less development it allows. 

Why is that? Because central governments tend to not be really reactive to local concerns but to take a wider point of view. So central governments tend to be more interested in developments that will help the economy and they touch a lot of issues, so local issues are less important for general elections, even if they may have impact in a few ridings or regions.

Local governments are much closer to people and are involved in few things, most power typically resides in central governments. So local elections tend to have few issues and to draw in fewer voters, which makes any issue able to galvanize a motivated minority extremely sensitive to local politicians. Even riling up a few dozen voters can result in an electoral loss. So local politicians walk on eggshells all the time and are extremely careful not to provoke local resentment.

Now, a lot of urbanists and other people hear that and say "Local politicians react better to local concerns? Great! We should decentralize as much as possible to allow communities more power on their own development!".

However, the greater disconnect of central governments isn't necessarily a bug, but a feature. Being responsive to specific demands tend to mean governing in an arbitrary fashion, which destabilizes society and spreads uncertainty. Central governments may be slow to react, but this isn't necessarily bad in all cases. Is it the rule of law if politicians change the laws to their liking every 6 months based on specific applications of it? Central governments are also much more likely to be willing to make the hard decision that is unpopular in the short term, but necessary for society in the long term. Not to say they often do it, but they still do it way more often than local governments.

There is a compromise here between local and central governing.

Local democracy or local tyranny?

Regarding the specific issue of zoning and planning new developments in built out areas, there is a further issue that, in my opinion, necessitates non-local intervention. 

Generally, proponents for local control of zoning and planning tend to explain that as the local community is most affected by developments, they should have their say on it. Fair enough, but are they the only ones affected by developments? No, they are not. The people who would be affected by them go far beyond the local community.

For instance, let's imagine a proposal to build high-density mutli-family apartments near a commercial zone in the middle of a low-density suburb, defined by lots of single-family housing. Now it's true that the coming of dense housing will affect local residents who will see the look of their neighborhood change, and their view may be affected (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse). But they're not the only ones who have some skin in the game. There are a lot of people outside that community who may be looking exactly for this type of housing, apartments near commercial zones, and exactly in that same area. If the development goes through, many people will benefit from them and hurry to buy these apartments, which may be more affordable or better suited to their needs. 

But there is a problem, these people who would benefit from the development aren't currently local residents because the area just doesn't offer them the type of housing that they can afford/desire. Based on the theory of local control of zoning and planning, they have no say in whether or not the development gets through. They are mere spectators with no one speaking up for them and their interests, except maybe the developer (who is not doing this for selfless reasons, but his interests coincide with his future clients').

Democracy is "one man, one vote", but here, all the people who would benefit from the proposal tend to be deprived of their vote because they happen not to live in the area, and the reason they don't live in the area is because the current form of it is not compatible to their needs... but it would be if allowed to develop.

Nice trick, eh? People need to be local residents to have a voice on whether the development gets through, but they can't become local residents unless the development gets through.

That is why I completely support central governments intervening in local issues of zoning and planning, to defend the interests of people who are not currently residing in the area but who are nonetheless impacted by the discussions taking place about a potential project. Giving the right of life and death to local residents alone is, in a way, tyranny of local interests over the interests of society as a whole.

Can't we get local residents to support developments instead?

Many people may agree with my assessment but not with my conclusion, and wish to preserve local control, simply to find ways to make local residents friendlier to developments. Unfortunately, I just don't think there is a plausible solution to that problem.

The issue is that local residents tend to have chosen to live in an area based on how it was back when they moved in. New developments that represent an evolution of the area and some change will rarely get much approval from them. Why would they? New developments tend to build housing and commercial projects for people who are different from them, so they often don't benefit directly from them. Compatible developments are fine, for instance, big box stores at highway interchanges in car-dependent suburbs are perfectly compatible with people's current way of life. But developments to bring in a more urban lifestyle and to offer denser residential areas don't tend to benefit directly to local residents in car-dependent areas.

For instance, if you build condos and people ask what they gain from it, you could say "Well, now you can buy a modern, affordable condo" and they'd reply "What do I care? I already own a house that is bigger and that I need for my family". If you want to build an urban-style main street, you could say "Now, you will be able to shop on your bike or on foot" and most of them would reply "What do I care? I already am able to fulfill all my shopping needs at the power center at a 5-10 minute drive from my house" (that is often shortsighted as they would benefit, but many do not see it at first).

So since local residents often don't benefit directly from more urban developments, they will split up in two groups:
  1. The NIMBY who oppose the development
  2. The people I'd call the WGAF (Who Gives A Fuck?) who don't care either way as they don't feel it affects them in any way
The NIMBY may be a minority, but they will speak up, often vehemently. The disinterested will just not voice their opinions. So the resultant noise will tend to be heavily against new developments, even if the majority would actually be fine with it happening.

You just cannot change that basic dynamic. To get local residents to support the project, you need to convince them that they stand to benefit directly from it. This is much harder than it sounds because, in many cases, they would only benefit by changing their lifestyle, and in other times they just don't really benefit from them at all.

One of the solutions that is sometimes proposed is to get developers to make concessions to local residents and essentially bribe them with goodies. For instance, having to pay to repair sewers and roads in other parts of the community, or building new parks or plazas for all to enjoy. Essentially, they're saying "okay, you don't benefit from the development, but we'll buy you other stuff with the money we get from it, so you'll benefit from it, we promise you".

Personally, I find such "compromise" really bad and even basically unjust. Why should new residents have to shoulder all the costs of providing for new public goods that all will benefit from? These costs will be reflected in the price of housing and make housing less affordable.

We could try to change mentalities and let people be more tolerant of changes and make contesting new developments harder. However, the usual way of changing mentalities to be more tolerant is... to make the NIMBY lose and break their spirit. When they organize, protest and speak loudly, and still lose, they get demotivated and are less likely to find the enthusiasm to organize another protest. And such losses can often only be dealt with central government support.

In conclusion

In order to balance the interests of the local community and the interests of larger society who are silenced when zoning and planning decisions are left to the local level, central governments of some kind should be involved in local planning. This may take many forms, but setting up guidelines from which local authorities cannot deviate that allows for some form of development seems to me the best and easiest way to seek a compromise.


  1. I think it would be helpful for you to elaborate on how you think the central government should intervene in zoning questions. I certainly see your point regarding non-residents being absent from the decision making process, but I'm curious how you think this should work in practice. The devil is in the details with this sort of proposal, and any attempt to change the status quo will require some pretty compelling arguments.

    1. I like the Japanese system personally, determining what form zoning can take by defining zones and allowing cities only to pick and choose amongst zones that:
      1- Are mixed use
      2- Bundle high-density residential with commercial and office zones (so cities are forced to accept multifamily apartments where jobs and stores are)
      3- Get rid of extreme height limits

      In essence, the central government creates a standardized zoning system and then leaves the application to cities.

      At the very least, I think it is crucial to implement a "residential is residential" rule to ban any and all zoning from differentiating between residential types. We can keep setbacks and limits on height and the like, but they wouldn't have the right to say "only single-family housing". If the zoning calls for an height limit of 2 stories, a duplex is just as allowed as a bungalow or as two townhouses on one lot.

      Another approach could be a regional plan for all metropolitan areas with clear density objectives for every city. In Montréal, there has been something like this done, a metropolitan plan of sustainable development has been signed by all cities in the area. It isn't clear if this was under the impulse of the provincial government or not, documents I find do not mention where it comes from, only that cities had to agree to one by 2012, at which time the provincial government recognized it. This plan gives all cities density targets in TOD areas.

      Such an approach isn't perfect, cities over deal with density obligations by building condos as "walls" along highways to protect single-family neighborhoods from the visual and auditive pollution of them, but it has allowed for a lot more dense constructions.

      So these are just a few approaches:
      -Standardized zoning by the central government
      -Government imposing limits or banning certain zoning practices outright
      -Establishing targets for cities to respect in terms of density or other quantitative objectives

    2. "At the very least, I think it is crucial to implement a "residential is residential" rule to ban any and all zoning from differentiating between residential types. We can keep setbacks and limits on height and the like, but they wouldn't have the right to say "only single-family housing". If the zoning calls for an height limit of 2 stories, a duplex is just as allowed as a bungalow or as two townhouses on one lot."

      I strongly agree on this point, and was going to write a follow-up post on this very topic. The early zoning proponents, under the assumption that single-family zoning was legally problematic, discussed using height/bulk regulations to achieve essentially the same end. However, this approach has a natural limitation in that even single-family homeowners will not want to greatly limit the potential size of their homes simply to exclude small multifamily housing (granted, this anti-large house sentiment does exist today in certain places under certain conditions, but it is not the norm). As a matter of fact, where demand is high, SF houses are being broken up into apartments anyways:

      Since this practice is illegal, however, it results in poor living conditions that lack basic amenities (e.g., no separate kitchens, since getting a permit for them would be impossible).