Land Use

Urban Design Hipsters Are Evil


With top design professionals approving projects, West Belle Place can still be chic.

"Some historical context is in order," orders Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for the not-dying-fast-enough New Republic. Goldhagan's op-ed on urban planning and landmark preservation will surprise anybody who has ever tried to do anything involving real estate – from opposing Bruce Ratner's destruction of a Brooklyn neighborhood to trying to get permission to install a toilet – in New York City.

Writing in Los Tiempos de Nueva York, Goldhagen argues that what's holding our recessionary cities back is not the layers of bureaucracy that prevent everybody except bazillionaire developers from adding any value to the cityscape. Apparently we need even more layers of bureaucracy, but they have to be layered more prettily, or something: 

It's not preservation that's at fault, but rather the weakness, and often absence, of other, complementary tools to manage urban development, like urban planning offices and professional, institutionalized design review boards, which advise planners on decisions about preservation and development. 

It's that lack, and the outsize power of private developers, that has turned preservation into the unwieldy behemoth that it is today. 

Goldhagen is sticking up for building preservationists, who seek to prevent new projects in favor of maintaining antique buildings. Preservationists are under the "most high-profile attack on the movement yet" – Goldhagen's description of some criticisms of the movement by the Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas. 

There really are plenty of actual high-profile conflicts pitting preservationists against new homeowners, longtime homeowners, small businesspeople and others. But that's not what's at issue here. It's pretty revealing that the nitty-gritty of land use doesn't get as much attention as a complaint from an internationally celebrated architect. But Goldhagen would rather light a candle than curse our darkness: 

Instead of bashing preservation, we should restrict it to its proper domain. Design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions, should become an integral part of the urban development process. At the same time, city planning offices must be returned to their former, powerful role in urban policy.

Nice teeth, Rem.

To the extent that there's a moral difference between city planning apparatchiks and landmark busybodies, I'm a little more inclined toward the latter. The premise of the preservationists – that my aesthetic prejudices preempt your right to pursue happiness with property you have paid for – is reprehensible. But at least some preservationists are occasionally driven by genuine nostalgia. Planning, permitting and zoning hierarchies, on the other hand, would be rogues even if they were honest. (Which they are not: land use bureaucracies are legendary cesspools of corruption.) 

As described here, progressive-era land-use regulation was a protection for "urban dwellers" who "realized that developers…would never reliably serve the public interest." Goldhagen describes the Big Apple's 1916 zoning resolution as the turning point for an era of urban planning that has blessed us all despite occasional setbacks when "populist, antigovernment sentiment among voters began to shift power back into private hands." But future episodes of revanchism can be squelched by empowered design-review boards that will ensure "the public" loves both new and old buildings. 

In fact, New York's zoning resolution followed by more than half a decade the 1910 zoning law of Baltimore's progressive Mayor J. Barry Mahool, who explained that "Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority." 

There's plenty more like that in Christopher Silver's essay [pdf] "The Racial Origins of Zoning in American Cities." As anybody would expect whose nose is not buried in an issue of Architectural Digest (which isn't even about architecture!), laws designed to favor and exclude particular styles and behaviors have always been bound up with, and in many cases were preceded by, laws designed to favor and exclude particular people: 

Throughout the early 1900s, and well beyond 1917, racial zoning and its objectives remained a mainstay of many American planners. Racial zoning was not just a manifestation of the backward South out of touch with the mainstream of urban reform. Although the South invented and made wide use of racial zoning, the region relied on Northern planning consultants to devise legally defensible ways to segregate Black residential areas.

Racial zoning practices also transcended the South. Select Northern and Western cities, especially those where the Black population increased rapidly, also experimented with racial zoning. The nation's planning movement, not just its Southern branch, regarded land use controls as an effective social control mechanism for Blacks and other "undesirables." According to H. L. Pollard, a prominent Los Angeles land use attorney, "racial hatred played no small part in bringing to the front some of the early districting ordinances that were sustained by the United States Supreme Court, thus giving us our first important zoning decisions." Chicago, too, was a bastion of racial zoning enthusiasts. Despite evidence that the racial zoning movement was national in scope, it initially concentrated in Southern cities owing to the relative size of the Black community (which ranged between 30 and 50 percent of the population in many places), and it then spread northward and later westward in response to the migration of Southern Blacks.

It is also important to note that Southern cities experimented with racial zoning and comprehensive zoning in tandem with, and not merely in the wake of, land use regulation efforts elsewhere. The 1908 ordinance of Richmond, Virginia, to regulate the height and arrangement of buildings, which was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in 1910, "was used by proponents of zoning in New York City as a precedent for persuading the city and state legislatures to act favorably on their recommendation," and led to the landmark 1916 zoning ordinance, Also on the basis of the 1910 decision, Richmond drafted and enacted a racial zoning scheme early in 1911. Racial zoning in Southern cities was as much a foundation for overall land use regulations as were regulation of the garment industry in New York City or encroaching industrial uses in Los Angeles.

This is the part of the conversation where defenders of zoning ridicule the idea that we are still bound by the bigotries of our forebears. Sure, planning intervention still produces separate communities, but good taste knows no color (except maybe Burnt Sienna). We're well past that kind of narrow-mindedness, right? 

What planning department allowed this to be built?

I'm not so sure. The proud planning history of Los Angeles includes anti-Semitic zoning, Nat King Cole's one-man desegregation of Hancock Park, and racially restrictive "covenants" on property titles. Today, the favored term of zoning disparagement is the epithet "Persian Palace" to describe gaudy mansions built by Iranian-Americans. When you look at the type of people who end up on the receiving end of land-use enforcements – from rooster restrictions to harassment of Antelope Valley hillbillies by "nuisance abatement teams" to censorship of outsider artists via permitting requirements – they sure don't seem to be folks at the top of the food chain in terms of political influence. 

That's the attraction of urban planning: It allows discrimination but dresses it up as discriminating taste. 

I wouldn't expect these matters to be on the mind of a New Republic architecture critic. That is the problem. This kind of Platonic flapdoodle is easy in a world of design mavens who believe people would like housing projects if only they were drawn up by Rem Koolhaas. But the laws we're talking about produce non-theoretical misery for those Americans who, for a variety of reasons, are less than fully stylish. 

Courtesy of commenters xenia onatopp and P Brooks.

Bonus: The "Block Buster" episode of All In the Family, featuring the late, great Thalmus Rasulala:

NEXT: Ask a Libertarian with Reason's Nick Gillespie & Matt Welch, Coming Wed., June 15!

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  1. The pic, is that the dirty trick Anthony Weiner used to set off his career? *

  2. having worked in a small business that had to deal with zoning boards, I can tell you that these are merely classist structures used to preserve the status quo and consolidate power int the hands of officials and the elites that pay for their salaries/ vote for their bosses.

    1. shhh don’t mention “class” around the libertarians you’ll blow your cover!

  3. You mean the guy who’s going to design our housing development can’t even grow his own HAIR!?

    Come on!

  4. Out here in Bergen County, NJ, politicians are rather open about using zoning and planning to keep people from moving into town. More that one formal council member has said they don’t want apartment dwellers sending children to our schools. In the last election, a Democrat flier accused the Republican candidates of wanting apartments built in our town. The Republicans responded with a flier that denied the accusation.

    1. Which town in Bergen?

    2. Haddonfield, NJ in Camden County is the same way. They are all racist pricks who are “concerned” about the “beauty” of their town, and the “quality” of their schools.

      OTOH, residents of the Cramer Hill section of Camden City tried to stop the development of luxury townhouses along the river because they were afraid it would drive surrounding property values up, which would cause the rents to go up.

  5. Why is it the more brazenly stupid Times editorials never allow comments?

  6. I think the Goldhagens of the world are supremely unconcerned with the quality of life of people forced to pay too much or live elsewhere by their byzantine bureaucracies. Mostly, they are concerned about the view from their loft (or car) windows.

  7. I never really understood why the most planned cities in the country–LA–somehow ended up looking no better than the least–Houston.

    1. LA–somehow ended up looking no better than the least–Houston.

      Planned communities look no better, cost up to 5 times more and have more frequent race riots.

      1. 37% more race riots.

    2. Houston doesn’t have a formal zoning board, but developers and multiple land use requirements produce the same results. People tend to shape a community to fit their needs, despite the bureaucrats.

      1. People tend to shape a community to fit their needs, despite the bureaucrats.

        You mean insiders get to shape the community and they tend to look just like everywhere else….outsiders move elsewhere.

        Also mind you literally trillions of dollars vanished during the housing collapse. the vast majority of that loss was incurred in inflated planned markets.

        You are vastly underestimating the damage land use planning does.

        1. I’m confused – are the “insiders” the bureaucrats or the CEOs?

          Also am I underestimating the damage done by private land use planning or public land use planning?

          Sorry I’m a bit slow on the uptake.

      2. For an excellent “Libertarian” perspective on building, planning, zoning, check out Christopher Alexander’s books “The Timeless Way of Building”, “A Pattern Language” and “A New Theory of Urban Design”.

      3. And “Land Use Without Zoning” by Bernard Siegan.

        1. Thanks for the reference. Just found a bunch of new books to read.

  8. In East Wenatchee Washington some Federal program (housing authority?) was all set to build some migrant worker housing. The Douglas County Commissioners had their planning department shut down the whole thing because some neighbors didn’t want the Mexicans living in their neighborhood.

  9. Seattle has very distinct neighborhoods, and as I understand it, up until the 70’s the neighborhoods had charters with rules like “no Vietnamese and no blacks”. Seriously. “Preservation of the neighborhood” was literally flat out racism.

    1. Skid Row is for bums, for example.

      1. No, Pioneer Square is for bums.

        1. Same difference. The use of the term ‘skid row’ to refer to urban areas originated in Seattle at Pioneer Square.

      2. I thought it was for man eating plant-like aliens?

    2. Everyone in the Pacific Northwest looks like bums to me.

      1. It’s hard to look prosperous in flannel.

  10. Yeah. I always cringe when I find old titles and covenents on homes which feature the paragraphs describing that no Chinese, Hispanics, or Negroes may reside in the home (unless hired as a permanent helper). I never really thought of it as a function of zoning/ planning/ land use. Screw those central planners and their shitty plan! Also, on a side note, I’m embarassed to be a member of the National Association of Realtors. However, I need membership to conduct my business (MLS access, etc.). I was wondering if there are any real estate agents on these boards that have figured out a work-around for this problem? Thanks!

    1. “Yeah. I always cringe when I find old titles and covenents on homes which feature the paragraphs describing that no Chinese, Hispanics, or Negroes may reside in the home (unless hired as a permanent helper). I never really thought of it as a function of zoning/ planning/ land use. Screw those central planners and their shitty plan!”…..buying.htm
      (via )

      HOA Rules – Why is it Necessary in Home Buying
      By Flynna Jones
      International Business Times
      03 March 2010 @ 09:54 am EDT

      Each homeowners association has covenants, conditions and restrictions or also known as CCR. They are normally related to deed restrictions or restrictive covenants. All things pointed out in the agreement will firmly be imposed to homeowners in order to maintain the property as well as the value of the community. It restricts the building materials to be utilized in constructing homes and the kind of home upgrades allowed. Moreover, they set the allowable number of occupants per house, the kind of pets that are permitted and the race of persons who can stay in the community.

      1. Stay classy, IB Times.

  11. Still, no one is suffering more from building code laws than this guy, who might see seven years in prison over them.

    1. Reminds me of this guy.

      Yes, this my hometown.

  12. Also, what’s with the rooster example. Frankly, urban roosters are a menace.

    1. This is speciesism, straight up.

  13. There’s no need for it to be put there,” said Anderson, adding that he feels the county gives more consideration to builders than neighbors.

    In other words Mr Anderson thinks neighbors should be given more rights to a person’s property then the actual owner gets.

    No wonder property owners are bribing officials.

    1. If you’d prefer, we could always have lots and lots and lots of nuisance suits. Personally I don’t think that’s much of an improvement over zoning. I’m hardly alone in that point of view.

  14. from opposing Bruce Ratner’s destruction of a Brooklyn neighborhood

    I totally read this as Bruce Banner’s destruction of a Brooklyn neighborhood. Which wouldn’t surprise me as much.

  15. I like how the pro-segregation photo marked all the black homes with an X and then gave the exact location so KKK members would have no problem firebombing the right ones.

    I hate the fucking left.


      Dude you have to read the whole book!


      Dude you have to read the whole book!


      Dude you have to read the whole book!

  16. Would a 92 year-old man riding a skateboard in Love Park be considered a “hipster”?

  17. “the nitty-gritty of land use”
    …has nothing to do with this article nor any of the brilliant comments above. for example, a large retail outlet (LRO) develops a megastore on a lot abutting my residential neighborhood where street parking is already extremely tight and traffic extremely congested. Unfortunately there isn’t enough room for an adequate loading dock, so LRO places storage containers over street parking spots. Residential street is now flooded with delivery trucks, pretty metal boxes, air brake noises and beeping reverse indicators. On the one hand, this sucks, but on the other hand, if I resort to the enforcement of zoning ordinances…I’m a racist???

    1. Ben|6.13.11 @ 9:45PM|#
      “..I’m a racist???”

      Dunno, but you’re certainly a stupid shit posting some imagined hypothetical as a supposed justification for your statist bias.

      1. Certainly not.…..street.php

        I guess that leaves you with “Dunno.” You’re kind of a jerk too. Care to actually defend your point of view instead of name-calling.

        1. That’s not remotely a zoning issue, using public right-of-way for loading docks rans afoul of fire, police, and public works regulations.

    2. No, you’re only a racist if you don’t like any of Obama’s policies.

      1. No, you’re racist if you don’t like all of Obama’s policies.

        1. You say potato, I say po-tot-o. Let’s just call each other racist.

  18. Back in the old days I used to love how joe would try to distinguish between “zoning” and “snob zoning”.

    We’re so lucky not to have him around.

  19. Can’t we agree that hipsters are pure evil anyways?

  20. This article does a good job of highlighting some problems with zoning and preservation. But, it also oversimplifies the issue by suggesting that the removal of all regulation and oversight will somehow magically generate vibrant, livable cities that will stand the test of time. The state can play a useful role in guiding urban development, just as it can play a destructive role. We should focus on doing planning and preservation better, rather than abdicating all responsibility to private interests who often have short term outlooks and questionable aesthetic taste.

    P.S. most of the comments on this article are shit. Just another reminder that a ‘totally free market’ can produce poor results.

    1. Oh my yes. I guess I shouldn’t have been expecting high discourse attached to such a hyperbolically titled article. So many things conflated in this article and in the comments… it’s hard to unravel all of it.

      I think most planners of the current generation would agree that *euclidean* zoning has some major faults. Euclidean zoning, after all, had the effect of reducing density and land use mix–two things that most progressive planners would champion these days. In many ways, we’re being forced to clean up a good deal of mess that the preceding generation of planning tools left us with.

      As an evil liberal socialist hipster planner, I find myself supporting market-oriented solutions more and more. I also don’t think that I’m alone amongst the new breed of planners. An understanding of public goods theory helps explain a lot–parking, congestion, sprawl–all the biggies. But I’ve also noticed that applying economics to planning tends to make me really unpopular at suburban dinner parties.

      Price parking at market rates? Socialist! Price roadways to capture the externalities of driving (and reduce congestion at peak times)? We’ll take our congestion, thank you! Use marginal pricing rather than average pricing for goods (like water, sewer, transportation) delivered by ‘lumpy’ municipal infrastructure investments? I’m probably mad. 🙂

      1. Also, alternatives to euclidean zoning do exist, and we’d do well to consider them. Transect zoning, form based codes, performance zoning, and progressive zoning (e.g. your development’s height is limited to your neighbor’s height, plus X%) are all options.

        Planning will always be hard and hated because it sits between squarely between freedom and social contract. If being called evil is the worst the libertarians can muster, have at 😉

  21. Why do you lump laws against roosters in with the rest? Roosters keep neighbors awake. Therefore the neighbors have every right to ban them from cities.

    In a perfect world, there would be no restrictions on an owner’s use of his property except contracts and the common law of nuisances. But anything that keeps the neighbors from sleeping in their own beds certainly qualifies as a public nuisance.

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