Home From Nowhere
James Howard Kunstler "Home From Nowhere," (September Atlantic ) is the Steve Forbes of urban development. As Forbes proposed to abolish the tax code to solve all our economic problems, Kunstler advocates eliminating land-use zoning to solve all our urban problems. I am no defender of highway strips and malls, but Kunstler's essay relies on several questionable assumptions: 1) that most people constantly notice and are depressed by the passing urban scene as they travel about; 2) that they would rather walk or bike than drive, regardless of weather, time of day, age, or need to transport children, pets, or objects; 3) that pre-zoning mixed uses would necessarily be preferable to whatever has been built since zoning arrived; and 4) that zoning is the root of all urban evil.
In fact, zoning may have been more influential by default than by design over the past three decades. Far more important factors have been the building of the interstate highway system, housing subsidies, economic restructuring and the rise of the service sector, the telecommunications and computer revolutions, fear of crime, the decline of central cities, school concerns, federal deregulation of S&L lenders, and federal tax deductions for mortgage interest, property taxes, and rapid depreciation of useless investment properties. All these have shaped our urban places for better or worse, and none involves zoning. Indeed, Forbes's concern about the tax code was closer to the root of our urban evils than Kunstler's fixation on zoning.
Rutherford H. Platt
James Kunstler undercuts his own good work by overstating the damage done by current zoning laws and understating everything else. If zoning were the chief culprit, then Houston, which has never had conventional zoning laws, would not now be even less livable than Los Angeles. And if the kind of town planning that Kunstler extols were all that was needed, then Savannah, Georgia -- which perhaps best meets Kunstler's criteria -- wouldn't have gone into a long decline. Or at least Broughton Street (its main business thoroughfare) would have kept pace with the rest of Savannah's restoration.
Sadly, other forces play a big role in the partial deconstruction of America's cities and towns. (Kunstler seems to have said as much in other writings.) Foremost, of course, is the automobile. Until our political system can reasonably assess the real costs associated with our "one car, no passenger" habits, there is little chance that changes in the zoning laws will much matter.
A well-designed ranch house can fit comfortably in a true neighborhood, and makes sense for people who cannot handle stairs (an increasing proportion of the population is elderly). To condemn horizontal windows as overly sensual is just plain silly. My childhood home had horizontal windows, and I can assure you that their orientation did not corrupt my morals in any way.
Susan K. Reynolds
James Kunstler seems to assume that in the absence of the current zoning, the kind of urban development he envisions would naturally appear. This is far from obvious. Citing the construction industry, car dealers, and politicians as the purveyors of "sprawl" (a pejorative term that does not even allow for the possibility of benefits associated with low-density development), Kunstler fails to consider the role of market forces. Isn't it possible that much of the built environment ultimately reflects the preferences of us, the consumers?
Many people don't want to live above shops. Such locations tend to be noisy and dirty, and inconvenient for autos. Many people prefer private space (large lots) to public space. Many enjoy the sense of privacy afforded by setbacks from the street. Many, many people like being able to drive everywhere and park nearby. Rather than shop in a neighborhood store, many people prefer to drive to a large store that offers a better selection and lower prices. Just last week in my city people lined up early in the morning to be among the first to shop at our new Wal-Mart on grand opening day.
In my view, zoning is sometimes good (when it protects citizens from environmental nuisances, and prevents unrestricted destruction of environmental amenities such as wetlands), sometimes bad (for example, when it has the effect of excluding low-income residents from a suburban jurisdiction), and often irrelevant (McDonald's would not build a restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood even in the absence of zoning).
A number of correspondents suppose that advocate the elimination of zoning and nothing more as the remedy for the disease of suburban sprawl. My article was precise and emphatic on this point:the gross abstractions of zoning must be replaced by the enduring principles of civic design. While some cities can, like Houston, achieve the miserable results of suburban sprawl without any rules whatever, zoning makes suburban sprawl mandatory and inevitable even in places with higher aspirations.
Particularly interesting, and shocking, are the comments of Professor Rutherford H. Platt. 1.) That most people are unaffected by the tawdriness of suburban sprawl. This is tantamount to a bald confession that the planning-and-zoning profession is unconcerned with whether its work produces human happiness or not. The salient characteristic of the human habitat in America today is that it is composed of places not worth caring about. The result will soon be a nation not worth defending. 2.)That I fail to recognize that people sometimes need to use cars. This is merely a silly inference. Rather, Iclearly advocate a human habitat that provides for pedestrians as well as motorists. 3.)That history, tradition, and human culture offer us nothing useful in respect to civic design. This has been the dogmatic position of many graduate schools of design since the Second World War. The ruined cities and ravaged countryside of America testify to the utter failure of this world view. 4.) That zoning is a straw man unfairly blamed for the ills of civic design in our age. In fact zoning is a set of explicit instructions, uniformly applied throughout the United States and given the force of law, under which it becomes impossible to construct the dwelling place of a true civilization.