How Zoning Laws Ruined American Streets

How Zoning Laws Ruined American Streets

In the first half of the 20th century, the new city was emerging. The number of vehicles on American streets was swelling.

In response, city planning offices embarked on widening streets, designing them around easier commutes for drivers. The newfound ability to commute by car gave city planners the opportunity to further disperse segments of society—industry over there, residents here, businesses elsewhere. Suburban living was no longer a dream. It was here.

Importantly, an abundance of homes intended for a single, middle-class family—homes of a minimum size but a maximum height—had become the first and last premise of city planning offices, which had begun confining wide swaths of the city’s land for single-family home use.

“Single-family zoning,” viewed as an incubator of “civic and social values of the American home,” had come of age.

Screen capture from IHS op-ed video on urbanism with the text single family home floating above blue prints

But these homes weren’t available to everyone. Unable to afford them, the urban poor crowded into a dwindling stock of multi-family homes. When that was no longer an option, they fled to large, monolithic buildings in the park—public housing projects erected just for them—on the edge of town. Others left the city entirely. Many aging but vibrant businesses and homes fell victim to zoning laws and “blight” rules, giving way to parking spaces, wider streets and even more single-family homes.

These brushstrokes are broad, but across averages, they paint an accurate picture. Single-family zoning, wide streets, the separation of residents from businesses, the attempted exile of America’s poor from the city’s heart—these efforts led by top modernist city planners were proudly touted as the sort of “urban renewal” that history would be sure to smile on. And it was these same efforts that led journalist and social theorist Jane Jacobs to write: “This isn’t the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.”

Jacobs was right. History isn’t smiling. But why did the modernists think it would?

Our new video featuring my friend and Purchase College professor Sandy Ikeda, an expert on economics of cities, suggests an answer:



Partial screen capture from IHS op-ed video on urbanism of the zoning map from Columbus, Ohio“The idea of neatly designing our cities is tempting,” the video says in closing. “But learning to appreciate the emergent, and complex orders of the people who live in them might help us better shape them for the future.”

The temptation to neatly design things from a god’s-eye view isn’t reserved to early 20th century city planning offices. It’s an impulse that cuts across institutions and ideologies. Toward the end of The Counter-Revolution of Science, Friedrich Hayek wrote: “It may indeed prove to be far the most difficult and not the least important task for human reason rationally to comprehend its own limitations.”

Not understanding the complexity and unpredictability of masses of people—too often seeing their cumulative actions as 1) solvable, and 2) needing solving—was where the modernists fell short. Perhaps a better understanding of the limits of the central planner could have stayed 20th century bulldozers and preserved the social capital and livelihoods that they took with them.

That sort of education has been our endeavor at the Institute for Humane Studies for nearly 60 years, and it’s to that education that we dedicate our future.

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