Thursday, January 19, 2012

More visionaries

Today's WSJ includes "Zoning Laws Grow Up".  Here are some choice bits:
… times have changed and so has the New York City Zoning Resolution, which just passed its 50th anniversary last month. Once regarded with frustration and loathing, zoning in middle age is hot, the cougar of urban regulatory devices: more flexible and dynamic than ever. Actually, urban planners are more likely to invoke a thermostat metaphor—noting that zoning can raise or lower the habitability of the city by degrees. The layperson might also think of it as planning's magic wand—an implementation technique, not an avoid-at-all-costs, manipulate-as-possible rule or regulation.

… And in the Bloomberg administration, as wielded by the New York City Planning Commission and its director, Amanda Burden, zoning has assumed a more activist role than ever before. It not only shapes the blocks and writes the skyline, but also aims to curb obesity by offering incentives for fresh-food markets in low-income neighborhoods; buck up the mom-and-pop store; and promote an astonishing range of other quality-of-life benefits.

… "Zoning has always concerned itself, for better or worse, with social matters, such as banishing noxious uses," said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. "What's different now is that the planning commission is moving from zoning that's negative on social issues to being positive, like mandating green markets and bike rooms. It's reasonable for city government to encourage people to move in a beneficial direction. Whether zoning is the correct device is another matter. A market person might say it's better to go with incentives than mandates."

… Last month, the planning commission submitted a new initiative to public review. Called Zone Green, it will promote energy efficiency by making it easier to add photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, greenhouses and shading devices to the roofs and sides of older buildings. On Jan. 3, Commissioner Burden introduced a zoning amendment that will preserve small shops on avenues with a residential character and force new banks on the Upper West Side to shift most of their services from extended street fronts to second-floor locations. "We want New York to be a walkable city," Ms. Burden said, "with active, tree-lined streets and active retail frontages. This modest proposal will preserve that small-store character by allowing stores and banks a maximum of 25 feet on the street."

"Zoning is not going to solve world peace," she said in a recent interview. "But if we can figure out the issues now and address them, we can lay the foundations for the next administration so that what we start now will carry New York City into a better future."
This is exactly where I was not going in yesterday's post.  It's hard enough to figure out where the bus routes should go, so why not plan everything else too?  Do few things and do them well?  Or try the opposite?
NYC is an attractive place and officials think they can, therefore, set a high bar.  But can they ever know enough to get it right?  Can the rent-seekers be kept at bay?  What are the costs of the high bar?  Is it a cost of living that falls hardest on "the 99%"?
Land markets are not crazy.  Agglomeration impulses will co-locate complementary activities very nicely.  But the WSJ story shows it always just a hop-skip-and-jump to zoning as social engineering.

Cities succeed because they facilitate a very large number of complex supply chains -- including the human supply chains that generate new ideas.  This is why we emphasize interactions, networks and complementary spatial arrangements.   Getting it right (not this month and this year but all the time) is a huge combinatorial problem that no group of wise men and women (let alone politicians) can hope to "solve".