Durable Growth

Thoughtful balancing better than rigid rules

Building in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York

Building in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York

My last three posts might have projected a curmudgeonly air.  I didn’t feel curmudgeonly when writing them.  But when I read back over them, I realize that I may have come across as grumpy by challenging the civic value of some parks, by suggesting that the environmental elements of a road design might have been incorrectly valued more highly than walkability, and by arguing that historic preservation can sometimes go awry.

But upon looking deeper, there’s a connection between the posts that was decidedly not cranky.

Parks?  Love them, as long as they’re well-used and building a better community.

Environmental-sensitive roadway design?  Great idea, as long as we don’t put it on a pedestal above a greater civic good such as walkability.

Historic preservation?  Absolutely supportive.  It’s always painful to lose an older building, especially when it’s architecturally interesting or historically relevant.  But historic preservation must be within the context of building a better city.  If a building can’t be made to fit with a city that is evolving in a healthy direction, then perhaps it should be demolished, for the greater good.

So I’m not a curmudgeon.  It’s just that I believe in a higher good.  That higher good being a well-functioning, environmentally-sustainable, and financially-stable city.

In “Walkable City”, author Jeff Speck writes about how wide Main Street would become if we allowed every specialist to claim his or her optimal width.  Between two lanes of travel in each direction, left turn pockets, landscaped medians, wide bicycle lanes, diagonal parking, etc, our downtown streets would become wide enough to serve as runways.  The vastness of the street would inhibit walkability because of the daunting task of crossing the street and because of the exposed feeling of being on a sidewalk where the building across the street is more than 150 feet away.

Speck uses that example to argue that we can’t allow specialists to design our streets.  Instead, we should rely on generalists who understand the concern and desires of the specialists, but are capable of finding reasonable balances between the competing demands.  I think it’s one of the best points that Speck makes in his book.

I also feel that the point about specialists versus generalists can be extended to standards such as park requirements and historic preservation.  In the abstract, those requirements may seem absolute positives.  But the real world can often undermine what seems unassailable in the abstract, resulting in logical absurdities.  We need processes that allow us to find reasonable balances.

When I was younger, I was a fan of objective rules.  I thought that, if we’d only work a little harder, we could write objective rules that would cover every situation, making land development completely straight-forward and predictable.

I was wrong.  Reality has the unerring ability to find ambiguities, loopholes, and grey areas in any development standard that we write.  It was hubris to think that we could anticipate the myriad of possibilities that the real world could throw at us.

I’m not arguing that objective standards are never needed.  There are elements of land development where objective standards are an absolute necessity, such as water pressure, fire protection, and safe exits.

But there is also a need to admit that some development standards should be more subjective and to acknowledge that judgment, hopefully tempered by common sense, is needed to balance desirable but incompatible goals.

Those with a sense of land-use history may raise an objection at this point, noting that allowing more subjectivity into a hearing room would also allow more opportunity for decision-makers to be inappropriately influenced.  Those critics would be right.

I suspect that one of the reasons behind the rise of objective standards was to reduce the possibility of officials making decisions based on campaign contributions or other favors.  I also believe that objective standards have largely met that goal.

(For all of the complaints I hear about city hall being the lapdog of developers, there has probably been no time in history when that was less true than today.  There are certainly still pockets of undue influence, but the promulgation of transparent processes and objective rules have greatly reduced the opportunities.)

But excessive reliance on objective standards may result in worse decision-making than relying on the sometimes slanted subjective judgment of public officials.  The example I offered in my last post about the possibility of delaying a public housing project for reasons of historic preservation is only one example.

Compared to the rote application of objective standards, a little subjective balance can be a good thing, even if it comes with a risk of increased bribery or graft.

I understand that the fringes of the internet are populated by folks who will willfully misinterpret content so they can attack with contrived outrage.  So I’m sure that someone will read what I’ve written above and argue “Wow, this guy thinks that graft is a good thing.”

I’ve said nothing of the sort.  Instead, I’ve suggested that, in a headlong effort to eradicate bribery and graft, we’ve imposed rules that sometimes lead to deeply flawed land-use decisions.  Compared to the cost of those land-use mistakes, risking a little graft might be acceptable.  Although we should remain ever alert to malfeasance so it can be quickly rooted out.

Before closing, I should turn this conversation back toward urbanism.  Subjective balancing of land-use goals is more important to walkable urban development than it is to drivable suburban.  On a typical drivable suburban site, there’s room to move elements around to meet objective standards.  But a typical walkable urban site doesn’t have that flexibility.  And yet urban sites are more likely to have conflicts with objective standards such as historic preservation.

The trend over the past decades toward objective standards in place of subjective balancing is yet one more piece of evidence that our land-use processes were developed during a time when drivable suburban was the default land-use pattern.  It’s also another example of the subtle but effective systemic biases against urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

2 comments to Thoughtful balancing better than rigid rules

  • Nathanael

    From what I can tell, England doesn’t have any “zoning codes”.

    They instead have “planning permission”.

    Every single project goes before the planning board. There is no “as of right” building, except for de minimus modifications to existing buildings.

    This seems to accomplish your goal: subjective balancing rather than hard-lined inflexible rules.

    You might be interested in researching the English “planning permission” system as a point of comparison, an alternative to our messed-up “zoning” system.

    • Nathaneal, you may well be right. There’s a current BBC television show called “The Planners” which covers the planning process. I’ve been hoping to watch it for insights into a different planning approach. But I’ve yet to find it on American television.