Zoning ordinances need facelift

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URBANA, Ill. – At the heart of most of today’s land issues is the concept of zoning. Zoning dates back to the late 1800s when land uses were first separated by law to protect residential areas from dangerous or unsightly practices, such as tar boiling, fat rendering and dead-carcass cremating.

How zoning began.

In 1916, the first U.S. comprehensive zoning code used a pyramid approach, considering the exclusive residential areas as the highest zone classification.

The center zone allowed for a mixture of commercial and residential areas. Industrial uses were consigned to the bottom rung of the pyramid.

By the 1920s, when the legality of zoning was established in the courts, zones in large municipal areas became larger and more exclusive to protect the land values of the affluent, single-family residential districts.

Widespread use of automobiles allowed residences and businesses to extend into nearby farmland.

Outdated zoning codes.

Today, U.S. cities and the surrounding areas are burdened by the old zoning codes, according to Emily Talen, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois.

In analyzing the zoning codes of 400 cities and all counties in Illinois, Talen found a majority are still rooted in the old way of thinking: to separate land uses into divisible sections.

By common definition, zoning is a locally enacted law that regulates and controls the use of private property. It divides the jurisdiction into districts, or zones, for different uses and determines which uses are allowed.

It also regulates lot sizes, building heights, impacts on adjacent land uses, and other specifics.

Different approach.

“Zoning is still needed, but we need to take a different approach,” Talen said. “The trend among more progressive communities is to do away with conventional zoning and to mix land uses together.”

Zoning is perpetuating urban sprawl, said Talen, because it has persuaded people to move out to the country, dragging the city – fast-food restaurants, superstores and shopping malls – along with them.

Zoning codes specify how new residential developments will look, from the size of the lots to the spacing of sidewalks and setbacks from the road.

The zoning codes require a sprawling division of land, assuming that residents want large lots and plenty of space between their home and the neighbor’s yard.

“Everything in the code is oriented toward accommodating the automobile and making it easier for cars to get around,” Talen said.

“Often, developers would like to build a more progressive community that is less land-consumptive, but they are prohibited by the zoning codes.”

Also, although urban sprawl has not been directly linked with poverty in the inner cities, it seems obvious that as the inner cities erode, the affluent suburbs thrive. Through designated lot sizes, zoning essentially dictates where the rich and the poor will live.

New urbanism.

A new approach to zoning, termed “new urbanism,” reduces the amount of space needed for new developments and the reliance on vehicles. Compact communities become sustainable and zones contain a mixture of housing types and commercial space.

Although the trend is new, more than 200 new towns, villages and neighborhoods are planned or under construction using the new principles, according the New Urban News, published in Ithaca, N.Y.

In Illinois, Oak Park, some Chicago neighborhoods, and the new Lincoln Square Apartments in Springfield are models of new urbanism.

How it works.

Under this new ideology, old zoning codes are renovated and space mandates are eliminated. Talen described substituting minimum lot widths with mixed lot sizes, which allows a mixture of building types in each zone.

Space would be minimized to preserve the surrounding farmland and allow pedestrian, rather than automobile, traffic.

In her analysis of Illinois zoning codes, Talen found that lot sizes average 14,000 square feet for single-family homes.

Lots could be reduced to just 5,000 in an updated model. Street-pavement width totaling 30 feet on average could be reduced to 18 feet.

More ideas.

Other elements of the new urbanism would include a center for each neighborhood with a transit stop, an elementary school nearby so children can walk to school, narrow streets lined with trees to slow traffic, creating an environment for pedestrians and bicycles, and parking relegated to the rear of buildings.

“There is much resistance to updating zoning ordinances,” Talen said. “Some believe that urban sprawl is occurring because that is what people want. But I think residents haven’t been given choices and they don’t know what a compact, dense community could look like.”

By the year 2010, new urbanism is expected to revitalize many cities and suburbs, according to the New Urban News.

New choices.

Every major metropolitan area will have new urbanistic neighborhoods that will provide new choices in living, working, shopping and recreation.

Aging towns and cookie-cutter suburban developments will sport new accessible town centers that decrease the reliance on vehicles for everyday living.

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