Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

NEXT L. A. | Ideas: The Metropolis

Creating a City That Never Sleeps

One urban planner advocates the elimination of zoning regulations as way to bring out the vitality of neighborhoods.

November 05, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Abolish zoning? Urban planner Elizabeth Moule says that for Los Angeles to become a more livable city, we should do away with the rules that define areas as residential, commercial or industrial.

Moule, 36, is a partner in the Los Angeles firm of Moule and Polyzoides, and five years ago co-founded the Congress of the New Urbanism.

Question: Wouldn't abolishing zoning create chaos?

*

Answer: Let's go by results. Until recently, Houston had no zoning. Yet its makeup substantively resembles that of similarly sized, zoned cities.

*

Q: So what is zoning?

*

A: It's not urban planning. Rather, it is an abstract mathematical model which defines a property's density. Zoning says nothing about how a building--or a neighborhood--looks and works. That's why so many parts of the city have such a minimal sense of place.

And the problem goes further. Under regulations, each building is evaluated in a vacuum. But a building exists as part of a block. That block is part of a street, which is part of a neighborhood. If we don't view how each part affects the whole, we can get beautiful, expensive buildings or dull, formulaic ones stranded in a veritable urban desert. Zoning addresses none of that.

*

Q: Then what are you advocating?

*

A: We want to decentralize planning, eliminating zoning. In evaluating zoning's usefulness, we have to consider how it actually works in specific instances.

*

Q: So, how does it work?

*

A: Zoning began around 1920, principally as a means of separating urban uses. The idea was that you didn't want to locate a commercial center or factory amid a residential area. Over the years, zoning grew to include separating cars from people. Little of this works in reality.

*

Q: Why not?

*

A: We've come to understand that cities are like living organisms, healthiest when alive 24 hours a day. Thus, retail areas like downtown Los Angeles do more business if they cater not just to the daytime commercial crowd, but also to the after-hours and weekend residential and tourist crowd. A broader 24-hour customer base, in turn, lures more businesses downtown. This was the intention behind the original Bunker Hill's new residential community alongside the downtown commercial area.

*

Q: But it didn't work. Downtown Los Angeles is still dead after hours.

*

A: Yes, and largely because of zoning. Bunker Hill's residences sit largely above the main commercial areas, with few points of access. Thus, although residential and commercial areas are sited side by side, a virtual wall exists between them.

*

Q: But not too many Bunker Hill residents want to shop downtown.

*

A: Not the way the areas are presently constituted. But what if the commerce fed upon the residences and vice versa, as in New York's SoHo? What would the synergy create?

*

Q: You also want to stop building pedestrian bridges?

*

A: Mostly, yes. These bridges remove pedestrians from the eyes of passing motorists, making the solitary pedestrian more vulnerable to crime.

*

Q: So you advocate mixing in cars and pedestrians?

*

A: Yes. By separating the two, we now have wider traffic lanes with fast-moving cars juxtaposed with narrower sidewalks which are less pedestrian-friendly. Because there are fewer pedestrians, stores are disinclined to display their wares for window shoppers. Each factor reinforces the other. The results are vast areas which have become virtual urban deserts.

*

Q: But doesn't your plan trade in the danger of getting mugged on a deserted sidewalk for the danger of getting run over?

*

A: No. Imagine a barrier of parked cars between pedestrians and traffic, traffic slowing as drivers browse store windows, perhaps even parking and dashing in. Imagine people jumping in and out of cabs and buses. All of these random, happenstance public interactions help nurture a city's vitality.

*

Q: Your critics say that you are, de facto, advocating increased congestion.

*

A: Ultimately, we must decide what's more important. Is it maximizing traffic speed throughout the city or nurturing our neighborhoods' vitality? Abolishing zoning does not rid the city of freeways or through streets. Rather, we are abolishing a one-size-fits-all mentality, with priority given to the car in all areas of the city.

*

Q: But there are plenty of cities, such as New York and San Francisco, which have both zoning and urban vitality.

*

A: The small-grained, mixed-use framework of those cities were largely in place before zoning. A more accurate comparison includes a look at cities that have largely sprung up after zoning became popular. We need to ask, do those places work? Is that the model we want?

*

Q: And yet, areas such as Old Town Pasadena, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and downtown Beverly Hills all have distinct personalities.

*

A: And all of these areas are in towns, each with its own vision of neighborhood, each independent of Los Angeles zoning regulations. We need more such individuality.

*

Q: But might not fine-tuning regulations, rather than a wholesale throwing out of all zoning, do the trick?

*

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|