The Worst of Planning, and then the Other Worst of Planning

Posted by Brandon Copeland
Hurricane Harvey Houston2.jpg

There has been a lot of talk about Houston since Hurricane Harvey hit. Interestingly enough, one of the main topics I have seen (and this might be largely because of who I follow on Twitter) has been how planning impacted the way the storm effected the city. Certainly Houston was in trouble either way, but has planning (or a lack there of?) resulted in Houston getting hit even harder? For those who aren’t aware, Houston has long been hailed as one of, if not the, least restrictive development market in the United States. The Washington Post’s recent article explains that Houston is the largest city in the US to have no zoning laws. The argument from those pointing to zoning is that a lack of greenspace, building in the flood zone, and the massive amount of impermeable surface in the city are all part of the equation that resulted in a lack of drainage.

While the city certainly isn’t without developmental regulations (there are parking requirements, of course!), they are not the type of zoning assignments that we see in Atlantic Canada.

It’s an interesting discussion, and although the storm is a tragedy I am fascinated to see how planning has taken a front-and-centre role in the narrative. I am also intrigued as to whether or not anything will change in the coming months. We shall see.

My favourite take on the planning discussion so far though, has come from the New York Times. Paul Krugman correctly points out that restrictive planning can be just as detrimental. He does this by comparing Houston’s “free-for-all” zoning to the “NIMBYism” of San Francisco.  Again, for those who don’t know, NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” and the idea is that communities or individual want to maintain the status quo and do this largely through zoning arguments. NIMBYism can be dangerous, potentially in quickly growing cities, since it tends to result in a lack of new density and subsequently a massive increase in housing prices.

The interesting point Krugman makes is that there is a happy-medium, but both are examples of how zoning can be incorrectly utilized as a tool by a city. In my opinion, zoning needs to be built around how council wants city to grow. It needs to encourage certain development in certain areas based on how certain building types could stimulate a neighbourhood. Higher density residential, for example, within walking distance to a struggling or emerging commercial area, would stimulate those businesses and encourage settlement in those areas. Subsequently, allowing some light commercial in struggling residential neighbourhoods will not only allow for adaptive reuse of run-down residential properties, but also stimulate investment and encourage new people into a neighbourhood.

I’m not saying St. John’s is doing it right or doing it wrong, I’m simply saying that in my experience people complain only that “zoning is too strict” or “zoning is too lax”. Personally, there is a happy-medium, and that is what both sides need to work towards.

For developers and property investors, restrictive zoning is a problem, but proper zoning will increase the value of your projects and investment properties.

For those looking to preserve and protect, loose zoning is a problem, but proper zoning will allow neighbourhoods to avoid deterioration or stagnation while still protecting what’s important.

In general, both sides need to meet in the middle. Zoning is a good thing. Misusing zoning, however, can be catastrophic for cities and neighbourhoods in a number of ways. When talking about zoning, developers, residents, and planners need to think not about what they are trying to accomplish for a property, but instead focus on what needs to be accomplished for the neighbourhood. Let those thoughts guide your argument and discussion.