Correcting An Old Mistake

by Don Friedman on May 10, 2017


The modern idea of zoning began with the planned city movement around the beginning of the twentieth century. Planners were intent on improving living conditions and were convinced that the way to do this was to reduce density. Based on the information available to them, they were not wrong. The picture above shows a block in the core of the Lower East side at a time when the population density there exceeded 375,000 people per square mile. Given that the people in slums at that time not only suffered from overcrowding but also from air, water, and noise pollution, it is no surprise that zoning by land use was seen as a solution. If people were moved away from industrial and commercial uses and to less-dense housing, their lives would be improved, right?

Any good idea taken too far becomes a bad idea. Zoning by use turned into a mistake when it when we stated building entire residential neighborhoods without grocery stores, and residential towns without jobs because businesses were not allowed. That trend is thankfully past its peak, but the issue has continued to be a problem for preservation: historic town and city centers were built with mixed uses and, if we are serious about saving the meaning of the buildings as well as their exterior forms, are best restored with mixed use. Fortunately, the federal programs that are used to fund a lot of restoration work are loosening up the rules regarding mixed-use redevelopment.

In retrospect, the problem with the street scene above is only that each apartment might have had ten or more people living in it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with apartments over stores, or even street vendors. The reformers a hundred years ago accidentally threw out the baby of diversity with the bathwater of overcrowding and pollution.

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