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Dept. of Wonk

I Live for Zoning Journalism



Long ago I said I would know when to leave my job; it would be when municipal zoning became interesting to me. 

Zoning has been interesting to me for many years now; if not always the painful minutia, then the equally arcane thought processes that go into creating those bits of pilpul and the resulting community evolution that proceed therefrom. Did I, however, take my own advice, and get the hell out of reportorial Dodge once I realized how fascinating this all had become to me? 

Of course not. 

And so I have spent much of this week doing zoning stories.  And I am disheartened to discover that the thrill is gone. 

What???!!??

Yes, zoning can be thrilling.

Consider this; the nature of the zoning that your community allows, the wording of the guidelines that go into a zoning law - or ordinance, as we policy wonks like to say - all underlie the nature of your home, your street, your neighborhood, your side of town, and the entire town. The procedural methods in place to decide what your building can be built like, what size it can be, what variations you can get from the municipality to break out of the basic mould — all of those things are unseen determinants of what a community looks like.

And what a community looks like, what its internal rules allow people to make their environment look like, and the thousand related guidelines about how to fix things and when and how to fight the rules, those all play into what that community is, and what it becomes. Because just as we affect our environments by making them bend to our visions of what we want those environments to be, so the environments we put in place to create that vision in turn affect the humans living and working within them.

Software affects hardware, and hardware returns the favor. As it were. Ahem. 




Huh. Guess it's still thrilling for me. 

I. Am. Pathetic.

But at least I got the thrill back. 


This entry was originally posted at http://kaffyr.dreamwidth.org/309564.html?mode=reply, where there are currently comment count unavailable comments. You can comment there or here; I watch both.

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
maruad
Jul. 25th, 2014 08:05 pm (UTC)
Lots of money can change hands under tables when zoning is being altered. It can be the heart of municipal graft.
kaffyr
Jul. 25th, 2014 09:07 pm (UTC)
This is, sadly, often the case. I will say that in smaller towns, it can be easier to spot, and harder to do, than in larger municipalities.

Sometimes zoning cases can be illustrations of how grass roots movements can back developers down. Unfortunately, if you are in a poor town/city, a poor neighborhood in that community - and most importantly, if your community is in any fashion marginalized - grass roots pushback can fail as often as it succeeds.

a_phoenixdragon
Jul. 25th, 2014 08:48 pm (UTC)
NOT PATHETIC. Won't hear of it. Stop that right now!!

The world of zoning is actually highly interesting. It is the heart of community and has community (supposedly) at its heart. It is where the greatest crime and the greatest progress can flourish. What's not fascinating about that?!

*SQUISHES YOU*
kaffyr
Jul. 25th, 2014 09:09 pm (UTC)
Don't worry, my dear, I'm mostly laughing softly at myself. I do enjoy zoning and community planning, and I do think it's important, so ultimately the self laughter will be pretty gentle.

Can I also say how tickled I am that someone else understands why I like it?

*hugs back*
a_phoenixdragon
Jul. 25th, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
Good, good...*squishes*

*Smiles* Well of course I understand. Truly, the surface is never what is interesting. It is always what lies beneath and how it affects that surface, yes?
eve11
Jul. 25th, 2014 09:23 pm (UTC)
My instincts are to be as far from it as possible. I've read through two different zoning ordinance documents cover to cover now (or nearly) and it is all just completely distasteful to me. I am not as squirrely as my libertarian boyfriend about the implications of basically your neighbors being able to tell you what you are allowed or not allowed to do on your own property, and I realize in a lot of places the rules are there so that people can get along with each other when homes are in spitting distance of each other, and when things that others do might be an eyesore, or earsore, or nose-sore or whatever to neighbors. But then you just get into the ticky-tacky things that are just another way for the township or municipality or whatever to get money out of you if you want to do something, or fine you if they don't like you, or basically stick their nose over your fence (if you have one, it has to be less than 8 feet high or whatever) into your business.

I have a lot of reservations about living near other people, I guess...
kaffyr
Jul. 26th, 2014 07:37 pm (UTC)
of basically your neighbors being able to tell you what you are allowed or not allowed to do on your own property the rules are there so that people can get along with each other ...

I like to think of zoning laws and building codes, at their best, as agreements between community members on how best to order the physical layout of that community, to ensure the safety of physical layouts, etc. The best codes have built in flexibility, and reasonably simple procedures; they should also by constantly dynamic, with a built in review and revision cycle.

Very few sets of zoning and building codes are nearly as flexible or good as they need to be, and as harvey_rrit mentions below, the origins of zoning codes are horribly classist and racist and many are still that bad.

But as a method of creating a community's overall personality, they have incredible potential to be positive social tools.

I have a lot of reservations about living near other people, I guess...

From reading your journal during your search for a new place, I kinda figured that. Heh.
harvey_rrit
Jul. 25th, 2014 10:03 pm (UTC)
I dare say the world of zoning must be pretty interesting.

The history of its origin-- as a means of discrimination against immigrants-- is more like "interesting times" interesting. Improvements have been made contrary to the original intent, which gives me great glee.

That being said, anybody who uses the word "underlie" instead of "underly" as the present tense of "underlying" is someone whose judgment I would trust with this.
kaffyr
Jul. 26th, 2014 08:44 pm (UTC)
Indeed, as you remind me, zoning laws began for completely rancid reasons.

Improvements have been made contrary to the original intent, which gives me great glee.

I'm glad that the whole concept managed to escape that original purpose (at least partly) and become an at least occasionally positive social tool.

(Of course, as a born and bred Canadian, it could be argued that I have a certain socialist bias. I could be dangerous.)

That being said, anybody who uses the word "underlie" instead of "underly" as the present tense of "underlying" is someone whose judgment I would trust with this.

Heh ... just don't ask me to spell discipline quickly. For some reason, I keep wanting to pitch the "s" out of the mix, and I'm always surprised when an unforgiving spell check red lines the sucker.
flowsoffire
Jul. 26th, 2014 05:53 am (UTC)
Not pathetic—the explanation illustrates well what can be pretty interesting in the process :) And enjoying your work is always a good point! ;)
kaffyr
Jul. 26th, 2014 08:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks - and I am looking for every possible thing to enjoy, given the increased workload and frustration with which I and my colleagues are dealing.
flowsoffire
Jul. 27th, 2014 06:09 am (UTC)
You bet… good for you, that's the right state of mind ♥
kaffyr
Jul. 27th, 2014 04:10 pm (UTC)
Thanks - and I hope the coming week is fantastic for you!
flowsoffire
Jul. 27th, 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you! ♥
lost_spook
Jul. 26th, 2014 08:00 am (UTC)
Well, everything that involves people usually is interesting in some way. :-)

(I don't know anything about zoning, because as far as I know we don't do it over here. We have zones, but that's to do with car parking when it happens. Which I would imagine, is slightly less interesting!)
kaffyr
Jul. 26th, 2014 09:31 pm (UTC)
I don't know anything about zoning, because as far as I know we don't do it over here.

I remember learning that while I was researching a Doctor Who story. I'm guessing that even over there, most really large communities, especially cities, eventually end up unofficially self-zoning, at least in terms of, say, keeping residential areas away from heavy industrial areas.

lost_spook
Jul. 27th, 2014 06:19 am (UTC)
Well, for things like that we have town planning and council by-laws - so, it would be a local authority decision, not down to the communities, although they might run consultation sessions for things. You do get some community-led projects sometimes, though - someone gets a group together to raise money for x. Tends to happen more in small communities like a village more often than a town or city, though, but sometimes it does.
kaffyr
Jul. 27th, 2014 04:23 pm (UTC)
for things like that we have town planning and council by-laws

Actually, town planning and council by-laws sound like the same kind of community planning tools I speak of when I talk about zoning or building codes. It's perhaps a case of similar tools being used for similar ends - creating a community in which people can live without, say, having industrial waste spewed into their rivers.

Ultimately, I think that town and city planners from the U.S. and Canada could have constructive conversations with town and city planners from England and countries in Europe. The concepts of building and maintaining dynamic, living, and livable, population centers, remains the same; the interpretation may differ a little.
lydy
Jul. 26th, 2014 02:36 pm (UTC)
Real estate development remains a sick fascination of mine. It so often is deeply foul. Zoning ordinances are often part of this game. If you have the turn of mind to keep track of the minutiae, it is incredibly intricate and revealing. Alas, I lose track of the details, so while I can see the broad picture, much of the subtleties are lost on me.

There's a lovely book, I think it's called something like _Block 87_ which is about a particular block in downtown Chicago which, at the time of the writing of the book, was still an empty lot. It chronicles all the various schemes that went into tearing down the perfectly functional buildings, and the machinations that went into no actual development ever happening. It is a brilliant tapestry of money, greed, corruption, politics, and Daley-flavored ego.

When Iowa City went through it's profoundly dysfunctional urban removal program in the '70s, I'm told that they tore down the same vacant lot three times. I always wondered what the story was, there.

If I were a researcher and writer, I would want to do the research into a spectacularly failed year-round Renaissance festival which was supposed to be built in Branson, MO. I'm pretty sure it was a real estate fraud, with a lot of really good actors used as set dressing. Those people got hurt _hard_. And the only person that actually came out ahead was the person who ended up owning the land that sewers and roads had been built on, which they bought for a song because of bankruptcy...I'm pretty sure it was a fraud in order to accomplish exactly that, but it would take a lot of research to prove it.

No, I totally get why you find zoning fascinating. Apart from the corruption aspect, there's also the wonderful aspect of real people trying to figure out how to live together productively without doing too much damage to each other. The problems are complex, the solutions strange and arcane, and the process less palatable than sausage-making, but it's all about trying to live together. I love cities. Truly, truly love them. All that naked cooperation brought to the light of day.
kaffyr
Jul. 26th, 2014 10:47 pm (UTC)
Alas, I lose track of the details, so while I can see the broad picture, much of the subtleties are lost on me.

There are two kinds of subtleties to this sort of thing - and seeing the broad picture is as necessary as contemplating and understanding the minutiae. Without the minutiae, the larger thing cannot be built. Without a plan and vision, the minutiae are just bricks lying in haphazard piles, ready to trip people up. They are indispensable to each other, or perhaps they are the differing sides to a coin, or perhaps I'm just waxing rather too ... something. Comes of reading stories about Japanese brush spirits this afternoon, I imagine.

I think it's called something like _Block 87_

Perhaps that would be Block 37, which has had somewhat of a renaissance since that history was written, and continues to live, as these stories show.


lydy
Jul. 27th, 2014 01:57 am (UTC)
That does sound right. Block 37. I read the book in the late 80s or early 90s. Chicago in microcosm. So cool.

I agree that the big picture and the minutiae are both important to the process. A full understanding requires a good grasp of both. I get very tired of people who concentrate on one or the other without seeming to understand how they interact. Unfortunately, I get swamped by the detail, and lose a clear understanding of the hows and whys of the big picture. I really love authors who can lay it all out in relation to each other, so that I can track it. Doing the original research, putting the puzzle pieces together -- it's a skill I vastly admire.
kaffyr
Jul. 27th, 2014 04:25 pm (UTC)
. I get very tired of people who concentrate on one or the other without seeming to understand how they interact.

I almost fall into that category, because I, too, get overwhelmed by the detail, so I inevitably pull back and try to find the overall pattern. As a planner, I'd need to have a team mate who was good with the details, and had an iron will, sufficient to make certain that I maintained some connection with those details.

And putting the puzzle pieces together is an excellent way to describe it.
apostle_of_eris
Jul. 27th, 2014 05:00 am (UTC)
Yeah, Block 37. It's still fucked, but less visibly.
An entire square block at the very center of the city was torn down . . . and stayed an empty lot for like 20 years.
Our previous goofball mayor (the previous one was a bit dim, the present one is a venomous reptile) decided that Block 37 was the perfect place for a big transit hub, so he poured $250 million into a huge subway station for an express train to and from O'Hare. It's a swell idea, but there is physically no place to put express tracks, so it's now a dark hole in the ground.

But control of zoning in their wards is a very important aldermanic power.
kaffyr
Jul. 27th, 2014 05:36 pm (UTC)
the present one is a venomous reptile

And yet, despite knowing that, I find myself liking him. Venomous reptiles are often fascinating.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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