INTERVIEW: Emily Talen and the Rules That Shape Cities

INTERVIEW: Emily Talen and the Rules That Shape Cities

The author of City Rules talks about strategies for facilitating diversity and how bad design discourages mixed-use development. Also, she touches upon the American fixation on controlling use over form, and why this has been unhealthy for many cities in the U.S.

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This interview is one of four arranged with authors of new books put out by Island Press, a non-profit publisher. Content is sponsored by Island Press.

There are many factors that shape a city, but the most overlooked — and perhaps the most important — are the rules and regulations that govern everything from street width to building height to parking and density minimums. In her new book City Rules: How Regulations Affect Urban Form, professor and Journal of Urbanism co-editor Emily Talen seeks to figure out the relationship between rules and their on-the-ground effect in cities across the country. All the while, she asks how we can improve existing rules to make our cities more livable.

Here, Talen talks about strategies for facilitating diversity and how bad design discourages mixed-use development. She also touches upon the American fixation on controlling use (that’s how space is used and where it is located) over form (the three-dimensional characteristics of built space), and why this has been unhealthy for many cities in the U.S.

Next American City: You divide the bulk of City Rules into three related but separate categories: Pattern, use and form. I want to start with use. In that chapter you mention how Americans have for years fixated on controlling use, and especially separating use. You write, “The overzealousness of rules devoted to separation has been one of the most radically negative consequences of all rules ever applied to cities.” Where do you think this fervor for separation by use came from? Why is it uniquely American?

Emily Talen: It’s in part attributable to the fact that the U.S. had a lot of open space when it first developed. People had this notion of unlimited capacity to just spread out. It also has been attributed to the fact that the U.S. is composed of so many heterogeneous groups, and rather than trying to live together in close proximity, we translated all that diversity to uncomfortableness. We translated it into just moving away from one group to another.

I actually have a book on that topic called Designs for Diversity, and I spend the first two chapters talking about our aversion — the American aversion — to diversity. Not everyone [opposes diversity], but it’s been a symptom of land use development in the U.S. Other countries — at least historically, not so much now — were very homogeneous. Go into any city outside the U.S., and there isn’t that kind of separation going on in urban areas. There’s mixes of housing types, mixes of land uses.

And then, of course, you have the typical issue of fostering of separation through government policies, like the subsidizing of highways, of single family mortgages — this whole apparatus supporting a mindset of separation: Spread further out, get away from things.

NAC: You write about how initially, zoning was viewed as a progressive, populist cause — a way to keep housing costs down for the working classes. You even write, “To the new profession called city planning, rules represented the triumph of community needs over market capitalism.” But as the 20th century wore on, the rules changed to become more exclusionary, and wound up fostering segregation by race and by class. You also write that using rules in this way is still “in full force today.” Do you think conditions have been improving at all in this regard? Have we, or how do we, reverse segregation by zoning?

Talen: It was almost like we couldn’t get the toothpaste back into the tube once we unleashed this power to be using rules to allow people to separate, and using rules to ensure that separation was there. Somewhere in the book I talk about a “perfect storm.” It was all these factors coming together at once in the 1930s and 1940s: This huge push to develop single-family housing, and then the federal government being involved with highway subsidies and mortgage subsidies — all of those things construed so that it was no longer possible to use rules that were initially [about] building diverse, non-segregated communities. It was just too hard to push back using those rules so that they were not compromised.

NAC: Any planner trying to incorporate more mixed-use zoning today will almost assuredly run up against NIMBYism. This happens in both cities and in suburbs — pretty much anywhere — at the same rate all over the country. How can one get the public on board with welcoming mixed-use into previously homogeneous communities?

Talen: I think the key is good design. People have been legitimately griping about some mixed-use [development]: That could be a 7-11, with a huge parking lot in front of it, next door to you with glaring lights all night. The devil is in the details. I’m going through this very issue right now in the neighborhood where I live in Tempe, Arizona. The neighborhood is blocking some multi-family housing that’s trying to come in, and I’ve been trying to argue that this multi-family housing can actually be an incredible asset. Just design it right.

The irony is that most people — when you show them a wonderful design of mixed-use, where things fit together, and where it produces a vibrancy and quality of place — people love it! They flock to cities that have that kind of diversity. So, it really comes back to bad rules, and having rules that don’t protect those design qualities: [Rules] that don’t ensure that you don’t have a giant parking lot in front of a commercial use, or that you have a building that’s out of scale, or whatever.

NAC: In the chapter on form, you explain how in the 20th century, rules affecting form changed as an indirect result of other, unrelated objectives, like traffic flow and parking provisions. Some planners today are trying to reverse that trend through form-based codes. Both Miami and Denver, for instance, have passed citywide form-based codes in recent years. Are you optimistic about this change in approach to regulating form, or is there more that can be done?

Talen: I am optimistic. I think it’s definitely the way to go, to regulate form as opposed to use. That’s the way zoning started: It was much more about form than use, and paying attention to what should go where — not everything is appropriate in every location — and having a more nuanced understanding of those kinds of things, not just a blanket rule. Form-based coding, I think, is taking off. I wish it would go faster. I wish more people would adopt it. But there’s really been progress in the last year with these major American cities taking it on. Yeah, I’m hopeful. I think it will happen.

A graphic from City Rules showing how zoning in downtown Phoenix has changed. Credit: Island Press

NAC: Are there any cities in particular that you believe are ripe for implementing form-based codes?

Talen: Any city that has recently put in light rail. Those cities need to make sure they have form-based code along the light rail, so that the kind of development that goes on is appropriate. And I think a lot of them are doing that. Phoenix has a light rail, and when you ride it, it’s astounding how bad the urbanism is. There’s nothing going on. Right now, they are looking into doing a form-based code along that light rail.

Connecting form-based coding to those kinds of investments — like rail, like major public facilities — would be a good place to start. Affordable housing development, that’s another public investment. That’s where you have some energy invested. The idea would be to capitalize on that.

NAC: Speaking of Phoenix: When it comes to pattern, some cities have benefitted from rules that kept lot sizes from getting too large, streets from getting too wide, blocks from spreading too far apart from one another. Other cities, not so much. What can a town like Phoenix do, with regards to changing existing regulations, in order to curb sprawl and densify?

Talen: In a perfect world, they would stop all of the peripheral development that’s going on. But politically, that has been incredibly difficult to pull off. Stopping sprawl is so politically difficult. If that can’t be accomplished realistically, the main thing to do is focus on the core and the areas around the light rail: Changing the rules there to make the most attractive places in the region, so that they are legitimately competing, they’re more of a draw. Then, hopefully, interest in moving further and further out will die down, because you have created these centers that people want to be close to.

NAC: I have one last question related to that. The crux of your book, and what you’re talking about now, is that rules as they are today need to change. You’re not saying that they should disappear. In fact in the very first paragraph of his foreword, [architect and urban planner] Andrés Duany writes, “Let us be clear, rules are necessary.”

A few weeks ago, Next American City hosted a panel at the Cato Institute about affordable housing policy. Naturally, given where we were, we had a panelist who advocated for abolishing zoning rules and regulations entirely, saying this is how we can best achieve affordability and equity in our cities and towns. So what would use say to those who feel that rules of any kind can only get in the way of good cities?

Talen: Yeah, that argument is made a lot. I think it’s a very romantic argument and not at all realistic. Because the problem is, you would have to change not only the rules of city government, [but] you’d need to change federal rules, you’d need to change financing rules, you’d need to change the rules of how insurance companies operate, you’d need to change the rules of how transportation is funded. There’s just layer upon layer of protocols in the way business is done.

So I am not convinced, if you had this sort of code-free zone, that you would get what you want. What you would get is monoculture. It sounds great: I love the idea that, “Oh man, if we got rid of rules we’d have these complex, diverse cities, there would be more affordable housing, we’d have nice vibrant, colorful places” — that would be awesome. This is not ideological. This is completely driven by empiricism: There’s no evidence that if you strip away one kind of rule that people would naturally tend to create these diverse places.

Tags: built environmentreal estatelight railzoningdensitysprawlphoenix

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