Evolution of Housing Policy and Urban Planning in the USA

As in Britain and Europe, concerns about public health and safety in the overcrowded urban slums of the late nineteenth century gave rise to a series of urban reforms in the USA. In New York City, Tenement House Commission reports (1894, 1900) found that 60 % of the city’s population lived in tenement housing—overcrowded and poorly designed buildings with inadequate sanitary conditions and ventilation. These tenements evolved to meet the demand created by a massive influx of poor immigrants, who crowded into the congested housing in order to be within walking distance of jobs (Hall 1996). Echoing the British Royal Commission of 1885, the need to remedy the poor housing conditions of the impoverished working class was recognised by social reformers. However, unlike the public housing models which emerged in Britain and Europe, regulating private development was the favoured solution:

“They looked at the London model of public housing, and decisively rejected it... at most municipal housing would ‘better the living conditions of a favoured few’ .Besides, they felt, public housing would mean a ponderous bureaucracy, political patronage, the discouragement of private capital. So it was to be resisted: physical regulation of the private developer was to provide the answer.” (Hall, 1996, pp. 38—39)

In fact, the promulgation of codified space standards, fire and plumbing regulations largely resolved health and sanitation concerns by the early years of the twentieth century (Marcuse 1980). Thus, housing reformers turned their attention towards the provision of new housing beyond the slums. During this period, ‘deconcentration’ of low-income and immigrant groups was an underlying theme in urban reform, and land use zoning represented an expedient technique:

“Zoning that restricted densities was likewise appropriate to prevent dangerous concentrations of potential malcontents ... (identified by race or national origin or income) from the better residential areas. Regional planning gave a broader context and rationale for these same policies.” (Marchuse 1980, p. 170)

Electric street cars enabled the suburban exodus but also introduced new problems of congestion concerns about the spread of urban ‘blight’ into residential neighbourhoods (Cullingworth and Caves 2014). Municipalities began to enact bylaws constraining the use of private lands—particularly industrial activities—and by the turn of the century had begun to regulate building heights as well. However, the codes and bylaws tended to apply to specific sites or building classes in a piecemeal fashion. Land use zoning, which emerged via the New York City zoning ordinance of 1916, was seen to offer much greater certainty to residents and investors than the system of private deeds which had hitherto been in place. Private deeds restricted initial land uses in neighbourhood areas, but there was concern about the risks of unwanted land uses when these deeds expired:

“Nothing made whole neighbourhoods feel so outraged and helpless as the construction of apartment houses when the private deed restrictions expired and there was no zoning to prevent vacant lots from being used for multifamily structures.. Nothing caused an investor so much anguish as the sight of a grocery store being erected next door to a single family residence on which he had lent money.” (Scott 1969, cited in Cullingworth and Caves 2014, p. 100)

Similarly, Peter Marcuse comments that:

“Real estate interests have always been one of the dominant influences on municipal policies in the US. The City Beautiful movement was early supported by property owners because they saw it as giving a significant boost to property values, both generally and for specific locations. City plans were seen as a form of local boosterism, aiding business and increasing property values throughout a city generally.” (Marcuse 1980, p. 171)

He notes the explicit references to civic works and acquisitions (such as the provision of public parks) as a means of adding to the value of privately owned land and buildings.

In 1921, then Secretary of Commerce (and later President) Herbert Hoover appointed an Advisory Committee on Building Codes and Zoning. This body drafted a Standard State Zoning Enabling Act which provided a basis for the states to delegate power for zoning control to local municipalities:

“For the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community, the legislative body of cities and incorporated villages is hereby empowered to regulate and restrict the height, number of stories, and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population, and the location and use of buildings, structures, and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes.” (extract from the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, cited in Cullingworth and Caves 2014, p. 102)

Herbert Hoover’s influence was instrumental in the early evolution of American urban planning, with his particular perspectives on the role of government and regulation overall and on the land and housing market in particular:

“Hoover’s philosophy was that the role of the state was not to interfere with market forces, but to make them more efficient by, for example, facilitating production of better market information, advancing the acceptance of standardisation, and (in the area of housing and urban development) assisting with the introduction of a system for orderly development which would be safe as an investment for both lenders and borrowers. In particular, it provided protection to home owners from uncongenial neighbouring uses which would affect both amenity and market value.” (Cullingworth and Caves 2014, p. 102)

The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act included provisions for municipalities to divide land into ‘districts’, for land use regulations to conform to the provisions of a comprehensive plan; for public consultation processes (in the form of a hearing) to occur before a proposed regulation is made, and the appointment of a ‘zoning commission’ to consider zoning matters. It was first published in 1924, and by 1929, three-fifths of the nation’s urban population were in local government areas which had adopted zoning ordinances (Cullingworth and Caves 2014). In 1928, Herbert Hoover’s Advisory Committee prepared a parallel city planning enabling act which provided for more strategic city and regional planning, to be overseen by planning commissions tasked with the preparation of master plans for the spatial organisation of cities and regions.

Early legal contests over the scope of zoning only confirmed the validity of the approach. For instance, in 1926 the Supreme Court supported the constitutionality of zoning in the town of Euclid (Cleveland), in response to a landholder claim that the ordinance blocked “the natural course of industrial development”, whilst reducing the value of his land, and inflating the values of other sites (Cullingworth and Caves 2014, p. 104).

In upholding the legality of land use zoning, US courts have reinforced its rigidity as an instrument for development regulation, and it is argued that this rigidity underscores “its enormous popular appeal” (ibid, p. 106). At the same time, there has been ongoing criticism of the ways in which American zoning has provided a way of preserving the status quo within existing areas, and of implementing racial segregation through the separation of land uses. For instance, the dominance of restrictive residential zones within which single dwelling houses on detached allotments are the only permitted use, provided a way of ensuring that apartments and their residents—typically of more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds—did not intrude into white middle-class suburbs (Fischel 2004). Further, zoning has been associated with sprawl, as the separation of incompatible land uses and low-density suburban suburbs meant high car dependency (Ewing 2008). Zoning is also criticised as an impediment to the free market system, and as noted particularly in Chaps. 1 and 3 of this book, there is ongoing debate about the impact of land use zoning and local planning processes on the supply and affordability of new homes. In response, a range of ‘inclusionary’ zoning strategies have emerged to counteract the exclusionary effects of rigid zoning and development control in American cities and towns, discussed further in the final section of this chapter.

 
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