How Zoning Kills Jobs

Disclaimer: I left all my Jane Jacobs books in boxes stored in London Ontario. So please forgive me if some of the things I write should include citation. My writings come from Jacobs, Florida, from various Transportation research papers and from their influence on the way I view Cities and the experiences I have while living in them. (Hence my overuse of ‘I’ and ‘my’ when Cities aren’t about me or individuals but about collective living and opportunity.)

On recent walks I’ve been given the opportunity to think again about what it is that makes a City a City, rather than just a settlement or collection of towns. As I’ve written, while not a quality unique to me, when I visit Cities I try to get the local flavour. When in Seattle I always tried to stay in the Queen Mary district (where much of the movie Singles was shot) to get a feel for the vibe of a City’s residents. Too often, large hotels are located in districts that have been spit-shined for tourist consumption. A good long walk or transit ride to nowhere can provide a lot of, at least observational ‘data’ about the form of a City.

The predominant difference, it seems to me (and as I recall, sources like Andres Duany writings on new urbanism, Howard Kunstler’s on sprawl and car-dependence) between the dense urban neighbourhoods that people are increasingly beginning to embrace, and the neighbourhoods that we find still being built today is …

Single-Use Zoning.

The very idea that communities ought to segregate is, if anything at all, ironic and perverse. What I’ll call ‘pod-zoning’ may actually be one of the biggest factors in what is increasingly becoming a hurdle for communities struggling with a post-manufacturing, service and idea-based economy.

I’ll post some pictures shortly that show exactly what I mean but most people know the difference between the kind of built-form that enables innovation and entrepreneurship and those that freeze it out and kill ideas before they are even generated. Zoning, in its very essence is an exclusionary tool and from its very invention has been used to attempt to pervert organic growth of Cities due to economic factors. While no one should have to live next to an abattoir, everyone in a City should be able to walk to a butcher shop. Sadly, people are still not convinced that isolating every possible nuisance from our lives through zoning does us more harm than good.

While I’m not a huge free-market advocate, and believe that government intervention is required to thwart the worst of human behaviours, I do believe that economic factors play a huge role in how people do things and why they do things the way they do. In particular, I believe that businesses need to be more concerned with their ability to understand their market space and their customer than with placing blame on government policy (which is shared as a burden by all businesses in any particular sector.) I’ll try to provide examples.

If a person decides they’d like to open a day-care in a neighbourhood, they’ll be successful if a) they provide a service needed in that community and b) there is a critical mass of customers and c) customers perceive a convenient and safe service. (Perhaps without children I should pick Day Care but I’ve seen how much trouble can be caused by proposals to create a local Day Care in an existing house/neighbourhood.) Part of the safety part includes the parents’ ability to get their child to the day care in a safe manner. The convenience part means that a day care must be close to home, to work, or to a school attended by other children in the family. Most convenient is a walkable Day Care within a neighbourhood or an at-work day care, though those are few and far between. The least safe or convenient is likely one confronted by traffic and parking lots, which increase the chance of an accident. Likely the more transportation is involved and the longer distance traveled, the less safe and convenient.

If there is not a critical mass of customers that find the service safe and convenient, then a Day Care will not survive for very long. The complaint about a day care in a neighbourhood of course is driven by traffic and parking concerns, which while understandable simply don’t add up to a huge problem in the overall scheme of things. Consider the absolute worst outcome that could result from having a Day Care and it would be that perhaps you could not get out of the driveway because someone had blocked it for 5 minutes on one or two occasions, making you late to a job you possibly aren’t that eager to get to. A) that’s not big stuff to sweat – a disruption rate in the thousandths and B) it’s a reason for meliorative measures like better indication of your driveway, or a discussion with the owner of the facility. It’s not a reason to ban Day Cares from neighbourhoods, which many zoning by-laws come very close to doing, through size limitation, parking requirements and through use-based zoning provisions.

I’m sure there are other issues that I’m not considering but when one considers the total impact of any nuisance activity in the overall to-and-fro of life in a City and the fact that a community Day Care operated by a sole proprietor IS human existence and the ongoing survival of communities. Mixed Use is what creates dynamism AND it creates Economic Development opportunities. It truly drives the creation of jobs from the entrepreneur up. Economics determines the rest. If a business started in a neighbourhood attains a certain size of economic success, its volume increases to a capacity that bothers neighbours and residents and becomes a nuisance, it is likely that business will also not serve its customers very well and will A) close or B) move locations. A resident opening a café on a neighbourhood street by placing a few tables on their patio, and selling instant coffee made with warm garden-hose coffee won’t thrive.

Perhaps there’s a small chance that businesses may move in and create undesirable outcomes but again, the likelihood that uses that don’t ‘naturally’ mix will survive in a neighbourhood for very long is, at least to my economic pondering, very slim. Even in the case they do move in, many businesses are only open during business hours and so impacts are again reduced by the market.

Building codes and other zoning that relates to visual impact, materials and paving/landscaping are regulated which further the chances that nuisance uses would be prevented from moving in. Public consultation requirements could be triggered through other mechanisms aside from the ‘Variance’ from use-based by-law which would stimulate public discussion and involvement and allow the market of ideas to get to work. In other words, if someone wanted to open a restaurant, in a neighbourhood, they’d likely require building permits to enable them to do so. Nuisance uses, like a noisy Bar can be limited however this still suggests that the market doesn’t regulate itself in terms of consumer/entertainment activities AND is based on an assumption that the activity won’t create a benefit by adding vibrancy and activity to a street, or economic success to a community and the perception that any negative issues are, in the overall scheme of things pet peeves rather that problems.

I’m going to take some pictures of Hintonburg and Mechanicsville to demonstrate what I’m talking about – as well as the kind of main street opportunity and critical shopping mass that Suburban communities fail to provide. This does not mean that any business in a local neighbourhood, or even on a main street will survive regardless of economic factors, but again, those are shared by businesses in a sector. People ought not be restricted from opening a small accounting office, or lawyers office in their own home – once successful enough they’ll likely seek more convenient locations for their customers to get to and present a more successful image. And the increasing role of electronic communications have reduced the number of face-to-face interactions considerably. These may seem like large measures but communities without these opportunities are in employment crises. New ideas are needed.

The way we currently zone for use, thereby restricting economic activity and requiring built-form and number of parking spaces to match business purpose, we provide a legalized framework and economic subsidies that provide a competitive advantage to those businesses that can afford to enter the market physically. In this way, we favour large corporations and entities and eliminate grassroots, community economic development. So not only have we created boring, car-dependent neighbourhoods and zoning-pods but we’ve codified anti-competition and attend meetings to oppose economic development. I’m not talking manufacturing or industry, or toxic uses – those must all stay separate.

Green Garden Hose Coffee Café could be a great thing for Greg. He got laid-off from the manufacturer that just left town and from what I hear, he makes a killer crepe. Feel free to comment – I don’t know everything.


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