Friday, October 16, 2009

Diversity of Use

Continuing on with my re-read of Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), she describes in Chapter 12 "some myths about diversity" that seem relevant in Charleston, SC, as the City moves forward with revising its comprehensive plan.  Jacobs writes: 

"'Mixed uses look ugly.  They cause traffic congestion.  They invite ruinous issues.'  These are some of the bugbears that cause cities to combat diversity.  These beliefs help shape city zoning regulations.  They have helped rationalize city rebuilding into the sterile, regimented, empty thing that it is.  They stand in the way of planning that could deliberately encourage spontaneous diversity by providing the conditions necessary to its growth.  Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos.  On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order. . . . Flourishing city diversity, of the kind that is catalyzed by the combination of mixed primary uses, frequent streets, mixture of building ages and overheads, and dense concentration of users, does not carry with it the disadvantages of diversity conventionally assumed by planning pseudoscience."

Fortunately, many city planners have moved away from planning preferences of the 1960s, but resistance to diversity remains, often by residents of neighborhoods who have grown accustomed to single use zoning.  Historic neighborhoods often feel this resistance acutely.  Even though current zoning often allows only single families to live in many of these neighborhoods, historically these areas enjoyed hundreds of different uses.  Thus, many historic neighborhoods, while aesthetically pleasing, represent a history that is incomplete.  Diversity is mainly an oddity.

In Charleston right now, historic neighborhood groups have started to raise concerns about form-based developments that the City is encouraging to improve diversity.  The concerns relate chiefly to increased density and problems related to parking that increased density in areas immediately adjacent to historic neighborhoods will inevitably bring.  Preservation groups, while supportive of the philosophy behind form-based codes, worry that the approval by zoning boards of building forms will discount the role of boards of architectural review, the primary defense against inappropriate new construction in terms of its height, scale, mass, and overall aesthetics.  This concern has merit, unless stakeholders in the preservation community, along with the board of architectural review, have a place at the table in designing the forms that zoning authorities are likely to approve.  Two meetings take place next week in Charleston on related issues.  How the City will ultimately balance the important goal of diversity against historic preservation policy remains unclear.  I'll let you know how the political process plays out. 

Will Cook, Charleston School of Law

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Very interesting Will. Here in the Unzoned City of Houston we don't have the zoning restrictions against mixed-use, but many neighborhoods remain single-use anyway because of the prevalence of deed restrictions and covenants-- which, uniquely, the city itself will enforce.

Posted by: Matt Festa | Oct 16, 2009 8:43:57 AM