Monday, January 19, 2015

Sonia A. Hirt's "Zoned in the USA"

Sonia A. Hirt is Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. She publishes on the history and theory of cities. She is the author of Iron Curtains: Gates, Suburbs and Privatization of Space in the Post-socialist City and coeditor most recently of The Urban Wisdom of Jane Jacobs.

Hirt applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The third important legal development [in the history of building regulations] was the application of the nuisance doctrine in 12th-century England (Fifoot 1970 [1949]). Initially, the concept was employed only by the Crown against perceived encroachments upon royal lands and public roadways. But in the subsequent centuries, the doctrine became widely used by private individuals who could sue other private individuals to recover damages. Simultaneously, the number of activities covered under the doctrine expanded greatly and included issues related to public health and safety. In one old case with exclusionary modern-day undertones, offenders were accused of having subdivided their houses to the point where they had become “overpestered” with the poor (Abrams and Washington 1989).

The Renaissance (1400-1600) and Baroque (1600-1750) marked the dawn of Western modernity and brought about a new attitude toward city-building that centered on formal, pre-calculated notions of order and of standardization of space. These principles followed from the widely held belief of Renaissance and Baroque artists and scientists in universal verities that underlie both good social organization and good city form (Benevolo 1981). They were manifested in the design of the grandest and best-known public spaces and structures constructed during the period (e.g., London’s St. Paul and Rome’s St. Peter), and in the substantial reshaping of the street network and city-block structure that took place in many of Europe’s major cities. They were also reflected in an increased level of urban regulation. The latter was grounded as much in cultural change as it was in practical matters. Many European cities grew immensely during the 15th and 16th centuries, which led to health and congestion problems of proportions unseen before. The population of London, for instance, grew multifold; construction spilled well beyond the city walls, and living conditions radically worsened. Elizabeth I responded by passing a decree that made it an offense to construct any new buildings within the cities of London and Westminster or within three miles of their gates. Another decree mandated that new buildings be constructed using existing foundations. The subdivision and subletting of existing houses was banned.

Later decrees regulated building methods and materials in much greater detail. London’s great fire of 1666 led to the Building Act of 1667 took urban regulations to a whole new level, technically in the name of fire safety but ultimately transforming the overall city structure. Narrow alleys were prohibited and new streets had to conform to new standards. Notably, buildings were divided into four categories based on the type of streets they faced, but also based on class. Each type was subject to different rules for building materials, wall thickness and heights.
Page 99 of Zoned in the USA recounts some of the threshold moments in the history of Western urban building regulations. Specifically, it refers to the emergence of nuisance doctrine in medieval England. Nuisance doctrine is a concept that dates back to Roman times and forms the basis of many building, environmental and land-use laws that are in force today. Its basic idea is that property owners should not use their land and property in ways harmful to the ways their neighbors may use and enjoy theirs (Sic utere tuo, ut alienum non laedas or Use what is yours in a way that you don't harm what is another's). Page 99 gives examples of some surprising early applications of the nuisance doctrine; i.e., to control the social class of renters in London. Later, p. 99 deals with the development of street and building regulations from the Renaissance and the Baroque—regulations that have influenced our contemporary laws as well.

The broader point of p. 99 and the history chapters of Zoned in the USA is to highlight continuity and rupture in the way people control the built environment around them. Even though many contemporary building laws can be traced to laws from the past, the sheer extent to which we regulate the built environment today is unprecedented. American land-use and building laws, specifically, are shockingly detailed to the point of being oppressive (a strange phenomenon, I think, in a country where there is so much talk about freedom and property rights). Spontaneity is either outright outlawed or can operate only under severe restrictions. If you do not believe me, try to open a small business or rent a part of your home to a friend, if your home is located in a district labeled exclusively for single-family homes in any American city, town, or suburb. I predict you will encounter various legal problems. Our contemporary zoning laws are much more apt at controlling private activity as well as social class than those of medieval England.
Learn more about Zoned in the USA at the Cornell University Press website.

Writers Read: Sonia A. Hirt.

--Marshal Zeringue