In this week's issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal, reporter David Czurak wrote about an award that the Grand Valley Metro Council received for devising a uniform zoning, the "Metropolitan Blueprint", that area municipalities and townships could adopt. Apparently what got everyone's attention was how this blueprint eschewed such zoning mugwumpery like focusing on separating uses into different district in favor of mixing uses together in a single district.
Christina Anderson is an urban planner from Chicago whose firm, Farr Associates, was one of the authors of the Metropolitan Blueprint. She commented to Czurak that zoning that separates uses -- e.g., keeps that pig farm away from your subdivision -- makes it difficult to recreate mixed-use districts. Well, I suppose so, because that's precisely what zoning was designed to prevent. Anderson, like many "new urbanists", have a yen for old-fashioned core city neighborhoods that are a jumble of stores, small businesses, public facilities, and homes that somehow work in harmony. I enjoy places like that, too. In fact, I live in a neighborhood like that.
However, you can't zone by government fiat those sorts of neighborhoods. As Anderson noted, "Often those locations were something that was done before zoning." Precisely. They are organic. They didn't pop up from a top-down municipal master plan. They came together through the efforts of individuals working out their conflicts over a period of time. Nevertheless, Anderson's firm thinks that local governments can dictate these "new urbanist" mixed-use neighborhoods by dictating the types of buildings, the layout of streets, and all manner of goo-gaws like porches, stoops, window design, and storefronts that must be constructed.
In other words, Anderson and company think that function will follow form. Hmm, I'm not so sure about that, but squaring that circle is probably less of a fool's errand than the whole notion of planning the unplannable. Current zoning practices have some real flaws that impede the harmonious development of communities. The Grand Valley Metropolitan Council was not wrong to have Farr Associates address these deficiencies. However, the solution is not further constraints forcing property owners to conform to the aesthetics of a handful of planners, but fewer which emulate the free-wheeling conditions that allowed those 19th-century mixed-use neighborhoods that "new urbanists" love to sprout in a 21st-century way.