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Thursday, October 21, 2010


The best leadership involves the simplest feasible instructions.

The 19th and 20th century issues of land use and building separation remain; but the threat has multiplied with population growth. We are now faced with the problem of separating incompatible land use activities from each other, separating all of these man-made activities from the natural environment that sustains them, improving our quality of life within the built environment constructed and seeking a symbiotic relationship with the planet. This means that we must protect ourselves from excessive intensity, ensure economic stability, promote social opportunity, avoid natural hazard, prevent environmental degradation, preserve ecological systems and establish a symbiotic relationship between the places we create and the forces that surround them.

These are issues related to zoning regulation, but it has become a complex document of assorted and incomplete requirements in random order that compromise its leadership potential. The effort is justified by the intent but woefully inadequate for the purpose. Planning and zoning are capable of leading this effort if they can improve their research, accommodate related scientific / technical disciplines, strengthen their legal foundation, discipline their review process, and focus on the organization and specifications required for leadership. The first step is to organize what has already been produced.


The content of a zoning ordinance is not nearly as complicated as its method of organization. A typical format makes it difficult to lead the intended audience of land owners, investors, developers, planners, designers, regulators and builders since the time required to interpret the document discourages the effort and produces partial success at best.  This does not justify abandoning the objective, however. It means that simplicity is very difficult to achieve in the presence of extreme complexity.

Three tables explain this point. Table A illustrates the Table of Contents of the zoning ordinance used for this example. (Columns 3 and 4 have been added.) It begins with the Topic column and has the topic numbers arranged in numeric order. The result is a disorganized collection of topics that have to be read in numeric order, in their entirety, to discover all project requirements.

The topics of Table A have been rearranged under nine Sections in Table 1. (These sections were noted in Col. 4 of Table A.) Each section identifies a major area of concern in this ordinance, and related topics are grouped under each. The non-sequential topic number references reveal the rearrangement that has taken place. The section titles attempt to show that each apparently random zoning topic has a larger objective, and that these objectives are reasonable issues to consider when planning and developing land within an urban area.

Table 2 arranges the elements of a zoning ordinance topic under the section titles listed in Table 1. This arrangement shows that each topic contains information related to many sections, and the only way to ensure that you have read all material related to a given issue is to read the entire ordinance while taking notes. This is time-consuming, leads to much confusion, produces many mistakes, and convinces some that entrapment is intended. This arbitrary organization of topics blurs purpose, dilutes respect, encourages non-compliance and undermines leadership. The problem is magnified when specific regulations appear to be isolated hurdles rather than steps toward an objective. The point is that randomly organized, isolated topics filled with poorly organized elements will appear weak, arbitrary, and superficial until they are grouped to reveal their objectives and capable of achieving their leadership goals.


The nine sections of Table 1 can be consolidated into the five chapters identified in Table 3.

The Land Use and Design chapters of a zoning ordinance are active ingredients and represent city design specifications. The Definition chapter explains the language involved. (Ideally, an electronic zoning ordinance would link definitions to their location in the text.) The Management and Enforcement chapters generally require little reorganization. They can always benefit from improvement, however; and often ignore audience behavior that can be orchestrated to produce review board intimidation.


Zoning simplification requires at least three commitments. The first is to reorganize existing content around a format that speaks more easily to the varied needs of its users in less time than currently required. The second is to ensure that all future amendments are written to correspond to this format. The third is to improve the specification content to reach its leadership potential.

Rural areas are not immune. In fact, they will find themselves struggling to filter out primary, secondary, and irrelevant issues along with the rest of us when they recognize that zoning can be useful in protecting their way of life and our sustainable future.


Zoning has been a tactical method of reconciling land use conflict within our built environment. It has required the coordination of individual freedom with collective benefit, since many perceive the right of the group as subordinate to the individual. City planning and zoning are still engaged in this debate since planning was a remote issue to those who struggled to define liberty and saw a world of infinite resources. We have now seen ourselves from space and recognize the limits involved.

The 18th century began to seriously question the right of an individual to profit at the expense of slaves. The 19th century began to question the right of an individual to profit at the expense of groups suffering from poverty, tenements and fire hazard. The 20th century began to question the right of an individual to profit from the location and operation of public health and safety hazards. The 21st century is beginning to question the right of individuals to profit at the expense of the planet.

There is a more fundamental issue than the struggle among us however. City planners refer to this issue as land use. We began our collective struggle for survival with conflict over land that continues to this day. As we fight however, we attempt to control a power we cannot hope to subdue. Our new image of the Earth is leading to awareness that our genetic impulse to dominate is too simple for the stewardship required. It remains to be seen if we can harness these instincts in time, and adapt to the strategies required for survival without the chaos required for change in the past.

Author Note: The following articles can be read on my blog, Cities and Design, at

1)      "Replacing Density" discusses its leadership weakness and intensity alternative,
2)      "The Limits of Shelter Capacity" provides expanded detail regarding intensity,
3)      "The City is a Farm” discusses the relationship of intensity to economic development,
4)      "The Disorganized Zoning Ordinance" outlines the legislative confusion that impedes leadership progress,
5)      “Examining Architecture” takes a closer look at a piece of the city design puzzle,
6)      “The Variance Trap” illustrates development regulation weakness with a residential forecast model from the Development Capacity Evaluation (DCE) software collection,
7)      “City Design with Space” discusses the overlooked role of project open space with a non-residential forecast model from the DCE collection,
8)      “The Core of Our Built Environment” identifies the nucleus of development capacity
9)      “Ponzi Schemes and Land Use Plans” offers an alternative to annexation and sprawl.
10)    “Where Does Sustainability Begin?” discusses the importance of land in a competition between our natural and built environments.
11)    “Economic Development Is Missing a Strategy” discusses the intelligence and strategic planning required to identify economic development objectives on the road to a sustainable future.

These articles have been deleted from my blog but are available upon request:

1)      The Concept of City Design” includes an overview and suggested research agenda,
2)      “Politics and Planning” is an argument in support of the effort, and
3)      “Context Measurement” outlines a suggested research yardstick.

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