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Zoning: Paving Its Way with Good Intentions

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

May 9, 2014 2:45:00 PM

The more we understand ecology, the more we need a zoning makeover.

The Look of Sprawl

Is this Green? Some residential zoning requires lot sizes of 4 acres (about what's outlined here). Rather than protecting ecosystems, it carves them into fractured pieces.

IN MY PORTLAND NEIGHBORHOOD--built before zoning--some of the houses are so close together, you can't even fit an aluminum ladder between them to fix a broken piece of asbestos siding. That's too close. So maybe we should have a rule that says houses must leave enough room for a person to climb a ladder. But that's it. Nothing more.

Instead, zoning has become more trouble than it's worth: a ball and chain--especially when it comes to building and rebuilding sustainably. Perhaps it's well intentioned, but zoning makes higher levels of density--a key component of sustainable design--impossible. Zoning forces us to spread out across the countryside, paving over diversity.

Take Atlanta, Georgia, arguably one of the worst sprawl examples in the country, a landscape (not unlike many other fast-growing American cities) of fractured forests, isolated wetlands and suburban monocultures. Their zoning division's mission: "to promote desirable living conditions and to encourage the most appropriate use of land for orderly growth and development." Let's zero in on the word "orderly."

Imagine a zoning official shrunk down to the size of a grasshopper, trying to make things "orderly." He'd quickly go insane. "No ferns allowed with 10 inches of an aspen tree. Anthropods will not park on deciduous leaves. Forest canopies may not exceed 40 ft."

“Imagine a zoning official shrunk down to the size of a grasshopper, trying to make things "orderly." He'd quickly go insane.”

I saw a quote recently that I really liked: "Chaos is order yet undeciphered." To a lay person, natural ecosystems appear to function chaotically. Rivers don't flow in straight lines. Plant species overlap, interweave, produce flowers. Insects come and go. To an ecologist, however, layer upon layer of activity is unfolding: order on a higher scale.

Most towns and cities have zoning rules that dictate building setbacks at the very least:  10 ft. left and right, 25 ft. from the street, 50 ft. behind the house, or thereabouts. Sleepy small towns such as  Cumberland, Maine, have  rural zoning that requires 4-acre minimum lots.

But let's not put all the blame on the zoning people. Some are trying to catch up to the times. They may be enforcing rules created when Charles Dickens was alive, and firecarts were drawn by horses, but the public they're dealing with believes the myth that density-denying zoning will protect the wild areas they love.

For example, in Cumberland, officials just proposed a new Comprehensive Plan that would month  reduce lot size requirement to 2 acres, only to get pushback from residents.

Most people seem to want the same thing. They want a world in balance, and places to visit that don't feel overrun with people. But the old ways of achieving those goals no longer work, as you'll read in this issue. We can and will rebuild and protect biodiversity, if we hope to survive and thrive as a species. Rethinking zoning is one good place to start.


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