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Solving the Suburban Zoning Crisis

While communities today search for ways to reconnect and create focal points, the planning and development philosophies of the early 1900s have sparked discussion on ways to reinvent municipal zoning that allows for the "innovation" of mixed-use developments that answer the cry to bring a village-type atmosphere back to our neighborhoods. As we often find, the lessons of the future will be garnered from the past.

It may surprise many of us to learn that strict municipal zoning is a relatively new phenomenon, established in the 1920s, after the rise of the American city as a hub of manufacturing and commerce and immigration.

The crucible of modern zoning, however, is not Philadelphia or Boston or New York, but much smaller Euclid, Ohio, a first-ring suburb of present-day Cleveland, on the shore of Lake Erie. It is fitting for the city named for the Greek mathematician who founded the modern science of geometry, the marking off and defining of spaces. In Euclid, during the mid-1920s, city leaders squared off against Ambler Realty Co. over a zoning code adopted in 1922 and based on New York's 1916 zoning code, the nation's first.

Six use classifications were established, ranging from single family to industrial, along with specifics relating to building heights, setbacks and other zoning details familiar today. As the result of the new zones, Ambler now found about half of its 68-acre property zoned residential. The firm sued Euclid, claiming the "ordinance attempts to restrict and control the lawful uses of appellee's land, so as to confiscate and destroy a great part of its value," for Ambler had earmarked the property for industrial development.

The case reached the Supreme Court, which in a ruling of great importance to the real estate industry (Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 [1926]), sustained Euclid's position and its right to establish the zoning districts. It was a victory for the concept of home rule as it falls within the province of police powers, as well as the principle of confining social, civic and economic activity to distinct zones or locations.

The Euclid story bears several ironies. One of Ambler's counselors, a Mr. Baker, argued before the high court that industrial expansion outward from Cleveland soon would absorb the area being contested. Part of the Amber property eventually did house a General Motors wartime plant following a zoning change. After World War II, the site became home to a GM Fisher Body division plant, which closed in the early 1970s. But the basic zones have remained unchanged to this day, making for some odd bedfellows - such as Euclid Square Mall, which is planted in an industrial zone - and the overall hampering of development flexibility.

Impact on today's development The Euclid decision legacy on suburban development, amplified by post-war suburban flight, is profound and tragic. For nearly 80 years, suburban American cities have conformed to a strict municipal zoning philosophy that geographically isolates each segment of the community's life. The result has been seven decades of poor urban development and the proliferation of developments lacking both "soul" and convenience.

The Euclid decision also shaped the development industry. Faced with zoning regulations, developers began specializing . Each segment conducts business differently, subscribes to different associations, caters to varied markets and pursues financing sources unique to the category.

No longer challenged to envision and nurture community-oriented developments, the creative focus is narrowed considerably by zoning limitations.

Reversing the damage A strong contingent of urban planners and developers recognize the futility of establishing truly livable environments within the restrictions of Euclidian zoning. Philosophically termed "new urbanists," these professionals and other related disciplines continue to study ways to reconfigure the suburbs into communities and diverse districts.

The tenets of new urbanists, as defined by the Congress for the New Urbanism include:

* All development should take the form of compact, walkable neighborhoods or districts and have clearly defined centers and edges to encourage pedestrian traffic without banning automobiles. Streets should be laid out as an interconnected network to form coherent blocks where buildings open onto the street. Neighborhood centers should include public space, such as a square or an important street intersection; public buildings, such as libraries, churches and community centers; and retail businesses.

* A diverse mix of activities (residences, shops, schools, workplaces and parks) should occur in proximity. A wide spectrum of housing options should enable people of a broad range of incomes, ages and family types to live within a single neighborhood. Large developments featuring a single use or serving a single market segment should be avoided.

* Open spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, squares and greenbelts, should be provided in convenient locations throughout the neighborhood.

New urbanism focuses on the relationship between the people and their buildings and emphasizes how buildings relate to the street and to the public domain, not what happens behind their facades.

Prior to the Euclid decision, city planning was based on these same principles. The result was coherent towns and cities fostering a sense of community and providing its members with easy access to the activities that made up an enjoyable lifestyle.

While communities and developers have been slow to accept the complete planning and zoning reversal represented by new urbanism, planned communities like the Kentlands, Celebration or McKenzie Towne have given credence to the merits of reintroducing social and pedestrian intercourse to the community. The success of these developments and the benefits to the cities in which they are located proves that the new urbanism approach can be holistically, aesthetically and financially rewarding.

The new urbanism philosophy guides the emergence of town center and mixed-use developments, including those founded on or featuring retail. As developers, we must learn to mix uses rather than specialize in one type of development. Consequently, as new urbanists we find ourselves:

* Showing respect for gateways, landscaping and signage, natural congregation points and open spaces;

* Demonstrating that density - unlike bad design and planning - is not vice and must be seen as the remedy to sprawl and wasted open space;

* Finding new ways to prioritize pedestrians and the quality of their domain above vehicles and parking;

* Having people live near where they shop, mail a letter or see the family doctor, and;

* Realizing a better mix of office use, retail, dining and entertainment.

To better integrate our work lives and home lives and make the physical experience of living more pleasing and entertaining the new urbanists are on the right track. Along the way, they have brought about a fresh examination of the zoning and architectural standards and issues first contested in Euclid v. Ambler. We believe the future holds the opportunity for a more integrated, satisfying urban environment, if only we would look to the past.

The developments of the last 60 years built by specialized developers under the shadows of Euclidian zoning and resulting urban planning standards are coming to an end. We believe that new urbanism-driven planning criteria will foster a new generation of developers to create built environments comparable to the best references of the 1800s and early 1900s.

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