In the mid-1920s, as his city debated whether to adopt a zoning code, prominent Philadelphia Realtor Albert “Mr. Philadelphia” Greenfield stridently argued against land use regulations as a form of “Bolshevism.” The counterpoint at the national level was provided by J.C. Nichols, the prominent Kansas City, Mo., developer of that city’s Country Club District, often credited as the country’s first planned community.
Greenfield adamantly believed that zoning regulations would unduly restrict the rights of property owners as they saw fit to develop, and that bureaucrats had no right to impact land values, which are most effectively set by the laws of supply and demand. Pro-zoning Realtors argued that the rights of citizens to live in healthy and safe communities required some level of land use regulation and that from a practical point of view, effective zoning regulations actually stabilize real estate markets and facilitate financing.
They asserted that American notions of self-governance meant that communities inherently have the right to establish processes for “orderly development” and “mutual protection.”
Except for a few outlying cases such as Houston, every major city in the U.S. has adopted some sort of zoning code. In some places, development of the code has lagged well behind the powerful economic forces that inexorably shape metropolitan landscapes in capitalist society; in such places, zoning regimes are marked by very busy zoning boards of adjustment, hashing out zoning policy on a case-by-case basis, creating uneven land-use regimes. City leaders periodically recognize the incongruity of their codes with underlying economic realities and undertake zoning code reform, which generally consists of citywide reconsideration of appropriate land uses at a hyperlocal level, culminating in a new set of zoning rules and maps. Done well, code reform is a highly participatory process, engaging residents and their elected and appointed public servants in fundamental discussions about the physical environment that shapes everyday life.
About 100 years after the Greenfield-Nichols debate, a recent op-ed in The Inquirer by Kyle Sammin dresses some of Greenfield’s core contentions in “anti-corruption” garb: that zoning codes create opportunity for manipulation of land uses and thus for political corruption, and that unfettered free markets maximize freedom for property owners, with the magic of markets creating optimal outcomes for society. It is a classic libertarian argument: the invisible hand outperforms democratic praxis in preserving the commonwealth.
If zoning variances are the true bête noire of political virtue, does it not make more sense to minimize the discrepancies in the code rather than create an unregulated land-use regime? For what it’s worth, Houston, often trotted out by libertarians as the paragon of freedom, has plenty of land-use regulations that have developed in response to economic and political forces; while Houston doesn’t mandate single-use zoning, its system of private deed restrictions amounts to a decentralized zoning regime. Houston has also suffered its share of political corruption, ranked by a recent study in the top tier of corrupt U.S. cities.
While zoning is not a perfect regime in any city, and while a number of Philadelphia politicians have found their way to indictment via the opportunities presented by the tradition of deference among district councilmembers around land-use decisions (aka “councilmanic prerogative”), people prone to corruption will probably find themselves in hot water one way or another. Having participated in zoning code reform in this city as a civic leader, and having written about the origins of land-use policy in my previous life as an academic historian, I’m unpersuaded that eliminating zoning codes will either make politicians in this or any other city act more virtuously or lead to better land-use outcomes for residents.
As messy as it may be, more democratic control, more citizen input is almost always preferable to relinquishing control over fundamental processes like the shape of our communities to unfettered market forces that are, by definition, steered by those with market power.
I’d rather we commit to an ongoing, resident-driven process of remapping, to minimizing opportunities for the exercise of prerogative, maybe to even legislating prerogative out of existence, than to leaving such fundamental decisions about the shape of our communities, our neighborhoods, our city entirely to market forces.