Going forward, Houston can either embrace zoning and place itself in the steady hands of technocrats who designate where bodegas, trailer parks and whatnot go, or it can stick with the present organic model, letting a bunch of mouth-breathing humans organize the city from the bottom up.
I know what Sim City would do.
In Sim City, as you will recall, you arrange your city with zones: industrial, commercial, residential, and (as of Sim City 4), agricultural. Zones helpfully organize the activity of their denizens until eventually you get bored and level the whole city by summoning a rampaging robot spider. Remember?
In the case of Houston, the city was not attacked by rampaging Kaiju, but rather by a hurricane. It also has the most lax zoning laws of any major city in America. Coincidence?
One school of thought proposes that raging torrents don’t really care whether or not your buildings have been zoned for stripmalls or duplexes. Our Nick Gillespie seems to think the federal government’s plan to encourage development in flood zones by offering cheap flood insurance somehow contributed to people living in flood zones.
Some folks are saying a lack of dedicated wetlands lead to overflow, which sounds plausible, although my colleague Christian Britschgi disputes it. I don’t know a lot about wetland permeability—wetlands did not factor into Sim City 2000.
What I do know is that Houston’s anarchic zoning laws are an affront to the universe.
Some of the images of Houston’s zoning abdication I’m about to show are graphic–particularly if you have a degree in Urban Planning. They represent the maniacal chaos Middle American wiles can unleash if not properly restrained by technocrats. You might want to grab a drink first.
That’s right—a house next to a roller coaster! Why not just mix toothpaste and orange juice together in a big jug, Houston? You sicken me.
Now that is just insane. A skyscraper next to a one-story house?! I have never seen a more flagrant disregard for shadow regulations. Without technocrats this is what you get: a bunch of shadows choking your daisies. Also worth pointing out here that the Tower of Babel was a zoning violation. Think about it.
Brace yourself for this next one:
A strip club next to a Dillard’s?! The whole point of Dillard’s is to act as a consumer trap from which captive husbands cannot escape. When properly zoned, Dillard’s is a place where dads patiently wander around holding their wives’ purses. In the city of Houston & Gomorrah, men get loose with those purses and spend their wives’ money on questionable lunch buffets and lap dances with Brandi.
A lack of rigorous zoning inevitably leads to new businesses popping up all over the place like spores. In a tightly-regulated city, you need to purchase property to start a coffee shop. Absent commercial zoning, you could sling coffee right out of your garage. In fact all sorts of people would concoct side hustles out of their homes if they could. You could conceivably buy cupcakes, fresh vegetables, coffee, or even foot massages without leaving the giant shadow encompassing your block.
Need I even bring up factories? Here you are in this nice suburban home, and all of a sudden a giant smokestack sprouts like a mushroom next door to you where your neighbor, Chuck, used to live before he ran off with Brandi. Factories, of course, don’t want to live way out on cheap land near industrial parks and highways, they want to live next door to you. You need zoning to protect you.
Let’s touch on some counter arguments the nutjobs are going to lob at me. Yes, occasionally zoning gets away from overeager technocrats and becomes an ominous tool to isolate minorities. Cities in California used to aggressively regulate the location of laundromats, because most laundromats were owned by Chinese people. During the White Flight of the ’60s, cities used zoning to intentionally drive up land prices to keep black people out of particular neighborhoods.
I can assure you that today we don’t use zoning to jerk around races. We use it to jerk around poor people. Many cities use minimum lot sizes to keep unwanted riff-raff out of rich neighborhoods. By requiring lots to be twice as big as you can afford, bureaucrats relegate the poor to their pre-planned, multi-dwelling, slummy part of town.
Again, not racist, merely classist.
In summation, if you loose the bonds of zoning, the result is pandemonium, disorganized coffee distribution, roller coasters, hurricanes, and shadows. It’s jumbled enough to scare off a rampaging spider robot.
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