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Thursday, November 03, 2022

Review: Arbitrary Lines

 Arbitrary Lines is M Nolan Gray's book about zoning. It begins with the story of Sim City and how it gave the impression that zoning is the be-all and end-all of city planning, and then goes on to explain how zoning was created (and then promoted) by Berkeley California in order to successfully exclude Chinese laundries and other undesirable from otherwise high class neighborhoods. The book has an entire appendix in order to explain of what zoning is, and how it differs about environmental protection laws (on which Gray has nothing to say), or historic preservations.

The book covers the evils of zoning. You've probably lived it --- too few houses being built, insufficient density, urban sprawl, and car dependence. If you haven't lived it, then you definitely should read this book because he covers it better than I could in a summary.

What's most interesting about the book is the section on Houston, which is apparently the only large unzoned city in the USA. It turned out that zoning was put to a referendum there, and voted down not once, but multiple times, each time with the poorer people voting against it, indicating that citizens in a democracy can tell when the rich people are trying to screw them. The adoption of zoning in other cities throughout the nation was only because they were never put to a vote.

Eventually, Houston got out of the cycle of having to have repeated referendums on the topic of zoning by allowing the rich areas that really wanted zoning to have their cake. A district that wanted to impose rules on building could do so with a supermajority vote and then from then on all the onerous restrictions they want to impose on themselves would have to be made known to any buyers of property in that district, and the city would actually enforce those restrictions by refusing to issue permits and fining those who violate those restrictions.

The rest of the book is about how to get out from the culture of zoning. Since it's popular amongst the rich voters who own houses (by restricting the number of houses you drive up property values), it would seem hopeless. Gray suggests things like tying funding to the removal of zoning ordinances. That would definitely get people's attention. I can imagine Cupertino's Asian population (famously non-political until schools are involved) actually voting if education funding was increased in exchange for getting rid of zoning. So things aren't impossible, you just have to bribe enough people to make it happen.

The entire book taught me a ton of stuff I didn't know about zoning, and is short and easy to read. It's well worth your time. Recommended.

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