In the 1920s, a new property classification tool called “zoning” was America’s clarion call to do something about urban issues. Citizen welfare, however, wasn’t the driving force for institutional change — the concerns of business led the charge. Proponents sought to protect the rights of everyone “who does business in a community,” (see “A Zoning Primer” commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce). After all, as Calvin Coolidge put it, “the chief business of the American people is business,” and early zoning was all about protection of that right, (according to early adopters.)

A view from Macy's Union Square store in San Francisco.

Zopheus / Wikimedia
A view from Macy’s Union Square store in San Francisco.

But what happens when a community, close to 100 years later, decides to use zoning not to protect the right for just anyone to conduct business in their community, but to foster a locally-based economy? In the case of San Francisco, neighbors are leaning on City Hall to keep chain stores — from Chipotle to Jack Spade to American Apparel — from peddling too many wares in “The City by the Bay.”

Lauren Smiley, writing for The New Yorker, details a local movement:

“Our claim to fame, in San Francisco, has always been our unique neighborhoods,” said Kathleen Dooley, who serves on the city’s small-business commission, and has been a part of discussions on pending legislation. “There’s a very valid worry that it could become very homogenous [sic], as we’ve seen in Manhattan.”

John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, suggests San Francisco take an even more radical approach to designing its future: tear down more freeways.

“It’s time to start talking about a freeway-free San Francisco,” said Norquist.

Traffic stalled on one of San Francisco, Calif.'s freeways.

Wonderlane / Flickr
Traffic stalled on one of San Francisco, Calif.’s freeways.

Norquist’s claim isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. As the folks at Streetsblog note, San Franciscans preserved many of their communities by successfully blocking a slew of proposed freeway projects, the sort legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs would have abhorred. In the 1990s, the city tore down one of its completed traffic movers, the Embarcadero Freeway, City leaders were bent on the Skyway’s demise even before  the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake did some of the demolition work on its own. and retrofitted the land into a waterfront district. Recently, Mayor Ed Lee and his administration have pushed to remove a section of Highway 280.

Norquist suggests the city take that a step further by tearing out all its freeway infrastructure. Aaron Bialick at the SF Streetsblog writes:

“Norquist pointed to Vancouver as a city on the North American west coast that never built freeways near its downtown, has decreased car traffic even as its population grows, and which has ‘the best appreciation of real estate value in North America over the last 20 years,’ [according to Norquist]. By contrast, Detroit has gone bankrupt trying to expand freeways in its never-ending quest to eliminate car congestion.”

On the riverfront in Seattle, Wash., a similar project to scuttle the Alaskan Way viaduct to create a waterfront district seems to echo Norquist’s vision. However, it’s worth noting that in the Emerald City, a massive tunneling project is also underway with plans to replace the Highway 99 corridor, this time underground.

Still, it seems Seattleites are speaking the same “war on cars” language, according to Danny Westneat, Seattle Times staff columnist and author of a recent post brazenly titled “Cars Losing Grip on Seattle.”

Westneat points to U.S. Census Bureau data which shows Seattle is one of five American cities where a majority of workers don’t drive, alone, to get to work.  And while buses and trains have contributed to the shift away from cars, it’s walking to work, biking to work and telecommuting that have brought the biggest change. Shouldn’t Seattle spend more “than a paltry 5 percent of its transportation budget on sidewalks and bike paths?” asks Westneat.

From the Seattle Times:

All the controversy the past few years about how city leaders are too bike-obsessed or are wasting money on road diets seems wildly misplaced. When you look at how their customers are choosing to live, the opposite is probably closer to the truth: City leaders haven’t been obsessed with bikes or pedestrians enough.

A view of Seattle's waterfront traffic mover the Alaskan Way viaduct, soon to be relocated underground.

Wac / Wikimedia
A view of Seattle’s waterfront traffic mover the Alaskan Way viaduct, soon to be relocated underground.

However, designers present a different take on alleviating urban ills. That’s evidenced in an interesting editorial courtesy of Chris Bentley from The Architect’s Newspaper, on building new economic growth in the Chicago region. Could the industries that lead to Chicago’s most formative moments help rescue it from the Great Recession, Bentley asks. Shipping and manufacturing may pave a future for the Windy City:

“Chicago is uniquely positioned at the juncture of the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, six of the country’s seven major railroads, seven of its interstate highways and its second busiest airport,” writes Bentley. “Maybe it is the reverse of ‘build it, and they will come.’ Make it easy to move goods, and they will build it.”

While planners and policy makers make hay about retrofitting suburbia (see Ellen Dunham-Jones’ great TEDx talk on the subject) the sprawling auto-focused office tract often goes overlooked.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, one of the 20th century’s big corporate office parks is the subject of a search for new, innovative approaches to making better use of existing urban space. Built in the 1950s, the 7,000-acre-plus property is Euclidean zoning (residential goes one place, commercial another and industrial another) at its most diffuse: workers can’t even buy a cup of coffee without hopping in a car.

Interestingly, retrofitting The Research Triangle Park, The Atlantic Cities’ James Oliphant writes, is as much about economic development as it is about redesigning the built environment: “The overarching goal is to make the Research Triangle Park as relevant to the lives of modern North Carolinans — and the world — as it was in its 20th-century heyday.”

Bob Geolas, chief executive officer of the park’s foundation says it would show that America can still think big, as ambitiously as it did back in 1956. “If we can’t do something like this,” he says, “shame on us.”

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.