Thursday, June 4

Everything in its place

I stumbled upon an insightful little book written in 1977, Everything in its Place, about American zoning practice from an anthropological perspective. Judging by the fact that I bought it as a discarded library book for $3, it seems to be mostly forgotten. That’s too bad. Constance Perin, then a researcher at MIT, dug about as deeply into the suburban psyche as anyone I’ve heard from.

The question that launches her investigation is pretty familiar to many of us. How have American communities ended up with strict spatial separation of all different kinds of land uses? Why have we been willing to endure long commutes and social isolation simply to build buffers between ourselves and other kinds of people? The practice of zoning may have started as a simple application of common law nuisance provisions, but it has resulted in a precise mapping of our social class categories onto the built environment. It moved from protecting houses from smokestacks to separating different kinds of people by income, tenure, and age, and indirectly by race.

All of her interviewees, mostly developers, bankers, and planners, explicitly repudiated segregation, but in practice they found themselves passively oriented according to segregated land use patterns anyway. A primary motivation she found was the sheer weight of investment people are asked to place into their homes. Any financial advisor worth her salt will recommend a diverse portfolio, but almost all middle-class Americans do the opposite. They put all of their eggs into one basket – their home. Add to this the indisputable fact that the value of a property is tied up with the value of everything around it, and an element of fear is introduced into the equation. Every consumer of housing is also a producer of used housing, and this their entire product line is encapsulated in one particular property.

Apparently, the phenomenon of being “house poor” is nothing new. She talks with homeowners who had put everything they had into their house, with not even enough left in the budget to fill it with furniture. Tax incentives and a feeling of social obligation compelled buyers to extend themselves as far as possible. Writing from the midst of white flight, she found that even white homeowners who immediately befriended the new black neighbors who moved in started to wonder if everyone else would take to the change as amenably as they had. Were they willing to gamble on it?

She makes the counterintuitive claim that zoning ordinances are actually mostly for the benefit of developers and bankers. As much as developers like to grumble about regulations, in reality these laws serve as an insurance policy for their investments. They do not necessarily enhance value, but they minimize risk. They keep the financial calculations uncomplicated and allow for the application of formulaic principles. Development plans that can isolate the existing conditions and surroundings are more easily replicable at a mass scale.

But it’s not all cold economic calculation. She noticed neighbors fighting against new low-income housing even when it was accompanied with extravagant improvements to the neighborhood. Not only do people identify with their family household but often the social identity spreads through the entire surrounding area. Certain neighborhoods can have status attached to them. Perhaps Glenmore will not evoke the same image if a large apartment complex is built right in the heart of it. And while privacy has always been an important human concern, the means of meeting this need shifted. She found that suburbanites expressed privacy through walls, while urbanites used social rules to maintain privacy.

The shape of land use is formed though a multiplicity of actions by developers and bankers, homeowners bound together as neighborhoods, and public officials responding to pressures from both groups. It has been the modern way to break down the whole into many discrete parts, and this expression has socially mapped itself out onto the metropolitan areas we live in.

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