Autocentricity: a better villain

Autocentricity: a better villain

“With a true view all the data harmonize, but with a false one the facts soon clash.”

Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 8:11-12

Autocentricity: a reality where the built environment has been designed and constructed so that most people need to drive a car to get most places.

Multi-modal city: A city with a built environment designed to a human scale rather than the scale of a vehicle. Multi-modal cities will have transportation networks in which walking, biking, and using public transit present an equally effective or more effective transportation option than driving a car. A city where a person or family could choose to not own a vehicle and have as high a quality of life as someone who does own a vehicle.

Modal-split: describes how we measure the different ratios of trip types by percentage, usually in categories such as: single-occupant vehicle, carpool, cycling, walking, transit. Many cities in Texas have modal splits with single-occupant vehicle comprising 85% or more of all trips taken. 

Autocentricity is a great word. It’s also a great villain. A great, evil villain. Far greater, I think, than some of the other villains city planners and urbanists currently spotlight and combat. Villains like exclusive single-family zoning. 

Don't get confused, I'm not saying all cars are villainous or that every sort of exclusive single-family zoning is good. I’m saying that cities designed primarily for cars put society at far greater risk of inequity and injustice issues than the more narrow issue of setting aside portions of land zoned exclusively for some type of single-family residential development (though, of course, the two can and do often go hand-in-hand).

I bring this up because in the past week or so [at the time of this writing] I've seen a particular article published by The Upshot pop up in discussions across a variety of formats I follow. The article mentions a number of places that have banned exclusive single-family zoning, or at least capped it. I don't disagree with the legislation or the rationale behind it, but I think anyone hoping it—by itself—makes a big impact on issues such as affordable housing, inequity, and racial segregation will end up disappointed. 

Image: The Upshot, New York Times

The article cites a planning director from Charlotte, North Carolina, who says that his city "had to change its zoning to become more equitable.” He stated that a 2014 national study described Charlotte as "having among the worst prospects in the country for poor children." The author of the article, referring to the ranking, says that "zoning laws helped cement those patterns in cities across the country by separating housing types so that renters would be less likely to live among homeowners, or working-class families among affluent ones, or minority children near high-quality schools." The article’s argument revolves around the idea that single-family zoning districts that exclude other types of housing causes or at least contributes to these different types of injustice. 

That's where I cringe a bit. Let me again state that I don't see anything wrong with the efforts some cities have taken to scale back exclusive single-family zoning. Single-family-only zoning can be utilized in detrimental ways, but so can any type of zoning, especially when the zoning creates an autocentric version of the uses it allows. Exclusive single-family zoning could also result in very healthy walkable neighborhoods. At the end of the day I just don't think it’s going to have the impact some seem to hope, because I don't see a consistent causal relationship between the equity/justice issues and exclusively single-family zoning. 

At one point the article cites Lisa MacDonald, a former city council member in Minneapolis, where we can find an early example of this type of legislative action. The article summarizes her views: "[developers will] build more market-rate housing, she said. But she doubts the city will get much more affordable housing—or less racism, more equity or a fairer society. Beware those promises, she warns other cities." I share her sentiment if nothing else.

Zoning for… affordability?

So, let me unpack how I see some of the equity/injustice issues that some think this type of legislation will solve. Let’s look at affordable housing. In Fort Worth, Texas I can find housing all across the affordability spectrum in every shape and form. In most cases the differences in price have far more to do with location and quality rather than the zoning classification. Rental units follow a similar pattern. Now, some small cities around Fort Worth have certainly positioned themselves for the wealthy. However, many of those cities have zoning districts not too different from Fort Worth; they just have a more expensive “brand.” Furthermore, some of the cities with the biggest minimum lot sizes in their single-family zoning districts allow accessory dwelling units, which removes them from the exclusively single-family category but keeps them in the exclusionary discussion. Expensive, exclusive housing comes in every form. We can’t zone affordability; look at Manhattan.

We can’t zone affordability; look at Manhattan.

Next, consider places like Boulder or San Francisco. They have lots of the coveted missing middle housing, which is one of the goals of these legislative efforts to eliminate exclusive single family zoning. However, Boulder and San Francisco still don't accommodate people of the missing middle income bracket. My point here is that affordable housing currently has much more to do with a privatized housing industry than just zoning. Daniel Hertz draws a complementary conclusion in an article posted a while back with City Observatory. He talks about housing equity… without mentioning zoning once. San Francisco and Boulder could completely eliminate all their exclusive single-family zoning districts, and still not become any more affordable. They’d still have really expensive homes, they’d just have more of them with an average smaller size. Furthermore, developers won’t buy and knock down expensive single family homes to build duplexes or townhomes. They’ll buy and knock down inexpensive single family homes and build a market rate product at a higher density. That scenario ends up quickening the process of displacing poor people from their homes by rising property tax costs. In most cases, this is not viewed as a win by affordable housing advocates.

Home prices increase and stay high when demand rises and supply decreases, stagnates, or rises slower than the demand. San Francisco and Boulder could do away with all their exclusive single-family zoning districts, but they’d also need to force developers to build housing that surpasses the demand. That’s not likely to be something that developers or residents will support. Developers would lose money on projects, and residents would see their home values drop. 

Housing affordability is an economic issue more than it is a zoning issue. To make it affordable we’d need to artificially adjust the price or supply. We can observe this in our housing affordability programs. Most of them either give folks money to help close the gap, or they manage some form of subsidized housing; but our housing policy does not try to adjust pricing by oversupplying the market.

Now, moving on to inequity and injustice. Exclusive single-family zoning boomed right after WWII. Sadly, that’s a time when cities could draft and enforce racially and economically based zoning districts. Exclusive single-family zoning picked up lots of baggage between WWII and the legislative progress our country made in the 1960s. Historically, it’s not difficult to find examples of zoning laws and deed restrictions that specified economic, racial, and/or ethnic standards. However, those oppressive zoning practices reflected regional cultural differences more than housing form differences. Some cities didn’t have any segregative zoning at all. Those that did typically drafted them specific to areas of the city, rather than particular development types. For example, of the cities I’ve seen that had historically developed with white and black portions of town had a mixture of development types in both, including single-family, multi-family, commercial, office, and mixed use. It’s the same trend we see in other types of segregated communities like a “Little Italy” or “Chinatown.” The segregative and oppressive nature of the exclusionary zoning looked more geographic in practice than form-based. Redlining had a huge impact as well from the lending side of things. Thankfully, the legislative progress we made in the 1960’s made those kinds of exclusionary practices illegal (although the intended effects linger in many places, and new mechanisms for de facto redlining did pop up). 

My point is that racial, ethinic, and economic segregation doesn’t just occur strictly by way of exclusive single-family zoning. When it happens, it happens across all types of zoning, including multi-family zoning and commercial zoning, too. It happens with missing middle housing too. This type of legislative action truly only addresses how many residential structures someone can build on a single lot, which I’m saying doesn’t sufficiently address the problem. It's not difficult to find different segments of economic class, racial identity, and ethnic background distributed across a wide variety of housing types and formats. Unless the shift from one unit per lot to multiple units per lot is THE deciding factor for where at-risk populations decide to live then I don't think it will move the needle much in solving those issues.

Focusing on a bigger, underlying problem

Now, I'd like to get back to autocentricity and why I think it’s a better villain and much more worthy of our focus. We've spent lots of time in our blogs and podcasts talking about the issues with designing cities scaled for cars. It creates an immense economic strain on public institutions and individuals alike, especially at-risk populations. Most places in the U.S. have decided that public safety, water services, and education are so necessary for a healthy society that we pay for it communally through taxes. Private options are available if you want something different (that’s a discussion for another blog post), but that's paid for privately. We've left a much greater proportion of the burden for providing food, healthcare, and transportation to the private business world. Low-income populations have some options for getting food and healthcare at discounted costs, but transportation… not nearly as much.

If you live in Fort Worth without a car, then you're either walking in miserable conditions, or waiting in miserable conditions for a bus that runs once an hour. It’s not uncommon for a 15-minute trip by car to take 2 hours or more by bus or walking. That's prohibitive. Autocentric cities have unavoidable time and financial costs that burden vulnerable populations more than anyone else—and they even add unnecessary costs to those who can afford to pay them but would rather avoid them. Autocentric design also creates some of the other burdens we hope to fix with housing, food, and healthcare. Lastly, it also strengthens the position of those who would like to isolate themselves or others from community assets and opportunities.

Commercial, multi-family, and mixed use zoning districts do not necessarily promote affordability or avoid autocentric design. We could eliminate all exclusive single-family zoning everywhere and still have autocentric, segregated, oppressive cities.

Figuring out how to ease any of these issues—food, healthcare, and housing—won't fix the time and financial cost issues with living in an autocentric city. However, actively making the shift from an autocentric city to a multi-modal city might very well begin to address some of the housing, food, and healthcare issues. Multi-modal cities can alleviate some of the food and healthcare issues by providing better access to healthcare and food. Multi-modal cities also provide better options for having a healthier lifestyle. Better access also opens up new housing and job markets for people who can't afford a car, because the price of having (or not having) a car is no longer so immensely burdensome. 

Transportation is a foundational issue, not a symptom. It’s not uncommon to hear folks who are concerned about healthcare or food frame their concern in terms of access. This shouldn't surprise us. Cities have two basic spatial forms: spaces meant for movement, and spaces meant for rest (we recorded a podcast on this subject a few months back). When we approach designing even one of these spatial types for autocentricity, then the other will inevitably follow. We can't serve two masters. A city built for people poses issues for cars; cities built for cars pose issues for people. For thousands of years, we humans gathered together and made cities to make life better for people, but for the last eighty or so we’ve largely just sought to make them better for cars.

Circling back around to zoning, we find that multi-modal cities also require a different form of built environment. It requires a different development pattern and infrastructure network than currently exists in most U.S. cities. If we build spaces meant for movement at a human scale then we must also build spaces where things come to rest at a human scale. To me, though, the kicker is that many places commonly identified as multi-modal cities have areas zoned exclusively for single family homes. We can also find plenty of sprawling suburban cities with large swathes of commercial and multi-family zoning. Commercial, multi-family, and mixed use zoning districts do not necessarily promote affordability or avoid autocentric design. We could eliminate all exclusive single-family zoning everywhere and still have autocentric, segregated, oppressive cities. Gentrification issues arise precisely from this type of legislation, allowing older low cost neighborhoods to build denser. 

History should teach us this pretty quickly. We like to point back to cities built in the late 1800s and early 1900s for design cues (nothing wrong with that), but we seem to forget that those same cities had blatant segregation issues, enormous sanitation issues, and serious housing issues. I can also point to some current examples of cities and neighborhoods with exclusive single family zoning that have avoided these issues, and some that have very little exclusive single family zoning that haven’t. Aristotle said that “with a true view all the data harmonize, but with a false one the facts soon clash.” I see far too many clashing facts to call “exclusive single-family zoning” a great villain. Exclusionary zoning based on race, ethnicity, income or other psychological, economic, physiological, or social characteristics? Yes, horrible villain. Autocentricity? Yes, big-time villain. If we can make legislative progress towards fixing our autocentric design habits, like we did in the ‘60s against exclusionary zoning, then we’ll make far more progress toward a more equitable society than by fixating on a zoning classification.

(Editor’s note: this piece by Felix Landry elicited a fair share of spirited debate within the Verdunity office, with not everyone coming down on exactly the same side on a few different points. And we’re cool with that. We’re proud to have fostered an environment where we can agree on a lot and differ in our perspectives on some things as well. So this is all to say that, whenever we post our individual thoughts here on the blog, we aren’t necessarily presenting any particular argument as THE Official Verdunity Position™. We all bring our own perspectives to the table, and this blog is our effort to share those unique perspectives with you, dear reader.)

(And since we mentioned differences of opinion, here is a short counterpoint from Jordan Clark: I think Felix’s broader point here—that we should be aiming to make decisions more broadly that enable life without the burden of automobile dependence—is right. I also think re-legalizing duplexes and fourplexes across all single-family neighborhoods is a step toward achieving enough density to make public transit viable. It also makes sense to me that it could provide relief from skyrocketing prices in both trapped-in-amber single-family neighborhoods and the few and concentrated speculation-fueled places where highly dense development is allowed. To me, allowing single-family neighborhoods to evolve to the next increment of intensity just seems like removing an obstacle that never should have been there in the first place. I wouldn’t call it a silver bullet, and I don’t know any thoughtful supporter of such legislation who would, but I just don’t see a good reason to continue to require any neighborhood to stay the exact same, single-family or otherwise. It’s a step toward rather than away from the desired outcomes this article envisions, and we’ve long argued that progress in cities and towns will come from one small, meaningful step after another.)

Do you have a different take? Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts!

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