Your City Psychologist is ‘In.’

Leon Krier, Urban Planning

My favorite pop philosopher and psychologist is Alain de Botton, and his School of Life. They share a wide variety of articles and videos on relationships, architectural design, and beyond. I found his work through his 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness. And what I appreciate about his approach to cities is that it has decidedly shifted from an original modernist perspective (2008), to the above book’s meandering thesis, and then to a clearly more traditional city making approach (2015). As I age in today’s era of great anxiety, I too find my perspectives changing. Some of these changes are attributed to conversations with an insightful therapist.

One of the silly things I use to tell my municipal clients is that I was hired to be their city’s therapist. That I was there to listen, share case studies, analyze patterns, observe behaviors, and interpreting data to make recommendations on how best to build their city. This analogy would usually get chuckle and then I would go about my work that was policies, plans, and programs.

But, like Mr. Botton, my thoughts have shifted with time. As a long-time conventional zoning code reformer, I see today’s municipal zoning trend finally moving towards meaningful reform. My own city of San Diego appears to be in its first steps of recovery from conventional, segregated land uses (commercial uses shall not have residential uses that shall not have industrial uses, and so on). Our Complete Communities and Inclusionary Housing programs waive most of our old zoning rules in exchange for affordable housing with very few zoning rules. This is done with the intent to lower or stablize the cost of housing (the rent).

This waiver approach is a good first step in making amends for the errors of planning’s past. A dramatic shift, from too many rules to not many rules, allows us to move towards learning a new way to build more housing. But an unfortunate by-product of too few rules is rising land values and land speculation. This creates uncertainty as what is going to be built and how new housing will behave in an existing neighborhood context. Under these programs, a new building could propose 6, 14, 24, or 48 units depending on the owner’s intentions and distance from a transit or bus line. That’s a great first step in reforming rules, but without the next step of new parameters uncertainty, anxiety, and the typical fear of the unknown rises. The next steps would be to design new places that behave as intended in context.

For example, a neighborhood center having more things going on on than the neighborhood edge along a canyon or freeway. An extreme example is building a downtown residential tower in an existing streetscape of single-family homes. This dramatic juxtaposition creates disharmony among neighbors (the fronts of people’s buildings adjacent to the backs of others), the marketplace (the first new tower drives up neighboring land values), and breaks expected neighbor boundaries while supplying new housing as intended for our region. This brings up ethical issues of common good versus being a respectful neighbor. The ethics of good community planning is to serve the public’s interest today by balancing social equity with economics and environmental elements to maintain livable and sustainable neighborhoods. I’ve written about such here, and the economics of it here.

In personal and social relationships, the School of Life psychologist’s recommends we, “set boundaries that involves informing those around us of a set of objectively reasonable ‘rules’ that we need them to follow in order to feel respected and happy — while doing so in a way that conveys both warmth and strength.”

Zoning regulations (codes) provides the rules that build the new places we live, work, play, shop, worship, and learn in. Zoning codes set the boundaries for the ways we live our lives.

Citizens live in neighborhoods with the expectation to live a dignified, respectful, and happy life. Citizens tend to convey these experiences with both warmth and strength in regard/defense to the quality of their existing lifestyles, as well as expressing fear and anxiety in regard to unknown outcomes and experiences a new project/building/place proposal will produce. That’s the next step to zoning reform… a new type of land use regulation, Objective Design Standards, that presents explicit development standards for infill development in clear diagrams that show applicants, neighbors, and city staff what is allowed without relying on a decision of a hearing body.

Zoning codes and city planning mediates this balance between today’s experiences and what changes tomorrow will bring to a neighborhood/place. And zoning is therapy because relationships need to be respected in order to maintain civility and happiness. While some want a pound of flesh for past sins, most of us simply want stability, structure, and connections with each other and their homes. As previously written here:

We need to be grounded in that feeling of being around friends and family… Home. Being home is the idea that goes to the heart of what makes food (neighborhoods) great. It is an approach to cooking (zoning codes) that is rooted in respect. Respect for the ingredients (people/places), respect for tradition. It gives the fancy innovations and clever deconstructions a heart and a soul.“ – Anthony Bourdain, 2008 (Spain – No Reservations)

Life is hard. Zoning sets the boundaries we need to live a respectful and stable life. Let’s continue to reform our city’s zoning through the lens of setting boundaries that involves informing those around us of a set of objectively reasonable ‘rules’ that we need them to follow in order to feel respected and happy.