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A review of Zoned Out 2009/12/09

Posted by colleenlallen in Land Use, Uncategorized.
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Zoned Out is a book written by Jonathan Levine.  Jonathan is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan.  Throughout his career he has focused much of his research on the relationship between transportation systems and how they relate to and effect relationships within metropolitan regions.  Mainly, his focus has been on the efficiency of public transportation.  The arguments he has presented in this book are no different.  The research he completed for the book Zoned Out was done in collaboration with Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, the Mineta Transportation Institiue, the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., and with information from planning publications.  The book was published fairly recently in 2006.

The clear goal of the book is to control or eliminate sprawl.  Levine recognizes that there are many societal ills associated with sprawl.  This list includes greenhouse emissions, land consumption, traffic, and increased automobile dependency.  In an attempt to determine what drives sprawl, several cases with their oppositions and support of sprawl are presented.  The basic reasons why people are uncertain that sprawl has a simple solution revolve around three key concepts.

  • The first of the three concepts is defining the free market.  What is the free market?  Do people want to live in suburbs?  Or is it just more convenient because suburbs support the types of lives they want themselves to have?  How can you clearly separate whether things are the way people want them to be or whether people accept things the way they are?
  • The second of the three concepts is an attempt to define what land-use regulations are.  In many cases zoning is blamed for sprawl.  Arguments claim that if developers were allowed to build more densely people would live in denser environments.  There is a constant question surrounding whether of not zoning codes and ordinances set maximum or minimum densities.  How easily can they be changed?  It is a matter of citizens and developers becoming more aggressive in getting regulations changed?  Or are zoning ordinances really to blame for urban sprawl?
  • And the third and final key concept is how to measure the perceived benefits of travel behavior.  The ability to “measure” perceived benefits has always proved to be an interesting challenge.  There are simple questions that are asked – does increased density improve quality of life because it keeps people from spending too much time in their car?  To very extreme, far-fetched questions, is decreased density a cause of increased obesity?  Are people spending too little time out and about, not relying on their vehicles?  Any of the arguments for this case appear to be highly controversial simply because there are no universally accepted, tangible ways to measure the impacts on density and travel behavior to quality of life.

Each of the concepts mentioned above is used throughout the book at an attempt to create a consensus about what needs to happen in order to reduce sprawl.  The chapters all present different arguments that center around the basic key concepts.  The chapters range from topics of who is responsible for zoning regulations, State or Local Governments?  To Developers, Planners, and Neighborhood supply, who is most responsible for being proactive in eliminating sprawl and decreased density?  To the demand for transportation and land-use innovation, is it possible to rebuild and recondition residents to expect denser development?  Regardless of the information, each chapter presents a very thorough explanation and idea of what can happen in any scenario.

I enjoyed reading this book and found that it did a great job of highlighting ongoing arguments and giving background to possible culprits of urban sprawl; however, I found the book to lack any real solutions or ideas for moving forward.  The research and case studies were immensely helpful in comparing how things have worked differently in different areas, but short of completely wiping everyone’s slate clean and reconditioning them to favor a certain type of development, there didn’t seem to be too many solutions for preventing any further sprawl and moving back towards a denser development plan.

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