Chicago history--the zoning version | Bleader

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Chicago history--the zoning version

Posted By on 08.03.06 at 10:59 AM

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In the 1910s and 1920s, "Zoning . . . was advocated as a tool that could be used with surgical precision to alleviate problems that had plagued cities for decades," such as congestion and noise, write Joseph Schwieterman of DePaul University and coauthor Dana Caspall in The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago.

The city's landmark 1923 zoning ordinance was also supposed to create a real-estate bonanza and "rid Chicago of its image as a crowded, dirty, and corrupt city." But once zoning became law, "residents began to push their alderman and the Zoning Board of Appeals for zoning changes that would benefit them." Today much of the zoning in the city is negotiable.

And zoning reflects the conventional wisdom of the time when it was passed. In the 1960s, for instance, on-street parking became a major headache because "far more of the tenants of apartment buildings owned cars than had been expected when the city drafted its parking regulations in the mid-1950s."

Let's not forget Alderman Emil Pacini, chairman of the City Council Committee on Buildings and Zoning, who described the city's 1957 zoning ordinance as "the greatest weapon the city can use to stop the flight to the suburbs."

These are the juicy parts of the book--Schwieterman and Caspall are low-key if not bland in their approach, but the lesson shines through. Cities are not designed by experts, whatever they may think; the experts' designs are shaped by the city.

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