23 January 2012 – New York’s city zoning comes in for an entertaining analysis in this article by Julie V Iovine from The Wall Street JournaI that shows that NSW is not the only state to suffer from frustrating zoning laws. Sydney’s “sociable seating” is one of a range of cosmopolitan influences adopted by the city, it says, (clearly not the steel convex seating at bus stops designed to deter homeless people from getting comfortable).
New York’s zoning codes regulating the size, use and location of buildings could sap the life force out of all but the most zealous urban enthusiasts. Their technical language is intelligible only to initiated bureaucrats – probably with pocket protectors – and a handful of canny developers, certainly with a gleam in their eye.
Or so it is believed. But times have changed and so has the New York City Zoning Resolution, which just passed its 50th anniversary last month. Once regarded with frustration and loathing, zoning in middle age is hot: more flexible and dynamic than ever.
Actually, urban planners are more likely to invoke a thermostat metaphor –noting that zoning can raise or lower the habitability of the city by degrees. The layperson might also think of it as planning’s magic wand – an implementation technique, not an avoid-at-all-costs, manipulate-as-possible rule or regulation.
And in the Bloomberg administration, as wielded by the New York City Planning Commission and its director, Amanda Burden, zoning has assumed a more activist role than ever before. It not only shapes the blocks and writes the skyline, but also aims to curb obesity by offering incentives for fresh-food markets in low-income neighborhoods; buck up the mom-and-pop store; and promote an astonishing range of other quality-of-life benefits.
“Zoning has always concerned itself, for better or worse, with social matters, such as banishing noxious uses,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association.
“What’s different now is that the planning commission is moving from zoning that’s negative on social issues to being positive, like mandating green markets and bike rooms. It’s reasonable for city government to encourage people to move in a beneficial direction. Whether zoning is the correct device is another matter. A market person might say it’s better to go with incentives than mandates.” As such, zoning is something of which every New Yorker and visitor ought to be aware.
It has all become very cosmopolitan. The city’s selective bus lanes were inspired by the rapid-transit bus system in Bogotá, Colombia; the newly accessible waterfront borrows its sociable seating arrangements from Sydney, Australia; even New York’s controversial bike lanes come by way of close attention to those in Copenhagen. By tweaking the number, type and location of everything from bus lanes to street benches, zoning makes places more welcoming to visit and inviting to use.
Last month, the planning commission submitted a new initiative to public review. Called Zone Green, it will promote energy efficiency by making it easier to add photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, greenhouses and shading devices to the roofs and sides of older buildings.
On January 3, Commissioner Burden introduced a zoning amendment that will preserve small shops on avenues with a residential character and force new banks on the Upper West Side to shift most of their services from extended street fronts to second-floor locations.
“We want New York to be a walkable city,” Ms. Burden said, “with active, tree-lined streets and active retail frontages. This modest proposal will preserve that small-store character by allowing stores and banks a maximum of 25 feet ( 7.62 metres) on the street.”