March 9, 2006

Providence: Ground Zero in the Clash of Architectural Philosophies?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Over at RI Future, Providence City Councilman David Segal discusses the concept of “Inclusionary Zoning” (IZ) which he hopes to bring to Providence…

IZ’s one of the few, and one of the best, tools that cities have to provide affordable housing. It requires developers of big projects to provide affordable units, while allowing them to offset those costs by building higher or denser than zoning typically allows.
But in a column describing a recent seminar held in Providence on the subject of the "New Urbanism", David Brussat of the Projo describes zoning as more of a problem than a solution…
New Haven architect Robert Orr introduced the seminar to a key tool of New Urbanism, the transect: a diagram that shows how, in a more natural environment, countryside should evolve gradually and gracefully into farmland, villages, towns, suburbs, urban neighborhoods and, at last, downtowns.

What the transect illustrates may seem obvious, but it would help planners and zoning officials. Using the transect, they could envision and classify elements of a natural civic order that 50 years of modern planning and design have blurred.

Orr illustrated the transect with slides of places in New England that epitomize what New Urbanists want to recapture. Such places, which most people love instinctively, would be illegal to build under zoning codes in most of America, even in New England.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that encouraging developers to build “higher and denser” is not going to mesh all that well with a people-friendly New Urbanism.

The disconnect stems from the fact that inclusionary zoning is based on the premise that human beings are primarily economic units. Packing people into tight spaces is ok, if it is economically efficient to do so. New Urbanism, on the other hand, takes a broader view of human nature and tries to design in a way that makes people go to places because they want to, not because they have to..


In an e-mail, David Brussat says that I'm wrong about there being any inherent incompatibility between Inclusionary Zoning and New Urbanism...

I don't think Councilman Segal's "inclusionary zoning" is incompatible with an environment based on the transect -- which promotes greater density toward the center. The transect would push city officials to zone more density toward the center. Inclusionary zoning would presumably incent (hate that word) developers to build more toward the center, where height restrictions could be relaxed for those projects that include affordable housing.

Of course, I oppose anything that's modernist and support anything that leans toward the classical.

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As much as I don't understand Dave Brussat's irrational animosity towards anything with more glass than brick, I think he offered a perfect explanation of the vital role that Inclusionary Zoning can play in fostering a denser, smarter, more affordable New Urbanist (but hopefully not architecturally reactionary!) city.

This June, Providence is host city for the fourteenth Congress for the New Urbanism, attempting to bring together planners, architects, developers, and government officials to work on smarter growth.

PS: While the transect is a great theory, the real world will always be much messier than the transect would like it to be.

Posted by: Ethan at March 10, 2006 5:57 AM