Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Urban Sprawl

With Waqas Younas
Cities are often a reflection of their zoning codes. Unfortunately, in Pakistan citizens never have any say in how their cities and towns are designed. The width of our streets, height of our homes, size of building lots, amount of space reserved for pedestrians, even the reason we cannot operate a donut store in our garage are all dictated by zoning regulations.
Bad zoning codes result in sprawl – and sprawl make societies worse off. According to urbanist Charles Montgomery, sprawls result in bad health, little trust and low social capital. Moreover, people living in sprawls are less likely to volunteer, vote and even join political parties. Therefore bad zoning codes result in miserable communities and they are affecting our cities too. But how do our zoning codes and misuse of land result in sprawl?
First of all, our zoning codes discourage mixed-use and high-rise development. There are no apartment buildings with shops and offices near even within such buildings. Most well-designed cities that we appreciate are based on mixed use.
Our zoning codes also mandate that for new housing projects developers buy land in hundreds of acres. This results in sprawl primarily because hundreds of acres are usually not available within a city. It also encourages big investors who can afford that much land, thus reducing competition. An aside, it reduces the availability of fertile agricultural land.
The fact that the government owns large chunks of prime urban land reduces the supply of available land within cities, which in turn also leads to sprawl. There is a huge opportunity cost of the inner city land that government holds to provide its officials with plush housing and unnecessary offices. A Planning Commission study showed that investment could increase by 50 percent of GDP over 10 years – if this land were made available for mixed-use, high-rise development.
Our traffic management focuses on building roads and corridors for cars. The use of cars has been facilitated at the expense of other forms of transport such as bicycles, walking, taxis and even buses. With cars so subsidised, it is not hard to see why the sprawl is spreading.
In most cities, the planning process often has no zoning for the poor. Apartment buildings are seriously discouraged through planning permissions and high fees for commercialization. For some reason our planners think of apartments as commercialisation, and so poor housing is taxed heavily.
Rich housing – single family homes with highways leading to them – are encouraged. Planners even forget to cost the infrastructure required by such housing. Pipes, electricity roads etc – eventually all this expense is borne by the poor of the city.
Excessive focus on form over function has incentivised inefficient use of land to attract customers, and inefficient use of land leads to sprawl. As consumers we have to pay more attention to form than aesthetically appealing architectures because empirical evidence shows that though we place more weight on physical features, eventually we might be less happier in physically appealing buildings. A study at Harvard by Elizabeth Dunn had students select their houses for their subsequent school years; there was a forecast among students that they would be happier in beautiful houses than less appealing ones.
However, after students settled in these houses their happiness was determined more by social features and the quality of relationships they developed in those houses. Students ended up being happier in architecturally miserable houses because they had better social features. Dunn noted: “Participants overestimated how happy they would be in desirable houses and how miserable they would be in undesirable houses. Our results suggest that forecasters may have erred by focusing on physical features such as location while virtually ignoring the quality of social life in the houses.”
We can try to fix our land use and zoning laws to discourage sprawl and thereby construct more equitable, vibrant and productive cities.
We need to tweak our zoning codes so we can build high-rise and mixed-use property to create more spaces for people in a more concentrated area. We need to think more about building vertically rather than horizontally.
Zoning laws should encourage competition and also mandate socially-responsible housing. Large investors who buy the hundreds of kanals mandated are keen to maximise their profits, so their plans price out low-income households. This results in illegal housing and housing schemes deprived of the basic necessities of life. Zoning codes in some developed countries mandate social housing that accommodates people from low-income background. This helps mitigate sprawl and fosters tolerance, trust, equality and care.
Our zoning codes should encourage urban development with high FARs (Floor Area Ratio). According to a study, on urban land and housing markets in Punjab by David Dowall and Peter Ellis, restrictive FARs are constraining urban density in Punjab. The study also notes that low FARs result in high land prices, a reduction in agglomeration benefits, lengthier commutes, limits formal housing (thus pricing out poor), and affects low-income most.
Zoning codes shouldn’t incentivise parking. Currently developers are mandated by law to provide parking spaces – no matter the type of building. Incentivising parking means we are encouraging developers to create commercial and housing projects farther away from urban centres and encouraging people to shop farther away from home.
Both of these lead to sprawl. In addition, according to economist Donald Shoup, “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy.” More land for parking also means less land for housing, shops, libraries, schools and hospitals.
It is important to understand where we are headed. All major cities like Karachi and Lahore have master plans. Though inhabitants should have the largest say in shaping cities, their input is never incorporated in these master plans. Our zoning codes should address senior citizens, persons with disabilities, as well as matters of public bike sharing, low-income households and the fact that real-estate developers should be mandated to give back to society in the of schools, libraries and hospitals.
Whenever we move into a particular housing society there is only one zoning law available; there have to be alternatives that prevent or repair sprawl. We need to correct our zoning codes by looking at other poorly-designed modern cities are and not repeating their mistakes.