Cities: where America’s vaunted freedom is circumscribed

Sonia Hirt's book examines the contradictions in regulations that beset urban planning in the United States

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cities america freedomTORONTO, Ont. Jan. 2, 2017/Troy Media/ – Every now and then, someone engaged in a discussion of city life notes what goes on in Manchester, Calgary and St. Louis, and comes to a conclusion about city building or administration. This must stop.

In fact, this discussion sometimes happens in urban planning classes at universities. This should never have started.

A book published by Sonia A. Hirt in 2014 helps explain why.

England is a unitary state. The local authority has a direct relationship with the national government and relevant ministries.

In the U.S., some cities are home rule jurisdictions, some have their own constitutions, others are protected by state constitutions, and all have their states’ rights advocates between them the federal government.

Canada’s cities aren’t mentioned in our Constitution, and just grew up out of local services such as police, fire, medical and such. Provinces created our cities and can limit their limited power.

Once this spurious comparison of cities in vastly different jurisdictions is put to rest, we can ponder the really interesting question: contradictions in the U.S. system.

Hirt has done just this in her book [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation[/popup]. She’s European and attacks this question as only an outsider could. She’s perplexed. The U.S. system is either bewildering to those who claim to understand it, or incomprehensible to those who are both honest and have studied it. English scholar Barry Cullingworth described America’s system as “resistant to description, let alone explanation.” The great urban planner Sir Peter Hall calls American planning a “contradiction in terms … [with] “the real core of … land-use control … not planning, but zoning.” British jurist James Bryce noted that “the government of cities is the one conspicuous failure of the United States.”

Some of this can be explained. As former American president Ronald Reagan noted, the states created the federal government, not the other way around. The U.S. federal government has little influence on city planning and zoning, whereas many European national governments do. Moreover, with Americans having such a vast land area, it was understandable for them to think of land as a limitless resource. This resulted in low-density and sprawl. Thomas Jefferson’s notion of a “chequer-board” pattern to emulate the country added to the sprawl.

But, in plain terms, the land of the free and home of the brave chose to regulate land use, type of building, and even type of person who may build or live somewhere. The type of building allowed gets as specific as the single family home. The separation of a space for home and not home is unique in the history of human civilization. Giving special status and protection to the single family home is uniquely American, too. In most of the world, if you want to rent part of your home, or subdivide, the state has no place in the use of sheetrock in the nation. But in America, your much vaunted freedom is circumscribed.

Some of these regulations in all countries arose out of health and safety issues. In medieval times slaughtering, boiling blood, blacksmithing and other ugly, smelly things were relegated to certain parts of town or outside the city walls. Fast forward 1,000 years or so to American cities, where they wanted to rid fancy residential neighbourhoods of laundries and restaurants because of the fires, smoke and noxious substances used. They succeeded but also rid the neighbourhood of Asians.

And that’s the unsavoury racist legacy of historical attempts to create order and safety in cities. Private covenants, registered on title, restricted ownership to certain types of people. This worked for a bit, but many landowners just waited for the life of the covenant to run out.

Hirt’s book does a good job of trying to explain the inexplicable: America’s bizarre land-use regulations.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted to a dozen heads of government, a dozen party leaders and 100 or so cabinet ministers on five continents over 30 years. He is the author of [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1200″ scrollbars=”1″]Political Conventions the Art of Getting elected and Governing[/popup]. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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