Is Residential Land Use Incompatible with Non-Residential Development?

By Dom Nozzi

Isn’t it necessary to segregate noisy, smelly or potentially toxic office or industrial activity from residential areas?

It is absolutely true that activities that are toxic, noisy, or are associated with big truck or motor vehicle activity are incompatible with residential areas. But there are three things to know about this commonly-expressed objection to Smart Growth advocates calling for “mixed use” development.

First, such businesses have dramatically declined in number since the turn of the last century (with the exception of big-truck businesses), which makes zoning-based segregation much less necessary.

Unlike 100 years ago, it is fairly easy and common today to design most all businesses and offices to be compatible with residential areas. Why continue using an anachronistic regulatory scheme that was designed to confront problems that society faced 100 years ago, but are almost never faced today?

I suspect that the response from most elected officials is that maintaining the old system is a way to make misinformed, distrustful neighborhood residents less concerned about the re-emergence of community design mistakes we suffered from several decades ago.

But if we are paying more than lip service to making it feasible for people to walk or bike regularly, we need to get serious and largely dump zoning-based regulation to dramatically reduce trip distances. Fortunately, despite the strongly suburban value system of most all communities in America, a great many communities are slowly increasing the proportion of properties carrying a mixed-use zoning.

mixSecond, the new urbanist Smart Code recognizes the existence of locally-undesirable-land uses (LULUs). Despite what I’ve said above, there remain a relatively small number of business activities that are perhaps inherently incompatible with residential areas. The Smart Code therefore assigns such uses (airports are a good example) to “special districts” remote from the community. As a result, the Smart Code can provide a nearly complete elimination of the need to separate land uses, with the exception of a tiny fraction of uses.

Finally, even if it were true that we must have zoning-based separation for a large number of activities, such a need would be just another sign that our society is unsustainable (because it is inherently car-dependent). Unless we start building a more sustainable world, we’re heading for a train wreck.



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1 Comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

One response to “Is Residential Land Use Incompatible with Non-Residential Development?

  1. yason

    Strictly non-residential areas fail big time. I can understand segmentation in case of factories or other high-noise plants. The reason for failure is that some businesses attract other businesses that don’t necessarily have a place there. For example, various repair services or shops regularly buy goods from nearby hardware or automotive/spare part stores: they both seem to benefit from being close. It’s just that they’re both pretty far away then, while the latter would have more general-purpose uses as well.

    The phenomenon is way too observable in Finland if you need anything you can’t find in grocery stores or downtown supermarkets. Here it’s nearly impossible to find a good old hardware store that’s even remotely close to where people normally walk around. All the hardware chains here do have huge stores in the non-residential areas.

    Options are as follows: You can take the bike if you’re not buying anything bigger but the roads are less pedestrian/cyclist friendly there. You can use the bus, maybe, and only if you’re prepared to walk long distances: there’s usually one bus route that passes through a non-residential neighbourhood in some very linear and non-optimal way. The route, if it exists, is there mostly because of a generic city policy, and the services run at long intervals because there are not many passengers: mostly some local commuters who work in the non-residential area itself. Third option: own a car, rent a car, or loan a car.

    Had the hardware store established itself, or a smaller branch of itself, in a packed residential area along with other shops and stores it would be hundred-fold more accessible to the majority of people and most items could be delivered on public transportation. Also, we would not have the weird state of affairs that you can buy meat mallets and gavels in downtown but not necessarily ordinary hammers. Similarly, I could pick up some automotive parts (pun intended) on my way to work if there were such stores in downtown. Now I actually need to arrange some time and explicitly drive to some non-residential area which is where you can find the automotive parts stores. Way to go to replace spark plugs!


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