|Typical Montréal suburb as seen from the air|
But behind these kinds of development is something we do not talk much about, which defines and strictly limits urban developments using the full force of the law. It is called zoning.
Zoning in North America is a municipal by-law that defines what can be built and where. There are many different types of zoning, but in North America, the typical zoning form is what is called euclidian zoning, from the city of Euclid, Ohio. This zoning is extremely strict when it comes to defining what can be built, the uses allowed in each zone and the dimensions of lots and buildings. The territory of cities is thus divided in a great amount of zones, each one having strict specifications.
|The rules above represented graphically|
I feel that it is important to point out that in this form of zoning, generally single-family homes and multifamily homes are considered two separate uses to separate. Even semi-detached houses are considered different enough from detached houses that they are kept separate! In a lot of European and Asian zoning, this is not the case. Residential is residential. They don't treat multifamily residents as plague bearers to be kept separate from the good people who own detached houses.
This separation actually originates from racial segregation in the United States. At first, zoning explicitly banned certain races from settling in certain areas (who am I kidding? banned minorities from settling in white areas), but when this was ruled unconstitutional, they simply used different ways to achieve the same result. As minorities were poorer and largely rented housing instead of owning it, they simply banned multifamily buildings in single-family areas, and to avoid minorities from buying smaller, cheaper houses, they established minimum lot and building sizes.
|From left to right: semi-detached house, duplex and single-family detached house side-by-side, now illegal|
Note how the zoning greatly limits possible density. By forbidding any type of multifamily housing, only one dwelling unit can be built per lot. And this lot is at minimum 450 square meters. So if there were no streets, parks or anything else but lots with houses on them, the maximum possible density would be 22 dwelling units per hectare (around 9 dwelling units per acre).
But you need streets to connect all those lots, and if the street is 9 meter wide with 1,5 meter sidewalks on each side, each lot would have 6 meters of street and sidewalk in front of it. Add lateral streets and maybe only 80% of the total area is actually lots, the rest being public right of way. So the maximum density is only around 17,5 dwelling units per hectare (7 dwelling units per acre)
And again, that's MAXIMUM density. In reality, lots may be bigger and density even smaller.
How many of these zones exist in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu? Well, this 100 000-people city has hundreds of them, more than a thousand actually, zones that are similarly defined. Here is an image from their zoning map, only a small part of it, with each individual lot identified:
|Map of current zones in a sector of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu|
All buildings that do not respect the zoning rules are forbidden, unless the city council grants a minor derogation or changes the zoning, which starts a process in which local residents may oppose the change.
Why such zoning practices?
Euclidian zoning is favored because, despite its apparent complexity, it is very simple to enforce. You simply measure dimensions and see if they measure up to refuse or accept building permits. This type of zoning is all about micromanagement, but though it can be used for planning, it is extremely poor in macromanagement and planning decent communities. It satisfies those with a great desire to control the built area of their immediate neighborhood.
Those who support it underline the "harmony" that results from it, and the certainty given to residents that the neighborhood will not change much once it is built up. If you buy a house on a street, there are few chances you will say anything else but houses on that street for as long as you live.
The disastrous consequences of euclidian zoning
The result is an incredible mess. All modifications, even for a few inches, requires derogations which can be contested by neighbors and create a zoning conflict than can delay projects by months, even years, or maybe even kill it... even if the project is someone who wants to build a porch for his house.
It also is the ultimate empowerment tool for NIMBYs, giving them ways to veto anything. That's why urban developments in North America are based on sprawl. As built-up areas are already zoned and obstacles to change this zoning are varied and numerous, promoters will rarely make projects to densify urban neighborhoods. Even when they do, making duplexes, triplexes or rowhouses in single-family areas are often not worth it in view of their relatively low profits and the cost of confronting local NIMBYs, so where they will confront NIMBYs is when they want to build condo towers, because the profit then justifies fighting for the right to build them. Yet, the duplexes and rowhouses would actually be a better evolution, a more gradual progression from suburban to urban neighborhoods.
Promoters stuck in this disastrous zoning will also favor building new housing on the outskirts of everything, where there is no resident to oppose new developments.
The worst thing is that cities often stubbornly want to zone things for single-family detached housing. The result is an oversupply of single-family lots, which further depresses the value of the land, making single-family homes more affordable. However, there is a shortage of lands for multifamily developments and for commercial developments, the land zoned to allow them is thus much more expensive than it should be, making such projects more expensive. So it makes single-family homes more affordable by making alternative, denser housing types more expensive. Then people start thinking that it's natural that single-family homes be more affordable, when it's the result of absurd zoning practices.
There is a final consequence of such zoning: corruption.
When there is an highly profitable project that is blocked by zoning, you need a zoning modification to let it through. But this zoning change is subjected to the approval of elected officials who receive pressures from NIMBYs opposed to any zoning change. So promoters have an incentive to get friendly with the elected officials and to cajole them into passing the zoning change despite local opposition. It's not that the promoters like to corrupt people, but when you make it impossible to make a profit by following the rules, you incite people to go around them. I'm sure most of them would prefer not having to spend money buying politicians.
The problem is that the current zoning system makes corruption much more likely.
Next, I'll describe an alternative: the Japanese zoning system, which corrects many of these issues.