October 21, 2014

How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building?

Key materials

Much has been written about the role of government regulation in facilitating automobile-oriented sprawl. Zoning codes reduce walkability by artificially segregating housing from commerce, forcing businesses and multifamily landlords to surround their buildings with parking, and artificially reducing density. As a result, cities have become more car-oriented over the past several decades, resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution. The “smart growth” and “green building” movements seek to make cities more environmentally friendly, both through regulation and through more libertarian, deregulatory policies. The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which cities have in fact chosen the more regulation-oriented path, and to discuss the possible negative and positive side effects of prescriptive smart growth and green building regulations. In particular, we focused on attempts to make cities more pedestrian-friendly, as opposed to smart growth policies designed to restrict the location of suburban development.

To do so, we examined the zoning regulations of twenty-four medium-sized cities (cities with between 500,000 and 1 million residents). We chose this sample because it is large enough to reflect the policies of a reasonably diverse number of cities, yet small enough to be manageable. In addition, we focused on three types of regulation: parking, density, and “green building.”

Because these regulations have received very little scholarly attention, it is too early to draw firm conclusions about their effect. But in theory, these regulations could have both positive and negative effects. Such regulations could make cities more pedestrian-friendly and encourage developers to build more environmentally friendly housing, thus reducing driving and pollution arising therefrom. Conversely, these regulations could make cities more difficult and expensive places to do business, thus driving developers to car-oriented suburbs. The weight of these benefits and costs is not yet clear.

I. Parking

A. The Status Quo

Since the 1940s, local governments have generally required owners of commercial and multifamily structures to build off-street parking for customers and visitors. The primary purpose of these regulations is to prevent “cruising”—that is, drivers creating congestion and pollution while searching for scarce parking spaces. These regulations may also prevent “spillover parking”—the risk that if a business’s customers are not accommodated by a parking lot, those customers and their vehicles may “spill over” into adjacent residential neighborhoods, antagonizing those areas’ residents.

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