A video about a Volkswagen factory in Dresden highlights the problems with the way we legislate land use in the Northwest. The factory is right in the downtown of a major German city—precisely the opposite of everything we know about industrial zoning. But it works.
As long as cars are still being made, this is a great way to do it.
But what about freight mobility for the factory? Won’t trucks get stuck in traffic while they are delivering parts and product in and out of the plant? The answer is “no” because a cargo tram that shares rails with the city’s transit system gets the parts in to the factory thereby avoiding street congestion. It’s a good example of thinking creatively about freight movement instead of spending billions on new tunnels and bridges.
Technology and science-informed policy changes have changed the very nature of industrial manufacturing: today it can be clean, quiet, and sustainable. Yet our zoning regulations are so stale that I’m tempted to run them through the shredder.
The principle of zoning—literally creating a zone for one kind of use that excludes all other use—is based on a legal decision called Euclid v. Amber Realty. It’s called the Euclid decision and most zoning in our region today is Euclidian zoning. The problem with the Euclidian principle is that it runs counter to what we know about sustainable land use—density pays. Euclidian zoning isn’t necessarily anti-density, but it makes the mixed up uses that make density work harder to achieve. Putting uses together is beneficial in numerous ways, including aggregating demand for transit, saving energy, and reducing sprawl and infrastructure costs.
The problem for mixed-use development in Northwest cities (as in most places in North America) is that is has to swim against the tide of Euclidean zoning. The Euclid decision set the stage for dividing uses when it suggests that
segregation of residential, business and industrial buildings will . . . increase the safety and security of home life, greatly tend to prevent street accidents, especially to children, by reducing the traffic and resulting confusion in residential sections, decrease noise and other conditions which produce or intensify nervous disorders, preserve a more favorable environment in which to rear children, etc.
In fact, just the opposite seems to have happened. Segregated zoning resulted in sprawl, long car-bound commutes, traffic congestion, increased collision fatalities, and perhaps even weakened social ties.
Maybe we should start over. One opportunity to rethink our zoning codes is in the powerful tool of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). I’ll argue that TIF done right will mean “blowing up the code,” requiring that, in exchange for the TIF tool, local governments radically rethink their zoning philosophies (which others far better versed in the topic than myself have suggested). The Volkswagen factory in Dresden is a good example of what the future can hold if we’re willing to think outside the Euclidean box.
Thanks to Rob Harrison for sharing the Volkswagen video.