An urbanist rationale for height limits and zoning: the human scale
|Street from the Vieux-Québec|
|Decorated windows in the Vieux-Québec with cobblestone street|
|Front window of a Japanese restaurant, with reproductions of the meals on the menu|
|Street in Québec, note the small signs above each store on the left|
|Empire State plaza in Albany|
We all know the "tower in the park" was a terrible idea, but that's not an indictment of towers in themselves, but of the ways they were built: far from the street, in parks or parking lots, and far way from each other, hurting the urban fabric.
|Tokyo at night (Shinjuku)|
|Sendai, the pedestrian bridges are horrors according to some urbanists, I like them|
|Ste-Catherine street, a look at the buildings flanking the street|
|Ste-Catherine street: pedestrian point of view 1|
|Ste-Catherine street: pedestrian point of view2|
The precedent, how arrogance and ignorance conspired to create sprawl
One big reason why I am wary of imposing preferences through zoning is that this was largely done after WWII. Much of the development rules we have implemented in the past 60 years were decided by elites who assumed that their own preferences were everyone else's too, and who decided to adopt rules to allow as many people as possible to live the same way they lived.
Essentially, the elites in the post-WWII era were big car lovers for the most part. They saw cars as a very fast and efficient way to get around. They were also often rich and loved the big estates the rich largely used to live in. So when they started making rules to guide urban developments, they took their own preferences and tried to adapt them so that people could live as much like they wanted to live as possible.
The huge estate was thus converted into a middle-class single-family home with a large lawn, a small replica of the rich estate. This model was the one favored by planning agencies, which imposed them on most new developments through zoning.
Being car lovers, they decided that it was the government's responsibility to see that road capacity and parking amount were sufficient to allow everyone to drive everywhere. Now this has not been possible everywhere, and some cities refused the changes that it would have entailed (New York, San Francisco, etc...) but in many American cities, they have essentially managed it, with cars having 90+% of the share of all trips. Something that would never have been possible unless governments spent fortunes to provide wide roads exclusively for cars and guaranteeing sufficient parking through parking minimum rules. The funding model chosen to fund all this was all about taking the expenses of this lifestyle away to make it as cheap as possible... by making the costs weigh upon everyone for it.
By doing so, they made cities almost unwalkable and made transit horribly uncompetitive, but they didn't care, because their preference was the car and they assumed that everyone would have the same preference. It wasn't evil intent, they thought that they were adapting society for more efficiency in transport and making sure that people would have the housing everyone should desire, because they sure did.
So the elites imposed their own preferences on us, and it created sprawl that most now see as an inefficient and terrible way to build cities.
Keeping that in mind, I am wary of urbanists deciding what we should impose as developments instead of sprawl. Maybe it makes a lot of sense to do things these ways and I may even agree with many of these recommendations. But I think imposing preferences is wrong. Not everyone likes the same thing and I don't think adopting rules to create one's preferred urban environment by banning any alternative is reasonable.