Mapping a zone for livability

February 6, 2013 at 8:00 am EST

One theory of urban planning is that cities become more livable when residents have easy walking access to everyday goods and services. You need a mix of residential and commercial uses and easy paths between them. Cookie-cutter suburban developments typically fail at this and create isolated, car-centric spaces. They’re nice houses when you’re actually in them, but living there requires a lot of driving around

in order to take care of all life’s little errands.

Do modern zoning laws get in the way of that? Often. By dispersing the functions of a city, they force distance between living and working. That sounds OK in theory. It should promote work/life separation, right? The side-effect is that it also spreads shopping, dining, schooling and other activities across an unwalkable geography.

In Chicago, where I live and work, a pair of civic-minded hackers have channeled their SimCity-loving past and created a handy and functional visualization of the city’s zoning code. The city makes the zoning codes available in a variety of easy-to-use formats and allows developers from within and without the city to create applications that use the data in helpful ways. Derek Eder and Juan-Pablo Velez used that open data as the basis for the project.

The site, www.secondcityzoning.org, gives a very quick overview of what that function-based segregation looks like. Chicago spreads commercial retail along the major streets in many areas of the city providing goods and services that residents, tucked in behind these zones, can walk to. With public transportation accessible in most of parts of the city, there are many areas in which it’s completely possible to go carless or at least take care of some basic needs quickly and on foot.

Is good zoning enough to make a city livable? No, but it’s a good start and visualizing it helps.

There are just two issues with a project like this. The first was pointed out by Daniel O’Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Initiative. Tools like this cannot live in a vacuum. The citizens of a community need to become engaged with them and use them in order for these initiatives to make the city more livable.

I would add that these tools also need experts, journalists, and others to help lend them context and meaning. Maybe this map is showing an ideal mix. Maybe it's showing that there isn’t enough widespread non-retail commercial zoning in the residential parts of the city. Only through careful study of the issues do you begin to understand how all the pieces of Livability work together in theory and practice. As this blog develops, we plan to add to that conversation, asking and answering these questions.

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