Durham News: Opinion

John Killeen: What Euclid might say about urban design

By John Killeen

John Killeen
John Killeen

Maybe you’ve heard it mentioned, perhaps in a news story or at a public meeting.

Maybe it caught your interest but you forgot about it and just went onward in life with the belief that it has something to do with geometry.

Like maybe we live in a world where real estate is ordered and coordinated by shapes with all the rectangular lots in one part of town and all the rhomboid ones in another.

Well, let’s get to it: what in the world is Euclidean zoning?

Euclid is the famous Greek mathematician whose name is everywhere in American cities (go, Euclid Avenue). But Euclid is also a town in Ohio which, in 1922, passed one of the nation’s first municipal ordinances aimed at separating incompatible land uses. Canonized in planning law by a successful Supreme Court case, Euclid the ordinance mandated that development going forward would keep industrial uses separate from where people live, and commercial and office somewhat close together, but not close to industrial.

There were good reasons for this early on, as you can imagine, when the tannery may have been in the yard across the street from a tenement of families. In fact it was cases like these that prompted single-use zoning to begin with.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20 century and it was still a good idea because by then our Faustian marriage to the automobile was baked in everywhere and our essential needs – the grocery store, the hospital, and eventually the elementary school – required a massive buffer of parking lots surrounding them. But parking lots don’t mix very well with anything, least of all with residential neighborhoods. Why? Because we hate parking lots. They are a necessary evil.

So, over recent decades – think 1945 through right now – American real estate development has made tremendous strides in locking in the isolating goals of Euclidean zoning. Today, as we seek to revive or build communities of walkable mixed uses, we are altering our old friend Euclid to allow for things that used to be verboten during our wicked 20th century fantasy: offices stacked on top of bistros, topped with condos and with maybe even a modest slice of light industrial perking things up a bit. This is the sort of work being done right now in our compact neighborhoods around Durham.

While we haven’t ditched the car in this centennial flashback, we are aiming for bold improvements in access, reducing our reliance on vehicles to get where we need to. Big winners in this new paradigm should be those too young or otherwise unable to drive.

Growing up in a community of vibrant streets, where shops, parks, schools, homes, healthcare and modest unpredictability coexist, provides a better balance of safety, stimulation and stability than any other model we’ve crafted. A child exposed to such a place, where regulars mutually own the public realm and keep an eye out for each other, is just what Jane Jacobs wrote about in “The Death and Life of Great Cities.” Retiring in such a place provides the same for the elderly as it does for children, of course.

Regarding our development of mixed-used communities, they could advance in equity further still by placing people without cars foremost. This is because a community that works best for those with different needs, whether physical or sensory, is one that works best for all of us. Such a place has few physical or cognitive barriers to access, has simple, legible and short paths to key basic daily needs and is intended to serve people without cars – that basically means serving all of us equally with no built in preference. Approaching development from this universal perspective would make great strides toward equitable public spaces and tie our private realms more closely together too.

Writing this is really a set-up for the concept of universal design, which you can learn a lot more about at http://nando.com/2wz. But I will add that if we see universal design as a neighborhood-scale possibility, it is the reverse of Euclidean zoning in important ways. It would invert traditional zoning by putting people’s access to basic daily needs at the forefront, fostering a sort of social impact development.

Something to ponder on your daily commute, perhaps.

John Killeen lives in Durham, and opinions expressed here are his own. You may comment on this column online or at editor@newsobserver.com. Please include your name for publication.