“Many of our best neighborhoods would be illegal to build today.” This single sentence offers powerful insight into the challenge facing American cities—and in particular suburban areas–exposing, in one breath, the perverse restrictions involved in conventional zoning and subdivision regulation. In many old neighborhoods, built form, lot dimensions, and land uses are “non-conforming,” meaning that they don’t comply with later land use regulation.
You probably have a few such neighborhoods in your city—neighborhoods just outside of downtown where structures cover most of the lot, where lots are perhaps slightly narrower and smaller, and where single-family homes casually mix with other uses. Understanding this variation is key to freeing up developers to replicate what works in new neighborhoods and to unlocking the potential of some of our best existing neighborhoods.
Let’s take an example from my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky: Kenwick, a wonderful inner suburban neighborhood to the southeast of downtown. The neighborhood was originally built out in the 1920s and 1930s, though waves of teardowns and rebuilding—particularly post-World War II—have gradually changed the appearance of parts of the neighborhood. While Kenwick was once serviced by the private streetcar, car ownership was fairly widespread at the time this neighborhood was built. The neighborhood’s streets follow a tried-and-true grid pattern, with blocks measuring 100 meters in depth and 350 meters in length.
Although the neighborhood’s character is changing thanks to an influx of young professionals attracted to urban living and an outflux of downsizing retirees, Kenwick remains a diverse community both in terms of income and age, race, and family structure. Several key traits that have made it a lovable place.
Density that supports residents. The relatively high density of the neighborhood—6,865 people per square mile, compared to a citywide density of 1,087—means that for many residents, friends and family are close by and neighborhood services like groceries, elementary schools, and churches are sustainable. This relatively high density is thanks in part to the neighborhood’s widespread non-conformity with its contemporary R-2, or “Two-Family Residential” zoning restrictions.
Buildings are close to the street. In terms of built form, compliance with the required side setbacks is extremely uncommon—homes rarely sit more than five feet from the side of the property line despite a required side setback of six feet. Many homes, particularly those built before World War II, lie well within 20 feet of the front property line, despite a required front setback of 30 feet. While seemingly trifling, these small setback transgressions minimize the space that is wasted on yards and free up more space for additional residential units. A general disregard for front setbacks also allows front porches to engage with the street.
Small apartments abutting homes. Both are flouting setback rules, which keeps the street at a human scale. (Source: Google Maps)
Small lot sizes. Kenwick’s non-conformity with required lot dimensions also helps keep densities high. Officially, lots in an R-2 district must have at least 60 feet of street frontage (i.e., the edge of the lot abutting the road must be 60 feet long) and lots must be at least 7,500 square feet in area. Particularly in the older parts of the neighborhood to the north, it’s common to find street frontages below 50 feet, meaning that lots are narrower than what is required by zoning. Even more common are lots smaller than the 7,500 square foot minimum. While the standard lot size to the south is approximately 7,501 square feet—this area was mostly built out after 1930, when citywide subdivision and zoning ordinances were adopted—many lots in the north lie well below 5,000 square feet. At least one lot is 2,592 square feet, less than half the mandated lot size. Lot coverage, or the percentage of the lot that is covered by a structure, is much higher than in outer suburban developments.
While the homes are small by today’s standards, these are not “tiny homes” or “microunits” or any other such real estate novelty. These are modest buildings on modest lots. For much of American history, they were simply called “homes,” even if lacking the excessive yards, sprawling floor space, and two-car garages that are often required today by zoning and subsidized by the federal government.
A mix of uses. Crucial to Kenwick’s urban suburbanism is its unique mixture of uses. Unlike the new master-planned residential subdivisions in the outer suburbs, Kenwick offers a mixture of housing types, public services, and commercial uses along a connected urban grid. In addition to uses you’d expect in a suburb—a park, community center, school, and places of worship, most within walking distance—the neighborhood hosts a variety of commercial uses you don’t find within walking distance in all suburbs, including local shops and groceries, home-based businesses, and offices. Many homes also seem to operate as the headquarters for small local businesses—a computer repair shop, an art studio, and general contractor operated openly within a block of my home when I lived there. While technically illegal under current Lexington zoning, these kinds of home-based businesses add welcome activity and local flavor to the neighborhood. They also help minimize start-up costs for entrepreneurs, which goes a long way toward enhancing economic opportunity for residents.
Room for residents of all incomes. While Kenwick’s official zoning only permits townhomes—specifically, two residential units connected by a vertical wall on each lot—the neighborhood in fact hosts dozens of small apartments and stacked townhomes. Most pre-zoning apartments and townhomes simply look like large homes from the outside, a popular pre-zoning development that can also be seen in other Lexington inner suburbs, including Woodland, Ashland, and Chevy Chase.
Residents have also quietly added dozens of new units post-zoning. While often hidden from the street, Kenwick residents have built dozens of accessory dwelling units, or “granny flats.” These units often take the place of detached garages or sheds and are usually rented out by the owner of the home. As detached units are technically not permitted under Kenwick’s current zoning, the builders of these units likely bypassed official planning review in most cases. These units add affordable housing to Kenwick and often help to keep elderly parents and young adult children close to home, both of which help to increase diversity and activity within the neighborhood.
In short, the confluence of non-conforming elements create the kinds of positive feedback loops that build great neighborhoods: more Kenwick residents walk and ride bicycles, since they are within easy walking and bicycling distance of public services, commercial uses, and friends and family. This active and interesting street life in turn encourages residents to socialize and “people watch” on their porches and at local parks and shops, which helps to keep Kenwick safe and interesting. I can attest to this dynamic as a reminiscing former participant: on many cool summer evenings, I played my part, reading and having a few beers on my front porch to the ambient suburban bustle of neighborhood kids roving around, of residents visiting friends with dinner supplies from Wilson’s or Thriftway in tow, of commuters returning home from downtown by bicycle, of the general contractor down the street consorting with staff about tomorrow morning’s job. The subtle joy of this non-conforming messiness is hard to capture on paper, but surprisingly easy to create through design awareness.
This speaks to the strength of “non-conforming” neighborhoods like Kenwick: they contain within themselves the capacity for self-renewal. What truly keeps Kenwick alive is its ability to change and adapt, both within and beyond the restrictions of contemporary planning. Townhomes are being built on lots that once hosted single-family houses. New accessory dwelling units have naturally sprung up in the backyards of lots as demand for housing has grown over the years. Old commercial uses continue to thrive as new home-based businesses keep the streets alive. Perhaps the greatest harm inflicted by Euclidean zoning is not that it prevents us from recreating our best neighborhoods, but that it prevents our best neighborhoods from recreating themselves.