The illogical logic behind the zoning of our cities

Urban planning is perhaps one of the most invasive forms of social control. Setting out an organisational structure as permanent as the built environment will forever dictate the qualities of space possible in an area. Imposing rigid spacial constraints such as the ‘grid-iron pattern’ with its designated plot sizes, is a form of control that permanently restricts the natural operation of intrinsic human activities.

Surely the best way to improve urban conditions in a city is not to dictate its function but to allow humans to orientate space by themselves and thereafter formalize observed patterns. This method of organizing space was first proposed for use in Architectural Design by Christopher Alexander: “There is one timeless way of building. It is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been. The great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way.” 

Henri Lefebvre’s theories on the production of space also guide us to a method of design whereby “(Social) space is a (social) product”. Without people influencing space, any attempt to plan the ideal city is futile, as the spaces will never truly suit the means of the end user. The formalization of infrastructure and the setting of boundaries should never precede the material process of social production of space.

We should not blindly accept the methods of our past, but question them, then either accept or improve upon them. The over-regulation of land inhibits the production of special spaces and places of meaning. Urban Planning is indeed necessary, but we must first and foremost challenge ourselves to study the human activity in a given context so that our designs do not infringe on existing patterns of use. This is the ‘timeless way’ of Urban Planning.

Christopher Alexander – The Timeless Way of Building, 1979

Henri Lefebvre – The Production of Space, January 1991