The Danger of the Zoning-Free Approach in Developing Nations

Despite the romantic notion about cities that develop organically have a rich diversity of form and function, we cannot overlook the deadly side effects of negligent city planning. As Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star points out, last month’s tragic fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas is a grim reminder that planning has a time and place and its ultimate utility resides in the initiative to protect residents and make for healthier communities. The tangle of bureaucracy associated with planning, zoning and land use regulations can give any architect or developer a massive headache. In some cases, the laws are so restricting that diverging from bulk regulations becomes very limiting.



According to Hume, Texas prides itself on having a zoning free policy towards urban development, and while this contributes to its low real estate rates, we cannot ignore the dangerous follies that result from this approach. Surely there is a middle ground. Perhaps it lies in a long overdue overhaul of outdated planning approaches that are more receptive to the kind of development we would like to see in our cities without sacrificing public health.


In many ways, it comes down to economics and real estate values. Profit driven developers will always prioritize income over design. So where do we draw the line between rampant growth, and moderate and considered design? How anarchist can we be about diverging from our zoning codes and planning regulations? How do we determine the boundaries between strict land use regulations and intuitive organic growth?



Post-tsunami housing for kirinda, Sri Lanka by Shigeru Ban

It seems that whenever disaster strikes, Shigeru Ban is summoned to the scene to help – and now he is one of 20 designers nominated for the 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Although Ban could have been recognized for a whole host of humanitarian projects, this year the architect was recognized for designing 100 small homes for Sri Lankan villagers who were displaced after the 2004 tsunami leveled the village of Kirinda.

After consulting with locals about the preferred layout of their new micro homes, Ban designed the 31 square meter homes with a bathroom and kitchen that is separated by the living area. This last stipulation was government driven. In order to help boost the local economy after the tsunami’s wholesale destruction, Ban made use of local labor and materials.

Each of the 100 homes has walls made with earth bricks, while partitions and finishings are comprised of local rubber tree wood. A shared entertainment space is covered, allowing for community activities. The homes are specifically attuned to the local climate and the entire complex has an area of 3,195 square meters.

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