How could these well-intentioned goals lead to murder? If you’ve tried to get a zoning change lately, you may know what I mean.
Early in my design career, zoning hearings used to be routine procedures, in which a board offered minor regulatory adjustments and then rubber-stamped plans that would help a city or town create new jobs, increase the assessed valuation of the property within its boundaries and enable it to collect more taxes.
But beginning in the early seventies, someone turned up the heat in the hearing chamber. These formerly friendly, local meetings broke out in holy war. Zoning became an issue, and obtaining a change of land use from a local government gained all the furor, cost and intrigue of a hotly contested election campaign. Neighbors protested, saying the new project would use too much fossil fuel, eat up too much virgin forest and farmland and create too much dangerous traffic, noise and air pollution. The objectors were suddenly well organized and well funded: they brought legions of experts to zoning meetings—traffic experts, botanists, ecologists, zoologists and air pollution scientists. Developer’s forces countered with geotechnical engineers, fluvial geomorphologists, potamologists, entomologists,and hydrologists. It was after the third such confrontation that I began to think that maybe there’s something to it—other than futile blustering by stubborn residents who opposed any kind of change to their customary surroundings, people who did not share our team’s grand vision for improving it. For one thing, the more time went on, the truer seemed the environmentalists’ concerns. And for another, a few defeats handed to me at the bar of local approval soon brought home the fact that their efforts were futile: we were stopped dead in our tracks.
Then as I sifted through the wreckage of one particularly big setback I detected skullduggery. Someone had connived the young, wild-eyed environmental advocates into opposing the developers, but not for the reasons of environmental purity that the land developers claimed. We had planned our new town project to be a demonstration of good land use: with high densities to shorten walking distances, make residential property accessible to stores and shops, keep homes near jobs, make future mass transit stops accessible and preserve green space within the development. We soon learned that these kids had become the unwitting tools of larger forces—those that didn’t want apartments (and the lower income, racially mixed tenants they attracted) in the suburbs. Others joined in the fray: those that opposed competing businesses and those that just wanted everything to remain green, despite the fact that the land was not in a natural state—it had been farmed for generations—and to have their way, no matter what opportunities for economic growth and improved land use the community might lose out on in the process.
A third issue—and this was our Achilles heel—was that, despite our good intentions for better land use, our developer had selected a flood plain location, and this choice was due to the fact that the land was cheaper—for good reason: it was the least desirable and suitable for urban development. And over the years the true cost of making and keeping it suitable became apparent: it needed levees, pumping stations, drainage channels storage ponds, and a host of special engineering measures to create and maintain the basic conditions that exist at the outset on high ground. While the ability to protect from floods for long periods has been shown to be possible in entire countries, like the Netherlands, it has been less successful in New Orleans. Often the die is cast for urban development long before rational planning can be achieved, and then it is too late. While the premise of building on low land can be shown to be a fallacy, it is a romantic and seductive idea, one which many will defend. Hence the battle is joined.
It is this conflict between an immovable object (the city and its inexorable demands for growth) and the irresistible force (the river, Nature and the environment) that has fueled many costly urban battles, with casualties on all sides. It’s the stuff of conflict, and it has inspired many life histories and stories worth the telling. That’s what got me going in writing my new novel, Crimes of Design and how it came to be that an architect who loves to tell these stories and to write the histories of real people was inspired to create a murder mystery, set in St. Louis, during a flood of record rivaling the Great Flood of ’93.
More next time.
Till then, regards,