Inherited forms of shelter are to residential zoning what oral histories are to Gutenberg—the backdrop of rich tradition for codification and institutional creation. If safety and well-being are maintained, such institutionalization may be laudable for preserving practices or legends otherwise lost with time.
However, if the result is lost functionality, needless complexity, discrimination or prohibitive expense, the institution may need reexamination.
For instance, what if a zoning code is no longer cohesive, or impedes rather than accomplishes societal goals?
Sometimes the contrast of a different place and tradition can refocus priorities, and warp the senses.
Consider the iconic Maasai village, with a perimeter of brush to discourage animal invasion, and a central open space for market or celebration. Consider further the adjacent huts built of dung and sticks with cramped entry spaces and “room” division with spaces little more in size than our natural reach.
The form and function works, as it has for countless generations.
What if we tried to zone this tradition, with setbacks and ratios and heights and densities? What acronyms would we develop? Would we fall prey to increased allowances for cultural status based on cow ownership?
In the end, ironically, would such codification ultimately prevent the type of shelter that the regulatory effort set out to model?
When the questions are posed, and we contemplate zoning classifications such as IH-1 (Indigenous Hut 1) or CAR (Cow-Area Ratio), the dialogue sounds absurd. And that may be the very point.
Through the complex evolution of initially well-meaning institutionalization, perhaps we risk losing our way.
When necessary or appropriate, let’s remember to reassess, with simplicity in mind.
Cross-posted in Seattle’s Land Use Code: Listening for the future of the city.