Blueprints For Circumnavigation Part II: Zoning and etc.

Part II: Zoning and etc.

by Mari Gomez

                                                                                                    Read Part I Here

Zoning is a tale of light and shadow. 

In the early twentieth century, zoning laws began sprouting up throughout the country.  For example,  business owners in New York began complaining that tall sky scrapers were casting a shadow on their businesses, restricting sunlight and air and thereby devaluing them. So a law was drafted that said no building could be higher than the width and a half of the street. Also in New York City, conditions with factories and housing right next to each other became health risks; cities began moving factories away from where people lived.

And so it went, as cities expanded and built, these zoning laws were created to maintain regulation, to control growth, public safety and health. Zoning laws were also used, however, to restrict the spreading of slums into affluent neighborhoods and/or to separate the social classes by creating restrictions and limitations of living spaces. Zoning is nuanced: it is a means to protect the public, to regulate land use for the common good and it can also be a tool with a social and political objective. More recently, perhaps, zoning has become this contested tradition among city planners who are aiming to get away from some of its archaic provisions. 

Cities are perfect laboratories for chaos and so laws are often implemented to control, to map out, to contain. Zoning really  began as a way to promote safety. For example, used to regulate and establish sewage systems. In the early twentieth century industrial areas and residential areas were mixed; people walked to work because there were no cars. Factories were a block or two from homes, which caused health concerns. With the invention of the street car and public transportation, cities were able to separate industrial areas from residential areas.  After WWII the suburban sprawl happened and things spread even further apart,  isolating neighborhoods and people from each other and from the city centers.

“In the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s zoning was actually used to segregate people. If somebody wanted to say I’m going to build a new neighborhood I’m going to zone it to build large expensive homes that only certain people are able to afford…so it was covert.” said Carlos Gallinar, director of City Planning for El Paso.

It started even before that, though when zoning began it wasn’t exactly covert. Various cases went to court regarding racial segregation through zoning.  In San Fransisco, the city tried to pass a ban on public laundromats in residential areas, which was actually a quite obvious discriminatory blow to the Chinese population that owned them. In 1910 Baltimore passed a city ordinance allowing racial segregation. Mayor J. Barry Mahool, though of as a Progressive of the time, is quoted as saying, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods…” (Silver, 1997) A Supreme Court in 1917 changed that.  In Buchanan vs. Warley ruled that basing land use on “a feeling of race hostility” constituted “inadequate grounds” (Silver,1997). This in turn changed how cities went about implementing zoning with a discriminatory objective. Now, cities employed planners to designate zones, though not legally enforcing land use, they encouraged racial zoning through practice, by suggesting areas and guiding public and private developments.

By the 1930’s the racial zoning movement had died down and simply morphed into a more planning based process and as Gallinar stated above, people found ways to segregate economic classes through building practices.

The argument regarding private land and the rights of the state are at the center of many of these initial zoning disputes. Early opponents claimed that the government should have no right to decide what people do with their private property. Another court case in 1926 that brought zoning to the forefront was Euclid vs. Ambler Realty. Euclid was a small village outside of Cleveland where Ambler Realty owned some land. They wanted to develop it for industrial use. Euclid passed a zoning ordinance that would prevent this so Ambler Realty, claiming Euclid violated their rights as property owners and had lowered the value of the property took it to court. Euclid didn’t want industrial Cleveland spreading to its village and wanted to maintain the suburb free of these kinds of disturbances. Eventually the courts decided that Euclid was in its right to control the land if it was for the public welfare, stating that it fell in the right of their police power. This was a seminal case that set the president for how zoning would be used throughout the country, for is is how local governments would have more control of how land was used and how cities were laid out. 
 Zoning laws dictate what can be built, where, and under what regulations. In fact, most zoning laws are common throughout the country, which is why so many major cities in the U.S look so damn similar. Most cities are usually separated into commercial and residential uses. This often lends itself to a boring landscape of houses and strip malls or retail centers filled with fast food and supermarket chains. It is easy to recognize these patterns throughout major cities that have experienced the suburban sprawl. In older areas of El Paso, such as downtown areas, Cinto Punto’s area, which are older neighborhoods, are somewhat more varied and far more interesting to navigate.

 Every parcel of land in a city is assigned a zoning district.  In his office on Texas Street, he pulls out a big black binder that had the codes for these zones and demonstrated how certain buildings are approved. If somebody wanted to build anything in the city, it would have to be within the permitted codes for the area.

“So Planning involves many things.” He tells me. “Planning at the highest level involves dreaming about crazy cool things for a city. For example, the idea of the park on the border, the idea of a light-rail system between El Paso and Juarez. At the basic level are these technicalities that we call zoning districts.” He said. 

And though he seemed apologetic about getting into the technical stuff, I found it intriguing. These laws, have set a pattern of building and set the stage for the arrangement of cities. They are what control how the city is laid out. They have a social impact. They are also, as I came to find out, a way for cities to implement control on how properties are developed and essentially, the character and personality a particular area begins to adopt. When Plan El Paso was released in 2012, it received praise for it's smart and innovative ideas.  There was a lot of discussion for the plans paving the way for a "smarter and greener future" particularly in its use of Smart Code. (Benfield, 2012) 

Smart Code is a form of zoning reform, which has recently become quite popular among urban developers and planners who aim to make cities more walkable, more community oriented, and less homogeneous, bland, and unnecessarily suburbanized. Smart Code is what city planners have to combat the archaic provisions of zoning, to be more creative with city layouts and neighborhoods, while encouraging local businesses and more sustainable planning. 

I live in Canutillo, Texas. Canutillo has its own reputation around these parts. Also known as “Canuto.” Most people here are proud to differentiate themselves from the rest of the county. The air certainly is different here, and if you look carefully on Doniphan street there is a sign that says El Paso City Limit, but nothing that indicates where you are. Nothing that says Welcome to Canutillo. You just know you are there because it begins to look a little like Mexico, a medley of colors and arrangements and home made business signs and food trucks and mechanic shops and junk yards.

I walk two minutes outside of my house and I have cemetery in my neighborhood. There is something fantastic about walking by a cemetery everyday. (Ah, yes, I say, and then there is death.) There is a car shop across the street from my house, which up to about a year ago was a burrito place. Just the other day I saw a rooster on the road. I had to avert my car in order to avoid hitting him. A rooster. There is also a goat that often stands on a brick wall overlooking traffic.  The roads are narrow.  Dogs wander around without a leash. You get to know them. There is a dog named Canelo (after the Mexican boxer and what an apt name it is) and a little black scruffy thing that walks around pooping in the alleys, or that blue heeler type dog that is often seen by himself sniffing the dumpster chasing cats. Because of this, sadly, you also find a lot of dead dogs on the roads and countless dog poops. (Freedom comes with a price, I suppose. )A couple houses down there is a small stable with a horse. In Canutillo you’ll also see this kind of thing a lot: a nice house, with a gate and well landscaped front yard, grass, flowers, next to a trailer that looks like it has been inhabited by crack heads for two decades. 

Strangely enough, there are slightly more visible stars at night in Canutillo than from inside the city.

As Gallinar told me, before the zoning laws people built their neighborhoods based on what they needed, what made sense, as opposed to based on laws or codes restrictions in the city. 

“Canutillo doesn’t have zoning.” Said Gallinar. “It’s a big hodgepodge of things.”

It certainly is, which is why when you enter Canutillo, one gets a sense that something is different. It is not beholden to the restrictions within the city limits and there is a rebel quality to it. I ask Gallinar whether he thinks this doesn’t create more personality, more character to a neighborhood and even perhaps more of a sense of community.

He answers yes, but points out that without proper planning, things can get a little dangerous, perhaps a little unsanitary.

“Generally I think it does [create personality] so there is also the safety and health concern. Let me tell you what you want to encourage in neighborhoods. Grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants. I’m all for bars in neighborhoods. Neighborhood retail next to homes, you want to encourage that.” Said Gallinar.  

When I lived in England neighborhood pubs were a  must. Imagine that, not having to drive to a bar! A couple of blocks down from my house here in Canutillo there is a neighborhood bar that is really just a house with a sign on it. Last time I went in there smoking was still allowed inside and I got the feeling that beer wasn’t the only thing that was being sold/traded and everyone knew each other.

Yet, zoning laws often prevent this kinda thing. So what urban planners are now doing is using Smart Code to build, to encourage a smarter way of building that encourages mixed-use communities. Just as zoning was once the only mechanism city planners had to plan out a city, Smart Code is now what planners are using to challenge the seemingly archaic provisions of some zoning laws. SmartCode is composed of ideas of sustainability, walk-ability, and resource conservation. This form of community building is often called ‘traditional neighborhood design.’ That is, neighborhoods with a similar model used before the pivotal point after WWII when the car dictated how our cities were spread out.

Because of suburbanization Gallinar tells me, “The way we’ve built our communities is eating up more land, more natural resources, consuming more fossil fuels because we have to drive everywhere. There are studies that say that if you live in a suburban area you are less healthy because you don’t walk as much.” 
Yes, and fat suburbanites are not the only problem, as much as we all love to make fun of them, but the fact that we depend too much on one commodity that carries all kinds of baggage and has all kinds of political strings attached: oil. Building as if we have infinite resources is simply not economically viable or realistic and in the long term, can really flare up some major issues.

In his hip office on Texas Avenue, Gallinar pulled up a map on his computer.  On screen he had two different areas of the city. One of them was an old district established before the pivotal point of 1945; it was a grid of the Segundo Barrio neighborhood. Here is the school, Gallinar pointed, and here is your house. What I was seeing was evenly distributed squares of land where houses or businesses stood and narrow roads surrounding the squares. A grid, like a tick tac toe board. If you picture this there are many routes to get to any given spot. The school, the church, the supermarket are walking distance. Then, Gallinar showed me a map of an Eastside neighborhood, established after 1945. There was one, maybe two, routes to get to the school and most of those routes would be easily saturated with traffic because of everyone else having to take those same routes. 

 This gives people very little choice as to how to arrive and when you have a city that has grown considerably in population, that route is going to get clogged, it’s going to become dangerous, it’s going to make people angry.

“It’s not that I want to discourage driving or that I don’t want people to drive, it’s more about providing people with choices.” Gallinar said.

And choices are exactly what we need, especially when the city decides to undertake two construction projects simultaneously on the West side of town, cutting off two of the three already overcrowded routes people have to choose from. The news in the local paper read simply that commuters need be patient for four years as this is happening. (In El Paso time that means eight years right?)

Sketch Montecillo Urban Village.

Sketch Montecillo Urban Village.

One such Smart Code project can be seen in the new community of Montecillo. A project Gallinar and his team worked on. Montecillo, on Mesa Street,  is a good example of a modern community that follows this old fashioned neighborhood model; that is, living spaces within walking distance of various businesses where its residents can, if they wanted, refrain from using their cars and have access to food, entertainment, and public transportation. Not to mention trees and grass. Montecillo is also near a Brio bus stop where residents could travel up towards the Westside or towards downtown in a matter of minutes.

sketch of Northeast Smart Code project. Image: El Paso Times

sketch of Northeast Smart Code project. Image: El Paso Times

A few months ago that a $100 million Smart Code neighborhood was approved for NorthEast El Paso. This, Gallinar told me, was a proud project too because it along the lines of what he and his team propose for much of the city. Someone who doesn’t want to live in the suburbs or a residential area that is removed can choose to live in a community like this. 

 A recent visit to El Paso Development News website, shows the prospects of a few new projects filling vacant spots throughout areas of downtown, most of which are utilizing some form of rezoning. 

One office/retail project planned next to a vacant spot near I-10 by Sunset Heights area, which has been neglected for years and a place where people, I suspect, mostly go to get high or sleep off drunkenness. A rezoning permit is being requested because the area is composed mostly of residential units. Interestingly enough the plan itself states that the biggest portion of the property will be a parking lot. (Twenty four parking spaces are required by law, but sixty will be provided. I suppose that defeats the purpose somewhat. Alas.) There is an office/apartment project planned for the corner of Murchinson Drive and Cotton Street. The site states that the owner is requesting rezoning, so as to allow office space within the same building of the apartments. ArtSpace El Paso, which has been in the works for years, might soon see daylight, providing a mixed-use rental space for artists and their families in the heart of downtown. 

Depiction of a finished san jacinto plaza

Depiction of a finished san jacinto plaza

The classic and cliched American dream is often painted as a big house with a front yard and grass, maybe a driveway with a mini van, and, of course, the proverbial white picket fence. The kind of image you would see in a suburban neighborhood, but there is a very real trend now that is moving away from that and focusing on a more minimal environmentally friendly existence. This is where Smart Code and rezoning come in. There is a movement that is attempting to shift the very images we have so closely associated with the ideal America.
In an article published in the Atlantic titled, “Why Are People Still Building Sprawl?” it discusses this divide between developers that insist on building large, expansive, single family homes in suburban communities and the Millenials, which seem to be demanding a more compact living space, mixed-used communities, and walkable cities. I’m sure you’ve seen those “tiny living” houses that are about the size of a tree house.  The latter, of course, requires rezoning, a break in the laws that the country itself put in place generations ago to control growth.

And this change, I imagine, requires a cultural shift. And how does a nation, a state, a city deal with two opposing viewpoints on what the city should feel and look like? How does America shift years of wasteful building and sprawl? More importantly, how do you convince people that their lifestyles, their environment, needs to change? That maybe they don’t have to exchange their souls for a mortgage, that having a nice house and a new car your constantly paying off, isn’t necessary if you don’t need a car and don’t need a washer and dryer in your house because maybe you can walk to a laundromat. 

An interesting quote from the article: 

 "Of course, it’s not simple for companies to change the types of homes they’ve been building for decades  and start something new. Much of the land that they’re holding is out on the fringes and would be hard to   make walkable. Building bigger homes is cheaper than building smaller ones-developers can make a wall a  few feet longer, and give buyers more square feet without costing themselves anything. Smaller homes,            though, cost about the same to build, and because they’re smaller cost buyers more per square foot. "

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           (Semuels, 2015)  
The story of zoning is a complex one. It begins as a way to protect businesses and communities, to increase public safety, to regulate growth. It also has a dark past; serving as a tool for the division of communities and economic and racial segregation. And now it seems to be in the middle of this divide between modern urban planners using Smart Code to change the way cities build and the traditional (and wealthy) developers who continue to sell the old image of the suburban American Dream. 

 The El Paso landscape has become increasingly overbearing, repetitive, and void of character to me. It has a lot to do with the constant building and construction and what seems to be a lack of improvement in the quality of life. Plan El Paso however, gives us some promising prospects and we have begun to see some movement towards that, which is cause for hopeful possibilities.  There is development in Canutillo now and it bothers me. New suburban style homes are being built on the other side of I-10. In a few years those few extra stars visible in Canutillo will fade away. I try to be optimistic and I think that, like a little lab rat, I will continue to navigate my way through the labyrinths of the city even as the paths are constantly sprinkled with detours, road blocks and road work. Eventually, I will adapt, and forget, and embrace the road rage.



Benfield, K. (2012) It's unanimous: El Paso commits to a smarter, greener future. Switchboard. Retrieved from:

Erickson, A. (2012) The Birth of Zoning Codes, a history. CityLab. Retrieved from:

McMahon, E. (2011) Zoning at 85. UrbanLand: The Magazine of the Urban Land Institute. Retrieved from:

Semuels, A. (2015) Why are developers still building sprawl? The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

Silver, C. (1997) The racial origins of zoning in American cities. Urban Planning and the African American Community: in the shadows. Retrieved online from:

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