In the Zone

In its attempt to separate people from noisy, dirty, dangerous industry, zoning puts everyone in close proximity of noisy, dirty, dangerous cars.

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 15, 2006

The concept of zoning was invented in the past century in response to the awful noise and pollution of industrial processes. Factories were so dirty and unpleasant that they severely degraded the quality of life of those people unfortunate to be stuck near them.

Zoning grew out of the idea that these messy activities should be separated physically from the other human activities of living, working, learning, and playing. Over time, the premise of separation evolved into a general governing principle.

For example, by putting a store, even a convenience store, on a residential street, the street would potentially have to bear increased traffic and noise from customers, so it is forbidden.

The logic of separation, like any system based on categorizing and discrimination, provides ever more narrow and incremental criteria on which to separate. Suddenly, $200,000 houses must be separated from $220,000 houses so as not to "harm" the owners of the more expensive houses by lowering their property values.

(Notice how the mere presence of other humans is now enough to constitute harm. Since society is, by definition, public interaction among diverse humans, the triumph of zoning has effectively thrown the concept of society itself into question.)

Whereas traditional urban development brought numerous human activities into close proximity in neighbourhoods and districts, the new logic of zoning decreed that all activities should be kept separate, on the increasingly shaky premise that bringing different activities together would somehow be harmful.

The practical result of a regulation that mandates separation is that everything is kept separate. In practical consequence, people can no longer get from one place to another without some form of mechanical transportation. Further, since destinations are spread out in every direction, the mechanical means of transport must be flexible - hence cars.

In the aggressively zoned city, it is nearly impossible to get from one place to another without a car. This does two things:

  1. It further separates destinations, since the ciy's connective tissue must now accommodate driving lanes, turn lanes, on-ramps, off-ramps, entrances, exits, and parking - lots and lots of parking. This, of course, further enforces the necessity to own a car to get anywhere.

  2. Ironically, it also means zoning brings every place into close proximity of noisy, polluting, industrial processes - the cars themselves - which is exactly what zoning was originally designed to prevent.

Oops! In Hamilton, driving is the single biggest polluter, accounting for approximately half the city's air pollution in what we must recall is already an industrial city. As the factories have gotten cleaner, the cars as a group are actually getting worse.

So, thanks to zoning and the separation of uses, every house, strip plaza, office park, big box store, playground, public building, apartment, and condo is completely surrounded by dirty, smelly, noisy, dangerous industrial machines, nearly all of them operated by amateurs, many of them in poor condition.

Collectively, cars are responsible for degrading the quality of life of those people unfortunate enough to be struck near them ... a group that now includes everyone.

It's time to stop tinkering with our zoning laws and just throw them out already. Between zoning and free parking, our city has become an obsessive-compulsive disorder on a massive scale, rigidly organized on paper but incoherent, hostile, and dangerous at street level, where actual people live.

We need to break out of the zone.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By adrian (registered) | Posted None at

I have a slaughterhouse that I'd like to build in your backyard. I think mixed commercial and residential is great, but mixed industrial and residential is not so great. A number of Hamilton residents live close to heavy industry like the steel mills, but I imagine many of them would rather not live there if they could help it. Perhaps mixed residential and commercial areas, with light rail transportation from these areas into the areas of heavy industry, would be ideal.

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By jason (registered) | Posted None at

Allow me to play devils advocate here. What would be so different about living near a slaughterhouse as opposed to a 6 lane highway? There are thousands of homes in Hamilton along the Linc and future Red Hill expressway and many more near hwy's 403, 401 and QEW. The steelmills polluted WAY more in the 40's-80's than they do today. In fact, cars and trucks offer more air pollution today than steel mills. Yet people will slap down $200,000 to live along the Linc with a giant fence separating them from nonstop noise and pollution. I have no problem with mixed uses unless it was some sort of facility that is contantly smashing old cars or bricks or something that would drive me nuts. Our society has gotten quite strange in the harmful decisions we'll make with our lives, yet those very people will sit in the backyard breathing in toxic pollutants from a highway while making fun of folks who live near the steelmills. who's the joke really on???

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