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In City Rules, Talen's aim is to investigate the relationship between rule and effect ‘on the ground’ (p. 7, original emphasis) and how these rules were informed by values of urbanism. This connection has already engaged a range of socio-geographic scientists, such as Jacobs (1992 [1961]) using the notion of a ‘social Utopia’ being at the back of the city makers' minds, informing how they fit up the city. Urban producers and managers are not necessarily aware of the values underlying their rules defining the urban environment — but the actual furnishing and management of spaces may tell us a lot about which values are (implicitly) pursued (Lofland, 1998; Hajer and Reijndorp, 2001). Talen considers rules (ranging from zoning to building heights) as reflecting ideas, ambitions and values. She posits that the relationship between rule and value might be lost.

In this book Talen pays attention to the social history of rule making, and the spatial and social effects of these rules. She first provides an overview of the history of regulating place, followed by a chapter on urban pattern as affected for example by land subdivisions and the spatial arrangement of zoning districts. By presenting various images, tables and maps she finds that the pattern of cities often works out in an illogical way. For example, in the case of zoning in south-central Phoenix, where residential zoning is adjacent to commercial zoning, she finds this adjacency ‘has no positive effect’ (p. 62). In chapter 4, dedicated to the question of what use takes place where, she finds that regulations on use are separating people and separating functions. An example of the first is the exclusion of ‘multifamily dwelling units’ from ‘single-family residential areas’ (p. 95): socio-spatial segregation is then the result. She provides some best practices, such as an adjacency of apartments to a park, which she finds ‘good spatial logic, as it gives the apartment residents access to outdoor space’ (p. 115). The next chapter is concerned with urban form: street width, building height and control of frontage. She finds that nowadays rules are favoring car-based urbanism and have lost ‘focus on the public realm’ (p. 162). The rule on ‘curb radius’ illustrates this statement: a smaller radius provides shorter distances for pedestrians, whereas a larger curb radius benefits car-based urbanism. In the remainder of her book, the author proposes various reforms to city rules aimed at ‘[a] better kind of urbanism, a more livable, walkable, enduring kind of place’ (p. 175). For inspiration, she looks at some of the ‘best urban places’ (p. 197) in America, such as San Francisco's North Beach Neighborhood Commercial District.

This book is dedicated to ‘the beleaguered American city planner’ in the hope of helping to ‘identify the underlying causes of urban pattern, use, and form, and better affect the translation between written rule and place quality’ (p. 18). By the use of countless examples caught in rich images, tables, maps and other figures, she demonstrates how rules are irrepressibly connected to spatial effects. The city planner is now provided with photographic material and other visualizations of outcomes of their practices of rule making. Thus far, this book is convincing and practical for her target audience.

However, there are two points of critique, both directed to the next steps the author takes in her analysis. Firstly, she evaluates how city-making rules relate to certain principles of ‘good urbanism’. ‘Good urbanism’, inter alia, ‘encourages pedestrian activity’, ‘encourages social, economic, and land use diversity as opposed to homogeneity’ and ‘has a quality public realm that provides opportunities for interaction and exchange’ (pp. 1–2). Her evaluation then leads to opinionated statements such as: ‘Unfortunately, these rules did little to help produce a more viable, concentrated, walkable downtown core’ (p. 66, emphasis added). Would it not be more insightful if the rules were evaluated against actual ideas about good urbanism, as envisaged by the current code makers, the ‘beleaguered American city planner'?

Secondly, she refers to the relationship between the built urban environment, as informed by building codes, and how place is used by its everyday users:

through form and pattern … zoning exerts control over things like social behavior, daily patterns of movement, and access to public goods. Rules impact how places perform — socially, environmentally, and economically (p. 11).

Although she makes it plausible that this relationship is present — as for example Lofland (1998) also suggested — Talen does not provide any material demonstrating how the zoned built environment is actually used and experienced. For example, a caption under one of the Google Earth images states: ‘The area was zoned for businesses and apartments adjacent to single-family homes, creating an area that remains vibrant today’ (p. 119, emphasis added). Talen does not provide any material demonstrating that this area is actually experienced as ‘vibrant’ by its users, producers or regulators. The relationship between rule and social effect remains unclear.

Up to a certain point, Talen's book is a valuable addition to the long-term debate on the relationship between rules, built environment and social effects; in some respects, however, it is necessary to read the book with caution.

  • Hajer, M. and A. Reijndorp (2001) In search of new public domain. NAi Publishers, Rotterdam.
  • Jacobs, J. (ed.) (1992 [1961]) The death and life of great American cities. Vintage Books, New York.
  • Lofland, L. (1998). The public realm, exploring the city's quintessential social territory. Third edition, Transaction Publishers, Piscataway, NJ.