The Invisible Hand That Designed Your City

Lately I’ve been thinking about the invisible forces that shape our behavior. In an era of ubiquitous access to technology, we’ve become like Pavlov’s famous dogs. One quick glance at our phone reveals a new notification, which beckons us until we eventually succumb. A single click leads to another which leads to a swipe which leads to yet another hour scrolling through email, news feeds, and Facebook photos–which wasn’t exactly how we planned to spend the day. It’s less a choice than a reaction. We’re responding to our environment, but unfortunately, our environment is populated with a heck of a lot of compelling electronic distractions.

Humans like to think that we’re rational creatures, making a series of intelligent decisions throughout each day of our lives. After all, isn’t a sense of free will what separates us from the animals? But just how much choice do we actually have?


Let’s say you glance inside your refrigerator and decide you need groceries. What does that trip to the grocery store look like?

If you’re like many Americans, you probably just envisioned yourself getting in your car, driving to a shopping center, and parking on a large surface parking lot.

(photo by Sarah Kobos)

So maybe you chose to go to the store, but did you really choose to drive? Or was it simply the default option, so ingrained in our way of life that it’s become second nature? If so, why is driving the default? What factors may have influenced your “decision?”

The sad thing is that this decision was made for you long ago. In fact, your trip to the store is the culmination of thousands of other decisions, both large and small, made by total strangers over the past 80 years or so. And yet, most of us would be hard-pressed to name more than one or two of the many ordinances, policies and regulations that govern every aspect of how we physically interact with the city we call home.

Although these regulations are basically invisible to the average citizen, the more you learn about them, the harder it is not to see their impact on your day-to-day life. Personally, I’m starting to feel like that guy in “The Matrix” who looks at the scrolling code on a computer screen and no longer sees the code, just “blonde, brunette, redhead.” Except for me, it’s the opposite. I walk down a city street and instead of seeing shops, restaurants and houses, I see land use maps, parking requirements, subdivision regulations, landscaping ordinances, and street engineering standards.


As an example, let’s assume that you live in a neighborhood that was built after 1950 or so.

If you live in the post-war suburbs, it’s quite likely that single-use zoning regulations ensured that your home would be part of a residential neighborhood, surrounded by other single-family homes, far from “nuisances” like commercial endeavors. Basically, zoning ordinances segregated different types of “uses” -— residential, office, commercial, industrial—from each other. Each use had its own space designated on a map, which seemed very clean and orderly at the time. The confounding result is that the place you live may be quite distant from the places you need to go. For years, this was justified by the assumption that every family would have a car, which would make it easy to traverse long distances. Unfortunately, if you’d like to walk or bike, the nearest grocery store could be several miles away from your home.

Local subdivision regulations may have encouraged developers to design your neighborhood with large lots and long blocks ending in cul-de-sacs. They also may have required local streets to feed into a single “collector” before emptying onto arterials at limited points around the subdivision. Ironically, the goal of these designs was to limit the negative impacts of traffic, and create quiet, bucolic streets. Of course, the result is quite the opposite. Long streets encourage drivers to speed through neighborhoods, and the lack of connectivity creates artificial bottlenecks because all traffic is channeled onto a handful of through streets. Meanwhile, pedestrians and cyclists are confounded by elaborate mazes and roads to nowhere, greatly extending the distance one must travel just to get out of the neighborhood.

Roads to nowhere (Source: Google maps)


Engineering regulations that govern street design may have dictated the creation of wide roads with oversized lanes designed for fast moving cars, along with protected left- and right-turn lanes at every major intersection. In fact, many city streets haven been designed based on the AASHTO “Green Book,” which is basically an engineering manual for highways. The resulting high-speed streets and wide, complex intersections are both dangerous and intimidating to pedestrians. A far better approach would be for cities to adopt the standards found in the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide, but old habits, perhaps especially the bad ones, are hard to break.

Other street design standards may be influenced by the International Fire Code. These standards prefer wide lanes and corners built with enormous “turn radii,” which allow even the largest ladder trucks to navigate turns without swinging out into the adjacent lane. Unfortunately, they also encourage cars to corner at high speeds, posing yet another threat to people on bike or foot. But look on the bright side, if you get hit by a car, the fire department can send a truck over in a jiffy!


In many cities, several decades of growth took place without ordinances requiring sidewalks. This resulted in large developed areas that lack any viable pedestrian infrastructure. Even in places with sidewalks, street trees that make walking more comfortable and appealing may have been cut down because traffic engineering standards determined they impeded sight lines or created a “fixed object hazard” for fast-moving motorists. Either way, without adequate provisions for people on foot, walking becomes uncomfortable, unsafe, and undesirable.

Well, at least they got a crosswalk… (Photo by Sarah Kobos)


Parking ratios often require that more land be dedicated to off-street parking than to the commercial buildings they support. Other common zoning regulations insist upon deep setbacks that push stores away from the street, while maximum floor area ratios limit the amount of building floor space allowed on a single lot. Because of rules like these, buildings are spread out and exist in isolation from one another. This is great if you’re trying to quarantine people during an epidemic, but it doesn’t exactly facilitate walking from place to place.

(photo by Sarah Kobos)


Most people don’t have the time or energy to care about all these regulations. It’s like a light switch: you flip the switch, the light comes on, and you don’t stop to think about how it works or why. Who has time to ponder the nuances of land use regulations or street design standards when you’ve got kids to feed, soccer games to attend and a full-time job that keeps you awake at night?

What people care about is quality of life. The trick is getting folks to understand the connection between quality of life, the built environment, and all those nitty-gritty rules and regulations that make up the invisible hand of city design. It’s important that average citizens talk about what they want for their city. It’s equally important that city leaders translate these desires into the ordinances and policies that govern how our cities evolve and grow.


If average citizens don’t speak up, these boring regulations will invariably be written by the loudest people in the room: the big developers, real estate professionals, and construction lobbyists who know exactly what they want and how to get it. These are the folks who understand how rules and regulations influence city design—as well as their bottom line. It’s their job to show up at public meetings to ensure their viewpoint is heard. And while there are some truly visionary folks in the development industry, it’s been my experience that a vast majority want nothing more than complete preservation of the status quo. I suppose it’s understandable that businessmen want a predictable business climate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will advocate for what’s best for the future of the city or a majority of its citizens.

I’m fascinated by how often a small minority of private interests are able to successfully overwhelm a public debate. Citizens will be surveyed, and a large majority will indicate a desire to have more choices—they want to walk and bike and use transit, but currently don’t feel they have safe and viable options. They love traditional neighborhoods, and want to see more places like those old main streets they love. It’s clear that they want options that aren’t being built.

Visual preference surveys indicate that people would like to see more places like this. (photo by Sarah Kobos)

But when it comes time to update the regulating documents—the land use map, the zoning code, the subdivision regulations and other nerdy standards—the voices of average citizens are rarely heard. They simply don’t know how or when or with whom to engage.

The simple answer is that you have to get involved. Find out who the decision-makers are in your city. This may include a land development department, city planners, transportation planners, civil engineers and/or a local planning commission. Ask people to meet for coffee and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re a citizen and a taxpayer, which makes you the customer.

Think about what your city needs to do differently, and see if you can find other people who share your concerns. Thanks to social media and electronic communications, it’s never been easier to connect with people and get engaged. If you care about transportation options, find out if there are any local bicycle/pedestrian or transit advocacy groups. If not, start one! Get on email lists and join Facebook groups that inform people about opportunities for public education and input.

Don’t be intimidated. All this stuff can get sort of nerdy, but it’s not rocket science. The reality is that you’re already an expert: you live in your city every day, so you understand its strengths and weaknesses. Focus on the outcomes that would make life better for everyone. Pay attention, read up on best practices and be open to new ideas. Then get your hands on the documents that govern your city, so you can figure out how to make the “invisible hand” of land use and transportation regulations work for you. And then, someday, when it’s time to head to the store, you’ll have a choice of how you want to get there.

This blog entry was originally published here.


The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of growth that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

The American approach to growth is causing economic stagnation and decline. It has made America’s cities financially insolvent, unable to pay even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. A new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed.

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