(This is part 3 of a three-part series. See Part 1 and Part 2.)

Suppose you wanted to go out and buy yourself a new suit of clothes, or perhaps a new car. Now suppose that, after you’d chosen the one you liked, you had to appear before a board that would rule on whether it found your choice acceptable. If it didn’t, you had to change your ideas until it was satisfied.

Sound Orwellian? It isn’t. This is essentially what a civic design review board is empowered to do. The only difference is that the dictated taste is that of your own home.

As we saw in the last two columns, design review is an increasingly common civic institution under which buildings plans are evaluated, not just for adherence to health and safety codes as in the past, but also for aesthetic merit. Alas, in far too many jurisdictions, this arguably well-intentioned idea has mushroomed into a disgracefully intrusive process that throws roadblock after roadblock before anyone wishing to build a home or addition, never mind how simple or invisible. In at least one metropolitan city, for instance, hapless home owners are now required to submit photographs of the homes of their 20 nearest neighbors before their plans can even be evaluated.

The pity is that, in return for such draconian burdens on citizens, the design review process has brought no quantifiable improvement to the built environment. In fact, by allowing momentary aesthetic vogues to masquerade as building regulations, it has probably done just the opposite.

However dissatisfied we may be with the state of our cities and suburbs–and we ought to be–civic design review is a cure that’s far worse than the disease. If the history of architecture has taught us anything, it’s that aesthetic ideals are fluid and cannot be distilled into commandments. Nor does judging building plans against a slew of totally subjective aesthetic regulations–essentially, legislating taste–lead to more sensitive or more appropriate design. On the contrary, cities with stringent design review guidelines are often among the worst transgressors in the cultivation of gross and overblown pastiche architecture.

Across the nation, design review boards are busy micromanaging design details, materials, and even color choices for architects and homeowners.

Applicants are typically compelled toward approvable outcomes by so-called guidelines, such as one town’s none-too-subtle suggestion to use “natural materials (i.e., wood siding and fieldstone).” Hint, hint.

Meanwhile, in contrast to this kind of tyrannical aesthetic control, obsolete zoning practices continue to encourage McMansionization, suburban sprawl, and pedestrian-hostile design.

If we’re serious about improving our built environment, the proper avenue is not through the arrogant dictation of aesthetics, but rather through the objective, specific, and above all unbiased mechanism of more intelligent zoning regulations.

Municipal governments have long held the power to enforce matters of health and safety, and rightly so. Over time, these powers have evolved to rein in unreasonable density, bulk, energy consumption, and other quantifiable aspects of construction–again, rightly so. Yet presuming to dictate the ethereal, subjective, and ever-changing entity of architectural taste, especially on a citizen’s private property, crosses a dangerous line.

Simply put, your taste is none of the government’s business.

***

What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to opinion@inman.com.

Show Comments Hide Comments

Comments

Sign up for Inman’s Morning Headlines
What you need to know to start your day with all the latest industry developments
By submitting your email address, you agree to receive marketing emails from Inman.
Success!
Thank you for subscribing to Morning Headlines.
Back to top
Black Friday starts now! We've got great deals on Inman Connect New York in-person and virtual tickets. Register now×
Cyber Week Sale: Get 1 year of Inman Select for $75.SUBSCRIBE×
Log in
If you created your account with Google or Facebook
Don't have an account?
Forgot your password?
No Problem

Simply enter the email address you used to create your account and click "Reset Password". You will receive additional instructions via email.

Forgot your username? If so please contact customer support at (510) 658-9252

Password Reset Confirmation

Password Reset Instructions have been sent to

Subscribe to The Weekender
Get the week's leading headlines delivered straight to your inbox.
Top headlines from around the real estate industry. Breaking news as it happens.
15 stories covering tech, special reports, video and opinion.
Unique features from hacker profiles to portal watch and video interviews.
Unique features from hacker profiles to portal watch and video interviews.
It looks like you’re already a Select Member!
To subscribe to exclusive newsletters, visit your email preferences in the account settings.
Up-to-the-minute news and interviews in your inbox, ticket discounts for Inman events and more
1-Step CheckoutPay with a credit card
By continuing, you agree to Inman’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

You will be charged . Your subscription will automatically renew for on . For more details on our payment terms and how to cancel, click here.

Interested in a group subscription?
Finish setting up your subscription