Reforming City Codes


On my high horse pointing a finger.

In response to my intemperate use of the word “bureaucrat” in yesterday’s post on the city of Miami Shores’ crackdown on a front yard vegetable garden, a Root Simple reader DRBREW responded:

I hate to do this, but in defense of City bureaucrats (of which, I am one) and code enforcement people (of which I am not)…… Most of those citations are complaint driven, it is the code enforcement person’s job to uphold the City Code (they don’t have to be such a jerk about it though), if they don’t do their job, the person that complained will just go higher in the government structure until they get satisfaction (these people that file complaints are usually victims of someone else that complained and now they want everyone to suffer, it’s a vicious cycle). Most code enforcement people are not actively seeking out violations to write citations on, that’s why she was able to grow her veggies for 17 years without a problem, once the complaint is filed it must be addressed (even as a City bureaucrat, I have been a victim of anonymous complaints on my own property about trees, shrubs, you name it…….). I say this: Change the outdated codes that were enacted as a response to someone’s suburban utopian nightmare of manicured lawns and gumdrop shrubs! This is probably what will come of the Florida case. My City recently tried to legalize backyard chickens, someone started an anti-chicken campaign and the City Council lost it’s nerve and voted the amendment down………….Sometimes you just can’t win……..

DRBREW makes a good point. The City of Los Angeles just started a comprehensive review of the city municipal codes to deal with years of contradictory and outdated rules. It’s a process that will take years. Both Napoleon and the Roman emperor Justinian inherited law books so bloated that they used their dictatorial powers to sweep them away and start fresh. We can’t do that in a democracy.

I owe and apology to the many civil servants who, DRBREW points out, have to enforce contradictory and nonsensical codes. A few years ago I was part of a group that helped change the code in LA that made it illegal to grow and resell fruit, flowers or nuts in a residential zone. It was legal, for some reason, to grow and sell vegetables. City staff were very helpful in changing the code. They knew it didn’t make sense and were just as eager to change it as we were.

As DRBREW points out, these ridiculous laws tend not to be enforced at all until a feud begins between neighbors. To prevent these situation we can all help create more cohesive communities. It can be as simple as throwing a party. Our neighbors used a new social networking website called Nextdoor to organize a neighborhood party. I realized at that party just how important it is to get neighbors to chat over food and beer. If we’re all friends, we’re less likely to start calling city inspectors on each other and more likely to resolve disputes face to face.

Another step would be to create city codes that work as guidelines, something like Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language, rather than proscriptions. Take parkway planting regulations, for instance. Put together a group of landscape architects, gardening enthusiasts, native plant experts and come up with a guidebook rather than a list of rules. Ultimately, a human being is going to have to make a judgement call on whether something is a nuisance.

My error with yesterday’s blog post was pointing a finger, rather than seeing our communities as as system. That, and blogging while quaffing a beer–how ironic that “DRBREW” would point out my error.

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  1. I like your proactive attitude and actions, that’s true empowerment, you can sit around and whine and complain or you can work to make a positive change! Community involvement and education goes a long way, thanks! P.S. As you can tell by the name I am an avid homebrewer and have been guilty of enjoyning a tasty beverage while perusing the web, not always the best combination…… (;

  2. I’m not sure I expected to see the ‘I was only following orders!’ defense approved of here.

    If one is voluntarily employed by a corrupt, irrational or inhuman system, one is de facto not only supporting that system (and those qualities), one is also actively responsible for the consequences created by those systems. You’re not simply doing your job, you’re actually another cancerous cell in the malignant tumor.

    If we don’t hold these self-absorbed bureaucrats and faceless enforcers culpable for the choices they make, we’ll be the ones ceding whatever is left of our agency and our rights to them and their small-minded ilk. They are the embodiment of our system of laws and regulations – allowing them them to have their cake and eat it too by hiding behind the ethically indefensible excuse of ‘I don’t make the rules, I only walk all over your life enforcing them!’ will only spread the rot faster.

    There, that was a decent rant. This is better fodder than the bicycle posts.

    • Not sure what city you live in, but if it’s that bad do something constructive to change it, that’s what Mr. Homegrown is saying. Ranting, raging and personal attacks will get you no where positive.
      I’ll bet if your bicycle got stolen and you reported it to the cops you would be grateful to the cop that got it back for you. Then, if the next week, that same cop gave you a j-walking ticket I’ll bet you would be complaining about how unfair and unjust the system is and what a jerk that cop is, you can’t have it both ways.

  3. The one thing that bothers me is that the complaints are anonymous. I bet if they weren’t anonymous neighbors wouldn’t be so quick to start a feud. Whatever happened to the right to face your accuser?

    • True that! But, imagine that you had a legitimate complaint, would you want that person knowing your name and address? Opens things up for some serious harassment.

  4. I just came across this article about urban gardening in Amman, Jordan, where it is being actively promoted:

    It is notable that the climate and precipitation constraints of the Middle East seem to have sparked this movement. Perhaps if changes in climate patterns render previously fertile areas less so we, too, will abandon our ideas about what makes a yard attractive. One can always hope.

  5. I’d like to offer up a good example of collaboration between city staff and community. Culver City brought a revised parkway ordinance to the Council for a vote last May. Our group, Transition Culver City, felt that the ordinance did not match the uses for parkways that we had observed in the community. So we interviewed city staff and sustainable landscape experts and created a video, Reimagining the Parkways: We turned a controversy into an opportunity for collaboration and community dialogue.

  6. As another government bureaucrat, thank you for this clarification. Many of us local government employees do work constantly to update our codes to reflect current values. But your average municipal code is LARGE and it’s a big task. As in all things political, the changes that get made first are the ones that have the most political oomph behind them. I have seen local community efforts to remove prohibitions on chickens be successful in several cities in California. But in your average-sized community in California, regular residents do have a very significant voice in local politics (you don’t have to have money or power to be heard, honest you don’t). So if you want change, you sometimes have to be a “squeaky wheel” and push your local government to prioritize your item.

    I do think there is sometimes a danger with DIY-discourse of being so distrustful of government and the “system” that we don’t even try to make our voices heard. But I see my local government making decisions based on the simple voices of a couple residents all the time. That may not be true at the federal level, but I see it at the local level a lot. So go to a council meeting and ASK for a code amendment. You can but try.

    • Well said Inder. Even in a big city like Los Angeles, if you get a few people together you can really make a difference. My friend Mark Stambler, who co-founded the LA Bread Bakers with me, proves that you can also change laws at the state level–he’s a big reason why we now have cottage food permits in California. I wish more people were active at the local level rather than, say, complaining about national issues in Facebook. And LA planning department employees have been allies in changing outdated codes.

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