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Cedar Rapids, too, practiced discriminatory zoning
For the first time in almost a century, one of Canada’s largest cities, Vancouver, will have a comprehensive plan. Called the Vancouver Plan, it “seeks to create a long-term land-use strategy for the city instead of different plans for individual neighbourhoods spread out over many decades” — something that Cedar Rapids has already managed to accomplish through its comprehensive plan, EnvisionCR. But beyond this cursory similarity, what is the Iowa connection here, between places in the Midwest and Northwest, United States and Canada? It is that up until this point, Vancouver’s only citywide plan, created in 1928, was made by the same firm which made many of Cedar Rapids’ plans during the 20th century: Harland Bartholomew and Associates.
Many in Vancouver see this new plan as an opportunity to redress inequities and injustices brought upon by city planning, including through the 1928 Bartholomew Plan. Bartholomew’s plan zoned the vast majority of Vancouver’s land area for detached houses only, a condition which remains true today, even as it seems particularly constraining in one of the most expensive housing markets in North America. In a time when non-white people such as Chinese immigrants were often forced to live in overcrowded apartments due to bans on purchasing property or living in other areas by law or covenant, Vancouver’s Bartholomew Plan was often explicit in its desires to maintain the exclusivity of certain neighborhoods, stating for example that an objective of city planning was to “prevent the intrusion of apartment houses in single or two-family residential areas.”
With this in mind, I was curious which similarities, if any, would bear out in a Bartholomew Plan for Cedar Rapids. With the help of a friend, I was able to get ahold of a digitized copy of one such document, “A Report Upon Land Use and the Amended Zoning Ordinance” from November 1953.
While in a different time and location from Vancouver’s Bartholomew Plan, the perspectives taken were immediately familiar. The report has a clear focus toward maintaining “character” and property values over all other considerations, whereas denser, older mixed-used developments had poor “character and desirability,” while then-new sprawling, detached ranch houses intended for single nuclear families were good. It states on page 12:
“The control of population density or the limitation of the number of living units that an be erected on each lot or tract of land is an extremely important part of zoning. Reference has already been made to the fact that urban development in Cedar Rapids, particularly the single-family development, is more spacious than in other cities of similar size. The lot are per family control in the zoning ordinance, together with the yard regulations, constitute the principal mans of insuring spaciousness in urban development which is necessary to protect the character and desirability of residential neighborhoods and in preserving residential property values.”
The language is distant and passive, yet the position taken is clear in the disdain held toward apartment buildings, and by extension, the people who live in them. On page six it states:
“Practically all of the multiple dwelling development is concentrated around the central business district and has not, as of yet, scattered to widely. It is only logical that these older and closer-in areas be used for the more intensive form of residences, since they contain more of the older, larger homes that can be readily converted into multiple dwellings. It is most important that the revised zoning prevent any excessive scattering of apartments.”
On page 13:
“The worst mixture of lot sizes is primarily found in the older residential areas around the central business district. This condition is to be expected because here is located the majority of the two-family and multiple dwellings with the latter containing a great variety in the number of living units.”
And on page 14:
“As previously indicated it is especially important that the spacious character of development now found in Cedar Rapids be protected and preserved and that all future development, particularly of single-family homes, conform to desirable standards. With the present trend of residential development toward the ranch house type of structure, there is need for wider lots and obviously some increase in the area of the lots.”
While absolutely zero mention is given to the bus network, deference to drivers in the form of parking mandates does feature in the plan, on page 28:
“Off-street parking is required in all districts throughout the city. In the residential districts one off-street parking space is required for each dwelling unit with the exception of multiple dwellings where three off-street parking spaces are required for every four living units. Likewise, off-street parking facilities are required for churches, schools, hospitals, institutions and other uses which may be located in the residential district and which will serve persons driving cars”.
A counterpoint raised in criticizing Bartholomew’s methods is that for the most part, his language is dry and technocratic, without any outright mention of race. While this is nominally true, it ignores a long history of the use of zoning in the United States to enforce segregation by technicality, as well as Bartholomew’s own engagement with exclusionary practices in his own hometown of St. Louis, one of the most intensely segregated cities in the United States.
In explaining Bartholomew’s use of zoning to enforce racial segregation through technocratic means such as land use restrictions, Stephanie Allan, now a Vice President for the province of British Columbia’s public housing agency, quoted Mark Benton’s research on the subject, a portion of which is as follows:
“Instead of explicitly banning blacks from integrating, Bartholomew zoned the city in a manner that assigned “first residential neighborhood” status to existing white-majority neighborhoods whose homes’ deeds legally prohibited sale to blacks, an agreement known as a restrictive covenant. Restrictive covenants prevented the sale of homes to blacks legally, because they were private contracts as opposed to public plans. First residential neighborhoods generally allowed only high-quality, single-family residential homes. Neighborhoods that blacks were living in were 27 designated as “second residential” and largely contained dense, multifamily housing. Black residents of Saint Louis were left with little choice than to live in the neighborhoods zoned for them, where deeds did not legally preclude their residence. Furthermore, the 1920 Bartholomew plan mandated that new polluting industry businesses’ construction occur only in neighborhoods with the designation of “second residential,” ensuring not only segregation but also an inequality in housing and neighborhood quality. Whereas white neighborhoods were zoned as residential only, sometimes with light commercial use on the outskirts, black neighborhoods were allowed to be zoned for the mixed uses of dense residential, commercial, and industrial. (Benton, 2018, p. 1121)”
In the case of Cedar Rapids, taking a look at our redlining map produced in the 1930s makes it fairly clear that the areas denigrated most in the Bartholomew Plan were the ones occupied by the working class, immigrants — often of Czech descent in the case of Cedar Rapids — and by residents of the City’s “colored section.” The areas on the map marked yellow and red, for “definitely declining” and “hazardous,” respectively, are home to not only the City’s most intensive commercial and industrial areas, but also the places most prone to flooding from the Cedar River as well. The result of decades of planning for “spacious development” and reliance on cars of transportation has been sprawl, pollution, and human sacrifices to the Moloch that is the car, none of which bode well for the health of the City’s finances, the health of the planet, or the well-being of its people.
I have seen a tendency among people in Cedar Rapids, of all social and political persuasions, to believe that the city is simply too small and insignificant for much of anything important to happen here, perhaps aside from presidential candidates “just chilling” on May's Island. Indeed, Cedar Rapids does seem quaint in comparison to Vancouver, Canada’s largest city on its west coast and its primary port on the Pacific Ocean. But at least when it comes to urban development, Cedar Rapids has often been just ‘big enough’ to go through most significant patterns of American urban decline and growth in the past century.
Cedar Rapids was once significant enough to attract multiple railroads, heavy industry, commerce, and immigrant enclaves such as Czech Village. There were once interurban railways and streetcars in town, until they were all torn up in deference to the almighty automobile. It was populous enough to attract the attention of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, which drew up a redlining map of the city. In the 1970s, Cedar Rapids was deemed important enough to have an Interstate highway blasted through the downtown, carving up urban neighborhoods and destroying the Hispanic neighborhood “Little Mexico“ in the process. Since then, the city has had to deal with, to varying extents, an economic transition away from industry, flight to the suburbs, and ‘revitalizing’ both a stagnant downtown and dying shopping malls.
These stories of investment and disinvestment, segregation and discrimination, the destruction wrought upon by building infrastructure for cars rather than people, deindustrialization, and white flight, are often told in the settings of larger cities. But they happened here as well — Cedar Rapids is part of these stories too. The first full-time planner ever employed by an American city (St. Louis), Bartholomew and his firm would go on to create plans for over 500 cities and counties, including Fort Dodge, Iowa City, Le Mars, Creston, Johnson County, Muscatine, and Burlington.
It would be a disservice to the collective memory of the city to overlook this history, and its origins in policy and planning, out of a misplaced sense of pastoralism by virtue of being situated in Iowa. This brief overview should not be seen as a wholly authoritative perspective at these documents, but rather a starting point for the further study and analysis of the history of planning, and its relation to enforcing inequity, in Cedar Rapids.
Austin Wu is a Gazette editorial fellow.
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