Nominated by President Biden to head the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, architect and lawyer Sara Bronin received unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate late last year. As an architecture graduate of the University of Texas who also studied economic and social history at Oxford, and as a Yale Law School graduate, Bronin has been involved in shaping public policy that has an impact on the building environment. (Full disclosure: a few years ago, Bronin was involved in my graduate design studio to engage students in visualizing the future of Hartford—she chaired the city’s planning and zoning commission at the time.) Recently I spoke to her about the interrelationship of zoning, historic preservation, affordable housing, and zoning’s role in addressing climate change.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
SB: Sara Bronin
You’re a law professor at Cornell and also teach in the architecture and planning school. Talk about the intersection of that dual career in your work, being an architect as well as a lawyer.
The law governs everything that gets built, whether that’s through building codes, zoning ordinances, subdivision regulations, or historic preservation laws. In that sense, law is central to the practice of architecture. In architecture school, we were exposed to law a bit through the professional practice class and in some studios where we explored ADA and building code compliance. But architecture students don’t get a full sense of the law’s impact on the built environment. Going to law school and gaining an understanding of the legal issues helped me to get that fuller sense—not just the laws that shape construction and land use, but also laws that govern property ownership, title, tenancies, sales, easements, nuisances, and eminent domain.
What courses do you teach at Cornell?
I teach law classes that include law students as well as students in planning, preservation, architecture, and urban studies. That mix enlivens the dialogue. While the law students have the ability to read complicated texts, they may not always understand their aesthetic implications. Conversely, the non-law students have a deep understanding of space and place but may not always understand how written rules shape those built results. As we discuss cases and statutes, the students educate each other. To me, this confirms that architecture and law are compatible fields of scholarly inquiry and practice.
The role of zoning on the availability of housing, particularly affordable housing, is crucial. How can we address that shortage?
Zoning divides cities and towns into districts that have specific regulations regarding building uses, forms, and configurations on a given parcel. Zoning says that you can only build a single-family house in a neighborhood, and nothing else, which limits housing options. It can require the house to have a certain minimum-sized lot, which can result in sprawl, which is both environmentally wasteful and expensive. Zoning restrictions on building height, lot coverage, and minimum parking requirements can also limit the housing we can create.
Many affordable housing advocates seem focused on eliminating single-family zoning as a solution. You’ve broadened that critique.
Yes. I think reformers would do well to also focus on the auxiliary constraints on the size and scale of housing—such as lot coverage, height, minimum parking requirements—not just on the number and type of units that a given jurisdiction allows. I make this argument in a recently published paper, “Zoning by a Thousand Cuts.”
Tell us about the efforts to create a National Zoning Atlas. What’s the importance of it?
The national atlas is based on the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, a project initiated in tandem with state-wide zoning reform efforts. The intention was to illuminate the nature of zoning across the state’s 183 zoning jurisdictions. Using that methodology, the National Zoning Atlas now coordinates teams in about two dozen states (and growing) to analyze zoning texts, to collect geospatial information from zoning maps, and to marry those two types of information to make it available as an online resource that the public can use to compare jurisdictions, and to understand zoning, especially as it impacts housing.
Connecticut was the first state to do this?
Yes, followed by Montana and New Hampshire, so far. We have teams under way in about half of the states and hope those will all be completed within the next two years, with more states to come.
You’re also working on a book, The Key to the City, to be published by W.W. Norton, that examines how zoning shapes the quality of our lives. What’s the overview of the book and its message?
Zoning is this hidden power that most people don’t understand or engage with, yet it controls so much of our economy, our society, and how we live, our quality of life. The book aims to expose zoning’s impact, not only as it pertains to housing (which is the focus of my advocacy efforts), but in all respects. How does zoning impact our health? How does it affect whether small businesses thrive? How does it shape our transportation infrastructure? Answers to these questions are critically important for people to understand, so that they can harness the power of zoning and use it for good. The book should be out in early 2024.
Just a few months ago, the Senate confirmed you as chair of the Federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. What’s the mission of the council, its challenges, and what do you see as its future opportunities?
The council is the independent federal agency that oversees the processes by which other federal agencies must consider historic properties. The council staff is widely respected for its ability to mediate and administer the Section 106 process of the National Historic Preservation Act. In addition, the council advises the president, Congress, and state and local governments on historic preservation policy. As chair, I’m hoping to ensure the council accelerates its efforts to promote strong policies that strengthen our preservation ethic while also advancing equity, climate change strategies, tribal sovereignty, and economic development.
You’ve also been involved in mitigating climate change through zoning and preservation. Talk about that intersection—it’s one that might not be obvious.
Zoning and preservation laws are critical to our climate response. For example, zoning laws can create mixed-use communities, generate transit-oriented development, reduce minimum parking requirements, and institute environmentally friendly practices like tree planting and stormwater management. When I served as chair of Hartford’s planning and zoning commission, we tried to do all of those things. Historic preservation, in its push to reuse existing buildings and the embodied carbon invested in their construction, has at its core a sustainability focus. But preservationists can do better. For example, the administration of preservation laws that prevent owners of historic properties from installing solar collectors, using high-efficiency windows, or adding interior insulation is problematic from a sustainability perspective. As an architect, I believe that there’s always a design solution that can both protect historic fabric and allow sustainability goals to be achieved.
How can the architecture profession be more effective in combating climate change, given an architect’s role and power to shape the built environment?
Architectural publications, architecture schools, and continuing education are placing a strong emphasis on the technical aspects of practice that can help improve buildings as part of the climate solution. But we’re not moving fast enough. Architects need to be on the front lines, pushing for the highest standards we can reasonably achieve.
How do architects do that? It seems that often they’re the last ones called in after all the impactful decisions have been made. How much agency do they have?
A lot! They have the technical expertise needed to move the conversation forward in ways that policy makers don’t or can’t. For that reason, architects have a responsibility to be active in the public sphere, in everything from zoning ordinance amendments to building code updates, to embed key changes into policy. They also have a responsibility to educate their clients about what’s possible and advisable. Architects are creative problem solvers, and I hope and expect they will lead the way.
Featured image via Urban Planning Report.