Zoning - Core Insights

John Pattison
John Pattison
  • Updated

Zoning is the division of a city into physical “zones,” in which rules dictate how land may be used, or what types of development may occur. Although examples of rules that resemble zoning can be found throughout history, its near-universal application in cities is largely a 20th-century innovation: most places built before then were not “zoned” in the modern sense. Zoning in the United States began in the early 20th century with rules such as height limits in New York City and limitations on industrial activities in Los Angeles. It became widespread after the Supreme Court ruled in Euclid v. Ambler (1926) that the city of Euclid, Ohio, could use zoning to ban apartment buildings in an area of single-family houses.

Zoning codes may regulate a wide variety of features, from the use of a building to its height, dimensions, positioning on the lot, associated features such as parking and stormwater retention, and even design attributes and materials. North Americans most commonly associate zoning with Euclidean zoning (named for Euclid v. Ambler) which defines its zones primarily based on use, thus tending to separate residential, commercial, and industrial areas from each other. Modern zoning codes can get extremely intricate.

As Strong Towns advocates, we need not oppose zoning in every instance or think its abolition is a practical goal. But we do recognize that the overly prescriptive and rigid approach to zoning that arose after Euclid is a key piece of the Suburban Experiment, and has had damaging effects on many cities and towns. Here are just a few reasons:

  • A strong town must be able to incrementally grow and evolve over time. Overly prescriptive zoning can freeze a neighborhood under glass, preventing the next increment of development (for example, a single-family home into a duplex or small apartment building) from occurring. This induces long-term stagnation and decline.
  • A strong town is built around the needs of people who walk or travel in non-motorized ways, allowing for a compact form of development that is economical in its public infrastructure requirements. Euclidean zoning in particular tends to separate uses from each other—for example, housing, retail, offices, and institutions such as schools—across greater distances. This results in far more driving and parking, traffic congestion, and the ballooning of public infrastructure needs to accommodate all of those vehicles and their secondary effects. This renders our places both financially weaker, and more dangerous to human life and safety.
  • Zoning tends to produce neighborhood monocultures by imposing rules on development that are prescribed from the top down, rather than allowing the form of development to respond organically to market signals and to bottom-up feedback from residents about their needs.

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