What is Zoning?

A few answers

Zoning is both impossibly arcane and completely ubiquitous. It is much more than “separation of uses.” Zoning is basically the DNA of the built environment. There are defenders of the zoning status quo who argue that it simply reflects market preferences, and doesn’t actually shape development independently. That, however, is at best only partially true—read this great piece by Daniel Hertz at City Observatory on that. There’s really no question that zoning exerts a huge effect on what our built environments look like.

That being the case, how many people really understand what it is or what it does? This post is brief, based on a bunch of short answers I solicited as to this question. I’ve reproduced the answers below, for you to think about.

  • Zoning has become a system that does everything anyone wants, but usually badly.

  • Zoning applies different land use rules to different zones of land in a given jurisdiction. The rules typically segregate residential from commercial from industrial uses, single-family from multi-family, varying levels of density and intensity of use.

  • Zoning (Euclidian, the most common type) is the practice of regulating the location of land uses through a local regulatory scheme.

  • Zoning restrains private property rights.

  • Zoning sets allowed land usage through a political process and community veto power over variances from those uses.

  • Zoning separates cities into zones of single meta-uses between which it is necessary to drive or take transit to live, making zoning the largest regulatory cause of climate change, and also the easiest to fix since it can be changed just by the strokes of many pens.

  • Zoning partitions a jurisdiction according to permissible land uses. In many jurisdictions, the zoning ordinance includes other municipal laws and rules that are not land use, per se.

  • Establishes what kind of construction for what purposes can be built in a given area, and regulates what existing construction can be used for.

  • Zoning distorts the market to the detriment of society.

There are a few key insights here. One is “other municipal laws and rules that are not land use, per se.” Another is “regulates what existing construction can be used for.” Of course, the property rights angle is important. Also, unmentioned in these replies, is the fact that the legal, constitutional basis of zoning is the police power of the state. Given how tremendously zoning has metastasized beyond simple separation of uses, some folks believe it would be possible to mount a constitutional challenge to zoning as it exists today. Interesting stuff.

Did you know that in a lot of localities, there’s no guarantee that you can actually rebuilt a building that already exists, on the same lot? In The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler tells the story of a 19th century structure that burned down in an upstate New York town. That building either predated zoning or was built under a simpler and more permissive code. But the code in force in the present day did not allow such a structure on such a lot. Parking minimums, stormwater runoff, setbacks, etc., etc.

We’ve artificially turned the kinds of buildings we built this country on into non-renewable resources. Somewhere around half of San Francisco could not be rebuilt as it exists today under the current code. There are communities in America today which have multifamily structures, right now, but where those structures could not be replaced if they burned down or were condemned.

Like any somewhat opaque regulatory scheme, zoning has taken on a life of its own, far beyond how it is understood by the general public. It isn’t the distilled voice of the market or the will of the people. If those things are important to you, question zoning.


Related Reading:

A Different Take on Suburban Parking Lots

What Do You Think You're Looking At? #11


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