Zoning: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothing?)

Map of dc from Zoning Commission

Zoning, like so many other legal systems in which we live, is presented as a necessary tool for protecting the public good. Most of us in the U.S. have never lived without zoning laws and consider them a simple fact of life. But zoning laws in the U.S. are only about 100 years old. And at least one city planner is calling for their abolition, arguing that “reform” is not enough:

Why Reform Isn’t Enough
…it makes sense for activists and policymakers to focus their scarce resources on causes like reforming local codes or adopting thoughtful state preemptions [right of purchasing before others]. But merely reforming zoning cannot be the end goal. The forces that made zoning so awful in the first place won’t magically go away even if we succeed in scrapping single-family zoning or lowering minimum lot sizes. As long as zoining is still on the table, the very forces that maze zoning so harmly in the first place will always pull it back toward dysfunctional status quo.The only way to sustainably escape this trap is to abolish zoning. — Gray, p.129

Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. by M. Nolan Gray. Island Press, 2022. Book excerpt and author interview here. The book is available through DC Public Library and probably the library wherever you live. For those interested in purchase: if you don’t have an independent bookseller handy, please consider Charnice Milton Community Bookstore — where this title is on our “Recently Recommended” list, and 30% of all purchases go to support literacy efforts in DC.

Zoning Basics

In a nutshell, according to the Urban Institute: “Local governments use zoning to control what types of buildings are allowed where and what sorts of uses are allowed within them. But this century-old tool—ostensibly created to separate industrial uses from residential uses—was also used to separate people of different races and classes.”

The Urban Institute’s “Cracking the Code” provides useful background, a glossary, and additional resources.

Lance Freeman, professor of urban planning, offers a brief history of modern zoning for the Brookings Institute: Build Race Equity into Rezoning Decisions. Salim Furth, a fellow at Mercator, offers this free-market approach, while Jake Wegman, associate professor of Community and Regional Planning, Shelterforce asks: So Your State Outlawed Inclusionary Zoning: Now What? See also Women-Friendly Urban Planning and Women’s Right to the City

See also “Meaningful Racial Equity in DC Zoning

— Virginia Avniel Spatz, 9/16/22

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