Zoning for City 2.0

Chicago Plan Commission, 1946

As I’ve written previously, city governments get their power from the state. Yet states almost always give cities authority to enact zoning laws, a legal device used to limit land use. (Interestingly, many states authorized zoning by adopting standard zoning-enabling legislation drafted by the U.S. Department of Commerce. So zoning, like wireless-infrastructure funding, is another pro-city development advanced by the federal government.)

Zoning comes in many different forms. The Supreme Court first upheld the constitutionality of zoning in 1926, when approving an ordinance in Euclid, Ohio, that limited land use by geographic region and development type (i.e. industrial v. residential). That ruling spawned an increase in that type of zoning, but others exist: Some cities set a base of limitations and then give incentives for land developers to restrict land use in additional ways (this is called incentive zoning), and other cities worry less about whether the property is industrial or residential and more about the “form” of the buildings, i.e., their size or amount of street access (this is called formed-based zoning).

Obviously, the importance of this device in city planning can’t be emphasized enough: It would be hard to plan a city without it; even Houston, the largest U.S. city without zoning, has other land-use regulations that serve as a sort of equivalent.

As an example, I want to highlight how NYC is using zoning in innovative ways. The city now views zoning as not only a land-use tool, but as a tool for encouraging beneficial social change. As Julie Iovine recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, NYC is using zoning “to curb obesity by offering incentives for fresh-food markets in low-income neighborhoods; buck up the mom-and-pop store; and promote an astonishing range of other quality-of-life benefits.” Additionally, the city now wants to use zoning to influence small details of city design: according to Iovine, NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden introduced on January 3 “a zoning amendment that will preserve small shops on avenues with a residential character and force new banks on the Upper West Side to shift most of their services from extended street fronts to second-floor locations.”

Of course not everyone will be excited about these innovations. And zoning (like any government function) has the potential to be co-opted by business interests, to the detriment of the public. But regardless, aggressive zoning for the public good remains an vital tool in the belt of 21st-century city planners who want to turn hoards of data into real-world progressive.