If the present groundswell of activism is any indication, more and more Americans are now comfortable with the idea of overhauling zoning. So why not merely reform it? Can’t we liberalize local codes, set up a few state-level guardrails, institute some positive federal incentives, and call it a day? The trouble is that, without much deeper changes to the policies, institutions, and norms that shaped the zoning we have today, any system that allows municipalities to comprehensively dictate land use and densities will inevitably trend back toward the current mess. As long as we encourage Americans to think of their homes as an investment and allow every small suburb to incorporate and determine what can and can’t be built, zoning will always serve to perpetuate housing scarcity, stagnation, segregation, and sprawl. We can’t tinker our way out of this one; the longer-term objective must be zoning abolition.
But what about all the good that zoning tries to do? Set aside all its flaws for a moment: Who wants glue factories in residential neighborhoods? Certain land uses in certain places and at certain scales can have unwanted impacts on their neighbors. Who wants new housing built without the public services and infrastructure to match? Without some form of zoning, the argument goes, developers will have no reason to consider these impacts, and city planners won’t be able to ensure adequate infrastructure and public services. Zoning is meant to help us escape from this chaos by setting clear parameters on what can and can’t be built in advance and planning accordingly, heading off land-use conflicts and clearing a path for efficient growth patterns that leave us all better off.
In reality, zoning just isn’t that great at ensuring land-use compatibility among neighbors, often ignoring meaningful incompatibilities. Where zoning does attempt to prevent traditional impacts among neighbors—like noise or traffic—it often does so in a discriminatory way, solving the problem by shifting the burden to the poor and politically weak. Yet zoning focuses the bulk of its energies on preventing impacts—such as coded claims about how certain residents may change the “community character”—which don’t deserve regulatory deference, let alone active state enforcement.
Similar issues plague zoning’s attempts at growth management. Zoning now works largely untethered from what we normally think of as city planning. Indeed, many cities with a zoning code don’t have any comprehensive plan at all, while many more only halfheartedly incorporate zoning into this broader plan, if at all. Meanwhile, the supposed “stability” brought on with zoning has been largely undermined by the recent shift away from as-of-right zoning and toward discretionary permitting.
With mechanisms like variances, special permits, re-zonings, and planned unit developments emerging as the norm, whatever claims that could be made about the power of zoning to lend stability to communities go out the window.
The issue with zoning is not that planners are bad at their jobs. The issue is that zoning asks them to undertake an impossible job. How could anyone map out the optimal mixture, scale, and location of every conceivable land use in an entire city? Zoning assumes not only that planners can project out the needs for every single type of housing or commercial use but also the scale at which it should all be built, and where it should all be built—and not merely for one slice of reality, but across the lifespan of a zoning ordinance, which can often extend well over half a century. In every other sphere of public policy, the idea that this anachronistic style of top-down planning can achieve even passable outcomes has been thoroughly discredited. Why is zoning any different? For the sake of our cities and the people who live in them, it’s time we fundamentally rethink how we regulate land in America.