As Americans, we take comfort in the idea that we have the right to plan our own lives. We are unique in our confidence that it is within our power to move to a better life, as so many of our ancestors did. Where other countries talk about managing stagnation and even decline, we stand undaunted in our assurance that the limits of our wealth and the frontier of innovation lay well into the future. Liberated from Old World hierarchies, we Americans fancy our home a place where any person, regardless of their color, creed, or class background, can improve their lot. And if there are broader forces that threaten our way of life, so much the worse for them; progress, and the change it brings, is intrinsic to who we are.
The idea that a stodgy rule book could set the terms of our lives from on high is fundamentally at odds with our national ethos. And yet, such is the state of America under zoning. From unremarkable origins, the arbitrary lines on zoning maps across the country have come to dictate where Americans may live and work, forcing cities into a pattern of growth that is segregated and sprawling. Once the exclusive domain of local planners, concurrent crises surrounding housing costs, underwhelming economic growth, racial and economic inequality, and climate change have thrust zoning into the public consciousness.
Now more than ever, there is an appetite for reform. Yet we can do better: It's time for America to move beyond zoning.
At surface level, zoning is an impossibly boring topic, even by the terms of public policy debate. The mere thought of a weeknight zoning hearing or a 700-page zoning ordinance is enough to make even the most enthusiastic policy wonk's eyes glaze over. Until recently, zoning might have been blithely dismissed as a mere technical matter, simply a way of rationalizing our cities, a planning policy so obvious as to be beyond reproach.
But zoning is at once so much less and so much more. While occasionally used as a stand-in for city planning or building regulations more broadly, its scope is far more limited: At a basic level, all zoning does is segregate land uses and regulate densities. Your local zoning ordinance sets out various districts, each with detailed land use and density rules, while an associated local zoning map establishes where these rules apply. The bread and butter of what most people think of as city planning—such as street planning or building regulations—has almost nothing to do with zoning.
Yet from these seemingly innocuous zoning rules have emerged a set of endlessly detailed parameters controlling virtually every facet of American life. Arbitrary lines on zoning maps determine where you can live by way of allowing housing to be built here but not there. Through a dizzying array of confusing and pseudoscientific rules, from "floor area ratio" restrictions to setback mandates, zoning serves to heavily restrict the amount of housing that may be built in any given neighborhood and the form it may take. In most major cities, zoning restricts roughly three-quarters of the city to low-slung, single-family housing, banning apartments altogether.
The combined effect is that, in already built-out cities, zoning makes it prohibitively difficult to build more housing. As a result of the further tightening of zoning restrictions beginning in the 1970s, median housing prices have dramatically outpaced median incomes in many parts of the country over the past half-century, such that millions of Americans now struggle to make rent or pay their mortgage each month. That is if they have the luxury of having a stable home at all: In places where demand for new housing is especially high—as in cities like New York and Los Angeles—zoning restrictions have facilitated acute housing shortages, with attendant surges in displacement and homelessness. The COVID-19 pandemic has only expedited these trends, with home prices in 2020 rising at the fastest rate since 1979.
The arbitrary restrictions that zoning places on cities also show up in our capacity to grow and innovate as a nation. By severely limiting new housing production in a handful of our most productive cities—including San Jose and Boston—we have made moving to our most prosperous regions a dubious proposition. Your income might double if you were to move from Orlando to San Francisco, but your housing costs would quadruple. Should we be surprised that many people are turning down that deal? For the first time in history, Americans are systematically moving from high-productivity cities to low-productivity cities, in no small part because these are the only places where zoning allows housing to be built. According to the 2020 census, the population of California—one of our most productive and innovative states—is now basically stagnant, such that the Golden State will be losing a congressional seat for the first time in its 170-year history.
The downstream economic implications of this unprecedented reversal of historic trends are hard to overstate. After all, big cities make us more productive, in that they allow us to find a job perfectly suited to our talents and exchange ideas with colleagues working on the same issues. They provide a platform for individuals to experiment and innovate, nursing the young firms that go on to remake the American economy every few decades. To the extent that zoning has made it exponentially more difficult for Americans to move to these hubs of activity—for a software engineer to relocate to San Jose or for a medical researcher to relocate to Boston—we are all poorer as a result.
Even beyond so-called "superstar cities," zoning shapes American life in many subtle but nefarious ways. As the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown into stark relief, America still has a long way to go in providing equal opportunity for all. And yet, few American cities recognize the fact that their zoning codes were drafted with the express intention of instituting strict racial and economic segregation. To this day, "the wrong side of the tracks" is not merely a saying but a place that is written into law as a zoning district drawn on a zoning map. To the extent that zoning can prohibit apartments in this neighborhood, or require homes to sit on a half-acre lot in that suburb, zoning is perhaps the most successful segregation mechanism ever devised.
This state of affairs is as true in the conservative suburbs of southern cities like Nashville and Atlanta as it is in progressive midwestern college towns like Ann Arbor and Madison. Tucked away behind a veil of "protecting community character," zoning has been used to determine who gets to live where since its inception. In practice, this has been used toward the end of rigid economic segregation, which in the American context often means racial segregation. In virtually every suburb in America, zoning maintains a kind of technocratic apartheid, preserving those areas most suitable for housing for the wealthy while locking less privileged Americans into neglected areas far from good jobs and quality public services.
Similarly, zoning makes more environmentally friendly forms of urban growth effectively illegal. By banning developers from building up, zoning forces them to build out. In the 2020s as in the 1950s, the lion's share of American housing growth continues to occur out on the edge of town, gobbling up farmland and natural areas that might otherwise have remained unbuilt. Despite burgeoning demand among a cross-section of Americans for apartments and town houses closer to job centers, zoning locks cities into an urban design pattern—single-family homes sitting on vast lawns—that increasingly doesn't make environmental sense. Smaller homes with a shared wall can dramatically reduce residential energy consumption, and thus emissions, yet this is precisely the type of housing that zoning makes most difficult to build.
At the same time, zoning assumes universal car ownership and all the emissions and traffic violence this entails. It does so by strictly segregating uses—no more corner groceries in neighborhoods—and forcing developers to build giant parking garages even in contexts where most residents or employees might prefer to bicycle or take the train. If you have ever wondered why more Americans don't walk or ride buses to work, as in most other developed countries, the simple answer is that it's illegal. In most American cities, zoning prohibits the densities needed to support regular bus service, let alone light rail. The type of walkable, mixed-use, reasonably dense development patterns that might help to ameliorate climate change—patterns that prevailed before the 20th century—are outright prohibited under most American zoning codes.
The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way. Reform is in the air, with cities and states across the country critically reevaluating zoning. In cities as diverse as Minneapolis; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Hartford, Connecticut, the key pillars of zoning are under fire, with apartment bans being scrapped, minimum lot sizes dropping, and off-street parking requirements disappearing altogether. Misbehaving suburbs find themselves under increasingly strict state scrutiny, with tighter rules requiring that each municipality allow its fair share of housing. More broadly, American urbanists are looking abroad for alternative ways to regulate land, including Japan's liberal approach to zoning.
But we can do better than small reforms. After all, zoning isn't merely a good policy misapplied toward selfish ends. Zoning is a fundamentally flawed policy that deserves to be abolished. Set aside for a moment the debilitating local housing shortages, the stunted growth and innovation, the persistent racial and economic segregation, and the ever-expanding sprawl: The very concept of zoning—the idea that state planners can rationally separate land uses and efficiently allocate density—has repeatedly failed to materialize. Far from the fantastical device imagined by early 20th-century planners, zoning today has little to do with managing traditional externalities and works largely untethered from any guiding comprehensive plan.
It's high time we accept the need for zoning abolition and start thinking about what comes next. Happily, zoning is hardly the final word on managing urban growth. Cities found ways to separate noxious uses and manage growth for thousands of years before the arrival of zoning, and they can do the same after zoning. Indeed, some American cities—including Houston, America's fourth-largest city—already make land use planning work without zoning. To the extent that zoning has failed to address even our most basic concerns about urban growth over the past century, it's incumbent on our generation to rekindle this lost wisdom and undertake the project of building out a new way of planning the American city.
The very first zoning code turned 100 years old in 2016—a zoning code predicated on keeping poor Jewish factory workers away from the posh Fifth Avenue shopping district. The Supreme Court decision that deemed zoning constitutional will turn 100 in 2026—a decision that infamously referred to apartments as "parasites" and tacitly endorsed class segregation. These dual centennials may be interpreted in either of two ways. On the one hand, they might speak to the inevitability of zoning. Perhaps zoning has been chiseled too deeply into the American city to be removed, leaving wounds too deep to be healed. Maybe the best we can do would be to make zoning ever so slightly less bad. If that's the case, so be it.
On the other hand, the fact that zoning is only now turning 100 might speak to the fact that we shouldn't take it for granted. A 100th anniversary is as good a time as any for a reevaluation: When zoning first started to come online in the 1920s, nationwide alcohol prohibition was the law of the land, the doctrine of "separate but equal" defined race relations, and eugenics captured the imagination of governing elites. Needless to say, the times have changed. This is certainly true of cities: Around the time of zoning's widespread adoption, nearly every major American city had doubled in size over the preceding 30 years, urban industry was still viable, and mass suburbanization and car ownership were only beginning to ramp up. The conditions that defined American cities have changed dramatically over the past century. Why shouldn't the way we plan them also change?
The premise behind zoning was simple: By defining and segregating different land uses and controlling densities, city planners would be able to separate incompatible neighbors and plan for orderly growth. Of course, it hasn't worked out that way; zoning has failed to efficiently deal with the messy spillover effects that nip at urban life, at once ignoring those activities that actually drive conflict—be it noise, or traffic, or lighting—while segregating uses with no such compatibility issues—such as the common zoning prohibition on small apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods. At the same time, zoning has undermined the goals of efficient growth management, driving growth out onto the periphery, where new infrastructure must be built and new services must be provided, and out of existing urban areas, which could have accommodated additional growth at little additional cost.
The good news, at this ominous centennial, is that it doesn't have to be this way. In the near term, reforming zoning makes sense. Reining in the worst excesses of zoning, such as single-family zoning, minimum lot sizes, and off-street parking requirements, would certainly help to stop the bleeding. But we can do better. In no uncertain terms, zoning should be abolished. Zoning is not only ineffective in achieving its stated goals—it's also unnecessary. In our focus on drawing district boundaries or listing out permitted uses, we have lost touch with the innumerable ways that cities organize themselves, from the natural use separation helped along by land markets to the bottom-up agreements formed by neighbors. Where these institutions fail, a robust set of impact regulations for new development and a civil service committed to managing—rather than stalling—growth would do a far better job than zoning at keeping neighbors happy and quality of life up. Now is the time to rediscover these lost traditions and start planning for what comes after zoning.
This isn't to say that an urban utopia lies on the other side of zoning. Housing will always be slightly more expensive in superstar cities. There will always be considerations besides the cost of living that keep folks from moving to thriving cities. Healing the scars of racism and classism will take decades, if not centuries. And national action—better yet, international action—is needed to address issues like climate change. Indeed, zoning isn't even the only policy that stands in the way of better cities. In some states, misguided environmental review mandates are at least as likely as zoning to stymie new housing. State-based occupational licensing regimes often keep people locked in place. Historic preservation tools are increasingly misappropriated toward exclusionary ends. And subdivision regulations play no small role in driving sprawl, mandating wide roads and wasted open space.
Yet the fact remains that abolishing zoning is a necessary—if not sufficient—change if we want to build a more affordable, prosperous, equitable, and sustainable American city. While earlier generations may have been excused for ignoring the arbitrary lines that have impoverished American life, we don't have that luxury. We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our century-long experiment with zoning has been a failure. But rather than a condemnation, this realization should serve as an invitation: an invitation to rethink the rules that will shape American life—where we may live, where we may work, who we may encounter, how we may travel—across the century to come. If the task before us seems daunting, the good news is that we have nowhere to go but up.
This essay is adapted from Nolan Gray's new book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, by permission of Island Press.
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