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A Brief Intro to Zoning, Part 3

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

What is zoning, exactly? Why did it become what it is? Why is it important? Why is it so complex? How do we deal with it today? And how can I learn more?

This is our attempt to provide answers to those questions. It’s called: UrbanForm’s Brief Introduction to Zoning.

It’s organized into three sections:

The first part, "The Constitutionality", can be found at this link.

The second part, "The Complexity", can be found at this link.

This is the third and final part, called:

The Consequences of Zoning


“We’ve long known two things about land use regulations. One is that . . . ‘exclusionary zoning’ has led to racial and economic segregation. The other is that restrictive land use and building codes in cities limit housing construction (and therefore housing supply), leading to increased costs, worse affordability problems, and deepened inequality in urban centers.” –Richard Florida, University of Toronto

While zoning may have originated from an intent to promote health, safety, and welfare, those issues were not always the primary motivation for how it has developed in the years since. This was foreseen as early as in the original dissenting opinions in Euclid v. Ambler.

Entire books have been written about the consequences of zoning, but the effects that are discussed the most today center around two issues: segregation and housing affordability.

Historically, the use of zoning to racially segregate cities is particularly breathtaking, and books by Sonia Hirt, M. Nolan Gray, and others serve as good introductions to this incredibly complex topic.

The economic segregation of cities (which is related to racial segregation), is probably best introduced by William Fischel and his many books, the most recent and popular of which is “Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation.”

Constraints on housing production directly impact housing affordability, and zoning plays a large role in constraining production, either directly by excluding certain building types, or indirectly, through The Complexity of Zoning. The contemporary YIMBY (Yes in My Back Yard) / NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) debates are a testament to this ongoing debate over allowable housing products in certain areas. The long wait times for land-use reviews at building departments, and studies linking those delays to housing costs, is testament to the indirect effects of Complexity.

Housing affordability, and the debate over its causes and how to best address it, is beautifully introduced by Coby Lefkowitz in his recent blog post, “America’s Affordable Housing Problem: How America got to be so unaffordable, and what we can do to make it more affordable; an analysis of good-in-theory v. outcome based policies.”

Those writings serve as great introductions to the larger, macro-effects of our zoning system today.

The Consequences of Zoning

Practical Considerations

More practically, the process of acquiring accurate zoning information is something that must be undertaken for every single construction project in the US.

Architects, developers, contractors, and many others rely on this information to understand the regulations that govern construction on everything from fences, decks, and ADUs all the way up to multi-family apartment buildings and skyscrapers.

Remember, zoning is composed of a complementary set of maps and text.

Because of The Complexity of Zoning, the process of acquiring it is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and error-prone. It requires consulting all the maps and the collected ordinances/texts that make up the comprehensive zoning code for whichever jurisdiction has authority at any particular site.

The maps have gotten more and more complex, and one single site may require consulting dozens of different maps to understand all the applicable regulations.

The text itself has gotten longer and longer and requires the comprehension of not just dense legal language but the deciphering of relevant tables, charts, and diagrams.

For instance, in Portland, Oregon, the zoning code went from 250 pages in 1979 to over 1,800 pages today (the image used at the title of this post shows the binders containing the Portland Zoning Code, as of 2016). And that number does not include the maps, nor the commentary, guides, explanations, and other addenda that are regularly issued to support and complement the text itself. To further complicate matters, all of this information is kept in non-standardized formats, scattered in different locations, along with legacy versions or archives, and managed by each municipality completely independently.

As an example, the image above is a screengrab from the instructions for how to properly acquire complete zoning information from the City of Portland, as written by the City itself, in the first pages of the zoning code. There are more than 7 discrete, sequentially dependent steps. To thoroughly follow this procedure can take days, even for an experienced professional. In practice, it is not uncommon for this process to take weeks.

The Complexity of Zoning is part of the reason why it takes so long to get a building permit. In Seattle, it now takes an average of 2.2 years to get a building permit, of which 1/3 of that time is spent conducting land-use review.

This has a cost; in fact, it’s been estimated that up to 42% of the cost of a single unit of housing is attributed to regulations including zoning. That’s almost half the cost of new housing.

In short, The Complexity of Zoning has Consequences.


This is what UrbanForm was built for; to solve The Complexity of Zoning so that we might better manage The Consequences.

The goal of UrbanForm is to provide accurate, efficient, and verifiable zoning information to architects, developers, and contractors; managing their process of acquiring zoning information and allowing them to spend their time and energy solving other problems in the built environment.

UrbanForm automatically isolates the relevant regulations, hides the irrelevant ones, calculates the spatial formulas, gathers and documents the sources, and makes it all accessible from a single point of access, available anywhere with an internet connection and a web browser.

With UrbanForm, it no longer takes days, or even weeks for a building professional to acquire zoning information, it takes seconds. UrbanForm is one digital process that replaces a hodgepodge of manual and analog processes.

We do this by using software AI, in conjunction with teams of analysts with degrees in architecture and urban planning, and the continual training, iteration, and improvement of our AI software through customer feedback.

UrbanForm is currently available in Seattle, Portland, and San Diego. More cities are coming soon

We are not going to tell you that UrbanForm is perfect. It’s not a silver bullet that will usher you straight through the issuance of a building permit (we’re working on that). And it's only one piece of the vast puzzle that needs to fit together in order to make any one building happen, let alone a city. But it’s already much, much better than the alternative. And it’s going to continue to get better.

UrbanForm’s customers are architects, developers, and contractors. These are the professionals who create the buildings and cities where we spend most of our lives. There are a lot of problems to address in our real, built environment, and that is why UrbanForm is dedicated to supporting these professionals.

We can’t put money in their pockets. But we’re doing the next best thing, by providing a tool that will save them time, allow them to focus on doing better work, and address the larger issues that will allow them to flourish. And our belief is that our built world will flourish as a consequence.

An all-staff meeting at one of UrbanForm's customers, Bora Architects

Architects currently make up our largest customer segment. That’s how you know that UrbanForm works. Architects are typically responsible for getting the zoning information correct, and their professional livelihoods are at stake. It’s not something that we take lightly.

We’re proud to partner with these professionals to make sure that as much energy, attention, and effort is spent making the best buildings and cities possible.

That’s UrbanForm’s mission: better buildings and cities.

Please reach out to us to learn more about UrbanForm and see if there's any way we can help.


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