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What is zoning? A Brief Intro, Part 1

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

UrbanForm’s Brief Introduction to Zoning

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?

These are all good questions. It can be hard to find a summary that can help people understand zoning at a basic level, be aware of its historical origins and contemporary implications, and point them toward the next step.

This is our attempt to provide that summary. It’s called: UrbanForm’s Brief Introduction to Zoning.

It’s organized into three sections:

  • The Constitutionality (Origins)

  • The Complexity (Implementation)

  • The Consequences (Macro-effects and Practical Considerations)

This is the first part, "The Constitutionality", and we'll be releasing the other parts in quick succession.

First, let's start with a definition. At the most basic level, in the US, zoning regulates how land can be used.

If we focus on urban areas, zoning can be better understood to govern buildings. Zoning is what can be built and where.

To be even more precise: zoning regulations are spatial and legislative rules that govern what buildings in a certain location may be used for, what form those buildings may take, their density of usage, and often, other things related to building on or using that land (such as parking).

As we can see by the definitions alone, the idea of regulating land use gets complicated quickly. Even from the very outset, zoning in the US has never been without controversy. In fact, the particulars of zoning’s origins (The Constitutionality) explain why the US has a land-use system that is unique, both in terms of the mechanisms of control (The Complexity) and the resulting effects (The Consequences).

Because of this, it can be helpful to start with the origins of zoning in the US.

The Constitutionality of Zoning

“Perhaps the strangest thing about the U.S. land-use regulation model is that it exists.” – Sonia Hirt, University of Georgia

The first zoning ordinances in the US were instituted about a hundred years ago, perhaps modeled after similar ideas from Europe, and ostensibly sprang from the intention of protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

One of the first referenced examples of zoning is the 1916 Zoning Resolution of New York City. These city ordinances were reportedly developed in response to the construction of one particular building in downtown Manhattan.

The Equitable Building of 1916. Note the size of the people and cars at ground level to appreciate the size, scale, and bulk of this building.

In 1913, construction started on the Equitable Building, which rose 42 stories, to a height of 555 feet, covered every available square foot of its property on the ground, and cast a shadow seven acres in size. It blocked sunlight to an adjacent public park for most of the day and completely blocked all access to light for three neighboring buildings.

In response, New York City crafted zoning regulations to mandate that buildings step back their exterior walls from the property lines as they rose in height, modulating their bulk, to allow access to light and air to neighboring properties and the public streets on the ground.

The theory was simple: access to light and air benefits the health and welfare of the people, and buildings should modulate their size and shape for the public good. Zoning, therefore, would be used to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Who could argue with that?

But the 5th and 14th Amendment of the US Constitution states:

“No person shall…be deprived of / nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law. . . Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

After all, the US is the land of the free, where rugged individualism and private entrepreneurship are the fundamental pillars upon which American exceptionalism is built. Restricting what can be done on private property seems to contradict these principles.

By restricting uses, or otherwise regulating what can be done on private property, zoning could be construed to be a ‘taking’ of private property, ‘without due process’ or ‘just compensation,’ as prohibited by the Constitution. And that’s what was argued, all the way to the Supreme Court, in the 1926 case of Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co.

Michael Allan Wolf, "The Zoning of America"

This Supreme Court case (which will celebrate its centennial birthday in a couple of years) established the legal basis for zoning as we understand it today in the US.

To summarize Euclid v. Ambler, the conflict was with a company that desired to develop the land it owned for industrial uses versus a municipality that passed a zoning ordinance designed to maintain that area for residential or non-industrial uses.

The Court sided with Euclid, finding that the village ordinance was justified as an exercise of police powers—the constitutionally granted power of the states to regulate for the protection and maintenance of the health, safety, or welfare of its citizens.

Euclid, Ohio

Within this Supreme Court decision, and its dissenting opinions, we can find elements of everything that currently surrounds the issue of zoning today.

From the majority decision:

“. . .the exclusion of buildings devoted to business, trade, etc. from residential districts, bears a rational relationship to the health and safety of the community. . . with the great increase and concentration of population, problems have developed, and constantly are developing, which require, and will continue to require, additional restrictions in respect of the use and occupation of private lands in urban communities.”

Here we see all of the major mechanisms and justifications for zoning as we know it today: the exclusion of buildings by use, justified through police powers at local levels, rationalized in the name of health and safety, with provisions for additional restrictions as deemed needed to manage urban environments.

But the judicial dissent also portends to what we now understand about zoning as well:

“In the last analysis, the result to be accomplished [by zoning] is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life."

This is what we now call ‘Euclidean’, or exclusionary, zoning; the establishment of geographically delineated areas of excluded uses, in reference to the Supreme Court case of Euclid v. Ambler, 1926 (and not, confusingly, to Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician and founder of geometry).

Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician and founder of geometry. Euclidean zoning is NOT about this person.

From this origin has sprung an incredibly complex system of legal, spatial, economic, and other mechanisms to control ever more minute details of the built environment.

That's what we'll be discussing in the next part of this Brief Introduction to Zoning: "The Complexity."


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