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Zoned and Confused

"By regulating what gets built and where, [zoning] sets the basic spatial parameters of where and thus how we live, work, play, socialize, and exercise our rights to citizenship.” –Sonia Hirt

Photo by Alex MacLean

Every once in a while, someone will ask for a book recommendation about zoning. Once you are aware of zoning, it can feel like the answer to everything (it’s like the number 42 if you are into Douglas Adams or a Miata if you are into cars). Zoning is proxy tool at the heart of the debate in the NIMBY/YIMBY wars.

But zoning is a particularly American invention, and because of this, the perspective of a middle-aged adult foreigner who first came upon it as professional by way of Europe makes for an especially easy read. That’s no easy feat when the subject matter is essentially municipal ordinances. This is why the first book I recommend for those interested in learning about the particularities of American zoning is Sonia Hirt’s Zoned in the USA.

There are other good books, but most tend to lean a bit more academic and a bit more quantitative. William Fischel, of Dartmouth, has written several and is on every list of recommended books about zoning. Of his many good ones, I am partial to The Economics of Zoning Laws. But his new book, Zoning Rules!: The Economics of Land Use Regulation is more easily available. If I could adopt a field of study, after the ones I actually achieved degrees in, economics would be it.

On the internet, you can find a list of books that Prof. Fischel has recommended about zoning, a list called: “The best books that show why zoning isn’t as boring as you think.” On it are the Hirt book as well as a book about Euclid v. Amber, the 1926 Supreme Court decision that essentially gave municipalities the powers that we now take for granted as zoning.

FYI, when people talk about Euclidian zoning, this is the Euclid they mean, as in Euclid, Ohio; not the ancient Greek mathematician who is considered the founder of geometry.

In the Euclid v. Amber decision, the Supreme Court refuted a lower court’s decision that is eerily foreboding: “. . . the result to be accomplished [by zoning] is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life."

Photo by Alex MacLean


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