A History of Zoning, Part II: The Problem Zoning Solves

At Strong Towns, we talk a lot about zoning. Most people have a vague idea of what it is, but where did it come from? Why do we do it? This is the second in a three-part series where we will examine the ways zoning has been used from its inception through the present day. Read the first article here.

Let’s start with a question: Why was zoning invented?

Did your answer involve noxious pollutants being dumped into critical waterways? Noisy factories degrading the quality of life for nearby residents? These kinds of scenarios are often invoked in relation to zoning, but as land use scholar William Fischel points out, these problems had already existed for centuries and were certainly worse in the centuries before zoning came along: “If it were just technical externalities that gave rise to zoning, American cities would have had it decades before its actual inception.”

The real impetus for the invention of zoning regulations, argues Richard Babcock, was a desire to protect and enshrine the single-family home as the most virtuous and sacrosanct urban form.

Let’s recall from Part 1 of this series that zoning authority derives from the legal concept of “police power”--a government’s prerogative to act to ensure the “health, safety, and welfare” of the populace. (Remember that phrase?) Most of the rhetoric around zoning naturally focuses on aspects of urban development that we find distasteful and wish to relegate to distant areas. To its credit, zoning has been effective at solving the problems many people assume it was invented to address: a giant factory will never be built within hearing distance of my house. Our dirty secret is that it has also been instrumental in solving another “problem”: how to prevent certain types of people (the riffraff) from living near respectable, all-American families.

Tenement apartments in New York City, circa 1900. (Source:  Detroit Publishing Co )

Tenement apartments in New York City, circa 1900. (Source: Detroit Publishing Co)

The idea that certain types of housing (detached single-family homes) are inherently superior for advancing civic virtue and good morals has permeated zoning from its very inception. Here are remarks from the 11th National Congress on City Planning in 1919, overseen by none other than Frederick Law Olmstead:

Property values follow closely human values... Today as we came down Delaware Avenue, a street largely built up with fine single houses, set well back, we saw a large pile of lumber and we were told that somebody proposed to put up a large frame apartment house. In a few years this apartment house would become, in the ordinary course, a poor kind of tenement house, and property values along the street would soon be destroyed. Before anything like this is allowed thorough investigation should be made to determine the decrease of property value by a building of this kind... 

Apartment houses and multi-family houses should be assigned to specified districts, and single family houses should be in districts which have adequate protection against apartment houses. The single family house does not damage apartment dwellings, so that the only requirement necessary is to establish residential districts where apartments are not permitted.

There are so many problematic assumptions packed into these words it’s hard to know where to start. I’m a religious person so I’ll start with this. I’m sure you can insert teachings from your own religious background, political persuasion, or moral ideology along the same lines.

It was not just planners who harbored these ideals either. Courts quickly took up the cause, as illustrated by this 1925 court case from the California Supreme Court:

The establishment of [single family] districts is for the general welfare because it tends to promote and perpetuate the American home... The character and quality of manhood and womanhood are in a large measure the result of home environment. The home and its intrinsic influences are the very foundation of good citizenship, and any factor contributing to the establishment of homes and the fostering of home life doubtless tends to the enhancement not only of community life but of the life of the nation as a whole... 

It is needless to further analyze and enumerate all of the factors which make a single family home more desirable for the promotion and perpetuation of family life than an apartment, hotel, or flat. It will suffice to say that there is a sentiment practically universal, that this is so.

Chinese immigrant fishermen in Monterey, CA, 1875 (Source:  California Historical Society )

Chinese immigrant fishermen in Monterey, CA, 1875 (Source: California Historical Society)

Let’s also not ignore the strong racial undertones surrounding all of this. Remember the 1885 Modesto, CA ordinance from Part 1 which banished washhouses from certain districts of the city? As the author points out, washhouses were “almost synonymous” with Chinese immigrants. It’s hard to characterize that ordinance as anything other than racial segregation. The township of Mount Laurel, NJ took this game to its logical conclusion, effectively zoning multifamily buildings and other forms of low-cost housing out of the area in an effort to prevent minorities from moving in. The NAACP took notice and sued, resulting in a series of famous court cases.

The NAACP was victorious and the Mount Laurel cases may have ended the practice of excluding classes of people entirely from a municipality, but no one has ever successfully challenged the power to segregate rich from poor within a city by mandating certain housing types.

Our friends at City Observatory have made this issue a recurring theme, and with good reason. More and more research is showing that, while poverty is a problem in any form, concentrated poverty--living in a neighborhood where most of your neighbors are also impoverished--is particularly damaging.  Upward mobility for poor people of all races, shapes, and sizes most easily comes through living with people higher up the economic ladder. It follows that wealthy people who truly care about addressing poverty should be looking at ways to integrate more economically disadvantaged residents into their own neighborhoods. The history of zoning makes clear that this has not been a priority.

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

My city, Madison, WI, is an instructive example. The city’s relatively new zoning code hits a lot of the right issues: parking minimums have been abolished in some zones and accessory dwelling units are allowed in all residential zones (albeit with one major dealbreaker). I analyzed the city’s zoning data to see how much land is dedicated exclusively to single family zoning. The result? Over 80% of all residential land, nearly a third of all zoned land within city limits. Little wonder, when we’ve dictated that the vast majority of residential property in our city must consist of the most expensive housing type available, that we are suffering from rapidly escalating prices that harm our vulnerable residents the most. It’s no coincidence that Madison also suffers from terrifying racial disparities.

Remember those magic words? Health, safety, and welfare. I have yet to hear a convincing argument that there is a genuine relationship between single family homes and the “health, safety, and welfare” of the community. The simple reality is there isn’t one. There may be a relationship between single family homes and the narrowly-defined “welfare” of the economically privileged. But the concept of police power isn’t about protecting the entrenched interests of people with means, it’s about protecting the welfare of the whole community.

I’m not deluded into thinking we will overturn a century of commonly-accepted practice and legal precedent because it has no rational basis. In Part 3 of our series, which will be published the second week of August, we will discuss how zoning reflects larger attitudes about the use of state power, as well as some common-sense reforms that may curb the most troubling excesses.

(Top image source: Manitoba Historical Maps)

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