We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Zoning and the World Is Getting Worse

Downtown L.A. in 1906 Broadway looking north from Sixth Street
Downtown L.A. in 1906 Broadway looking north from Sixth Street. All built before zoning and planning laws. Photo via Wikimedia.

This week marks a noteworthy anniversary. The first city-scale zoning law in the United States was enacted on July 25, 1916, in New York City. The New York Times tells the story in an article titled Zoning Arrived 100 Years Ago. It Changed New York City Forever. According to the Times, the law:

aimed to prevent an increase of the congestion of streets and subway and streetcar traffic in sections where the business population is already too great for the sidewalks and transit facilities.

The Times attributes a reduction of density in Manhattan to the 1916 Zoning Resolution, citing a population density decrease from 164 people per acre in 1910 down to 109 people per acre in 2010. For the record, there were earlier laws that effectively did some zoning.

I am not here to wish zoning a happy birthday.

I come to bury zoning, not to praise it.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I confess that as someone who never formally studied zoning, I tend to lump various aspects of zoning and planning together.

This week a few articles further piqued my interest. Yesterday’s Bloomberg article titled Zoning Has Had a Good 100 Years. Enough Already characterizes some early zoning as “an affluent guy justifying the legal exclusion of less-affluent people from his neighborhood.” Further:

Over the past few years, zoning has been blamed, mainly by economists bearing substantial empirical evidence, for an ever-growing litany of ills. The charge that zoning is used to keep poor people and minorities out of wealthy suburbs has been around for decades. But recent research has also blamed it for increasing income segregation, reducing economic mobility, and depressing economic growth nationwide.

A lot of planning has regressive intentions. As the Bloomberg article mentions, much of it is inherently conservative, in the sense of preserving a status quo. This seems rooted in the sometimes-parodied dynamic that people move into a neighborhood that they have chosen for its present features. Then they proceed to oppose any changes to their neighborhood.

A lot of planning has progressive intentions, such as the separation of uses: keeping homes away from the pollution and noise of industry.

Despite some good intentions, I think that too many of society’s wrong-headed ideologies have become deeply embedded in zoning. These include racism, classism, and car culture.

Zoning, from early on through the present, is about keeping people of color on the other side of the tracks. 

Early zoning explicitly barred races from certain areas. Though racial zoning was ended by the Supreme Court in 1917, racial barriers to property ownership (restrictive covenants) continued until barred by the Supreme Court in 1938. The legacy of those practices is still embedded in those neighborhoods today from Watts to Pacoima.

Zoning today doesn’t specifically bar races from neighborhoods, but zoning still contributes to segregation by income, which can be a proxy for race. UCLA research shows that where zoning is strictest, the neighborhoods are the most segregated by income and race, largely due to the correlation between poverty and race. This strictness stifles development, leading to affordability issues, gentrification, and displacement.

I think that the other big drawback is that planning grew up too closely embedded in 20th century car culture.

Favoring cars has its race and class components. Freeway building erased and damaged numerous low income communities of color. 10,000 households displaced with the construction of L.A.’s eastside freeways. Neighborhoods that freeways didn’t raze were further disconnected the core of the city and other destinations. New freeways “made it easy for whites to travel farther away to the suburbs, further instigating segregation,” according to a KCET critique of racial covenants. Segregation certainly existed prior to freeways. Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. But at least with shared transit, like streetcars and subways, rich, and poor benefited from systems that they often shared. When massive governmental transportation investment heavily favored cars over transit, it favored rich over poor, white over black.

Yesterday, Strong Towns published an editorial A Brief History of Zoning and Highway Construction in America, which draws parallels between two new 1916 governmental initiatives: NYC’s zoning and the first federal road bill. From Strong Towns:

Government favoritism of automotive infrastructure crowded out other transportation modes and undermined innovation. During the century before 1916, entrepreneurs invented steam ferries, trains, bicycles, trolleys, and automobiles. Such advances ceased after 1916. Yes, today’s cars are more comfortable and powerful, but they have the same steering wheel, four tires, and internal combustion engine as the Model-T Henry Ford was building 100 years ago. As for roads, the main difference is they are bigger.

Unable to compete with government-favored automobiles, Charleston’s last private ferry operator closed shop in 1930. Its trolley lines, which carried 20 million passengers a year (compared with CARTA’s 5 million per year) stopped running in 1937.

Zoning is segregation – not only of land uses deemed incompatible, but of people deemed “undesirable.” Progressives behind New York’s 1916 zoning ordinance regarded immigrants moving into northern cities from Europe and the South as “undesirable.”

So much of zoning and planning are about making things convenient for driving, as opposed to making great places. Two of my biggest pet peeves are parking minimums and street widening, but there are all sorts of car-centric assumptions embedded in the urban forms in zoning and planning. There are further car-centric assumptions embedded other neutral-sounding governmental transportation planning processes. Don’t get me started on traffic engineering.

When I am at my crankiest, I think that we would be better off without any zoning or planning. But in my quieter moments, I can acknowledge that there is a baby somewhere in all that bathwater.

I look around Los Angeles. I can’t think of any great places here that were built after zoning emerged. I live in Koreatown which is among L.A. County’s densest neighborhoods with about 67 people per acre. Buildings on my street were built about a hundred years ago, adjacent to a streetcar line. Next door, there is a 40-unit apartment building with no parking. My building has eight units and five parking spaces. None of this would be allowed under current city plans.

Streets that were built in or before the first half of the 20th Century have an excellent, highly adaptable urban form.

Avarado Street between 6th and 7th. Image via Google street view
Avarado Street between 6th and 7th. Image via Google street view

One example that comes to mind is Alvarado Street between 7th and 8th Streets, just below MacArthur Park. This more-or-less Main Street type block has no setbacks, no off-street parking, so it would be illegal to build under current zoning and planning. It was originally a fairly well-off area when MacArthur Park was a scenic destination. It now includes homes and stores predominantly serving low income Central American immigrants. (Ironically, L.A. City’s Planning Department held this block up as an example of how the city’s generally pro-livability Mobility Plan 2035 would minimize widening. Before the new Mobility plan, this 82.5 feet wide was designated to have been widened 21.5 feet. Under the new plan, it now only needs to be widened 3.5 feet. I wish the city would just leave it alone. Or maybe narrow it.)

I don’t think that things were perfect in 1916. We don’t need to return to women, blacks, Asians, LGBT and others being treated as second class citizens or worse. I do think that we can look to 1916 for good urban form.

I think that we built better cities before zoning than we have done since. Sure there were problems, like pollution and segregation, but maybe we should focus on solving those problems, instead of creating the elaborate, unwieldy, and ultimately harmful tool that our current zoning codes are.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    The problem is a bit understated. IMO we have not built a single city, or expansion and of a city, worth visiting ever since we imposed car rules on our built environment. We all still like to vacation in Italian towns where you can barely ride a bike, let alone drive. But I am missing the tourism boom to our suburbs, strip malls and cul-de sacs.

  • You nailed it! Zoning is a tool that can be used to advance any agenda for the built environment. Historically it has mostly been used to restrict density, separate land uses and promote car travel. Just as zoning arose out of a critique of the industrial city, the zoning reform movement of today arose out of the problems caused by over-regulating the built environment.

    When it comes to zoning we need to regulate not just less but also better, with an eye to the goals of increasing racial and economic integration, reducing the environmental impact of urban life, and giving people more choices in how they live their lives.

  • davistrain

    I think the concept of “zoning” was originally sold as a way to keep tanneries and lard-rendering plants from being built next to residential areas. Nowadays it seems to be used to allow current residents to “pull up the drawbridge” and freeze their neighborhood in their idea of the “good old days”.

  • davistrain

    Ah, but suburbanites don’t want tourists (or any other “outsiders”) wandering around their neighborhoods. They look upon cities like New York, San Francisco, London and Rome as falling into the category of “Nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Interesting comment – made me think. It isn’t just about tourism. I was using this only to indicate qualities people usually desire.

    It’s a long discussion – I have lived in several different situations, from rural to hyper urban, in many countries in the world. Suburbia ranks at the bottom of my list. But if you are satisfied with living in a suburb, and subsequently spending half your time in a car, and enjoy watching the world around you fall apart because your lifestyle has used up so many resources without giving you even the benefit of enjoying much of that waste, well, enjoy.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    IMO it is more and more important to distinguish between urban life and suburban life. Urban life may be the most environmentally sound way of being for many people. Suburban life, on the other hand, is IMO the most destructive. Let’s not confuse one with the other. Cities are the solution, suburbs are our downfall.

  • I don’t accept that “urban” or “suburban” are terms that are very precisely defined. I’m fascinated by the idea of trying to shift the perception of what suburbia is in America’s imagination from quarter acre lots and strip malls to Missing Middle housing mixed in with small-lot houses, pedestrian-oriented shops, complete streets and mixed-use town centers sprinkled throughout.

    Just as the suburbs sought to hybridize urban and rural values as a response to the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, the next synthesis should draw on the strengths of suburbs and cities to redefine “normal” for the majority of Americans in response to the challenges of lack of housing affordability, global warming, traffic, sedentary lifetyles, etc.

    That’s not to say that we can’t have classic urban, suburban, rural and small-town environments too, but since most Americans are in suburbia, it seems like we should be focusing a lot of our creative energy on how to re-imagine it.

  • 1976boy

    For me the issue is not that both types of development exist, but that the suburban mentality has (in the past) been somewhat successful at eradicating the urban model in places like Los Angeles. The leveling of Bunker Hill, Skid Row, and minimum parking requirements all contributed to the depopulation of the city center by most of the productive workforce. Until, that is, we started to come to our senses around 1999 and started to reverse the damage. But we still have a long way to go. Fixing the city needs to happen, but I’m fine with different rules in both places. Let the suburbs be what they are and the city be what it is, so people can have the choice. As it is now, in most places, it’s mainly illegal to build and improve cities and the only legal form of by right development is the single family neighborhood. This has to change.

  • Joe Commuter

    Even if we abolished zoning tomorrow we would end up with a lot of crappy looking buildings and public spaces. We’re so car-centric now that developers would probably still put parking and car-access as top priority, then “privacy” and “security” (non-transparent windows, windows that don’t open, security bars, pedestrian unfriendly setbacks), and then maybe walkable urban design would be a consideration.

    Also, I know nothing of structural elements related to buildings but developers seem to use really crappy materials when doing new construction, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Pasadena and Santa Monica get better urban design, and it may be in part due to stringent design and zoning standards.

    So often I see popcorn-ish stucco that collects dust and other particles leaving permanent streaks on buildings, none or hidden pedestrian access points… the complete opposite of what I see in pre-zoning buildings, which often look more stately, are seemingly built with better quality materials that don’t weather as easily, and simple and convenient pedestrian access points.

    Anyway, that’s my rant, and I’m not sure how much zoning helps or hinders in addressing my gripes.

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Urban and suburban are completely different animals. One cannot become the other, they are sort of antimatter to each other. Urban can work for all of us, vs. suburban can only work for the very few. Remember the saying that if everybody on earth was to live like an American, we’d need 7 planets to live on. This is a lot due to suburbanization. So we need to find a consensus who gets the choice to love suburban, because it will never be all of us.

    Btw – I have no problem with rural living. We need to produce food. But suburban is a giant waste of resources for the few.

  • Sam

    One observation regarding the photo: Notice that the width of Broadway is not much different than today, sidewalks included. The photo is from 1906, well before the advent of “car culture” in Los Angeles. I make this observation in an attempt to highlight the fact that Traffic Engineers do not always bear the burden of responsibility for the width of roadways! Even in our dense urban cores, the width of roadways was established for a myriad of reasons.

  • JustJake

    It’s not either/or, it’s both. The lines between urban & suburban are blurring, especially in the larger metro areas. The suburban-hate isn’t helpful or a reflection of most of America.

    https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/the-state-of-metropolitan-america-suburbs-and-the-2010-census/

  • Number8

    It sounds like you are critical of the way zoning has been used, not of zoning itself. Zoning is only a tool, and it can be used for a variety of purposes. It has definitely been used for all the unfortunate things you discussed in this article, but it has also been used for many positive things in many cities, including SF (i.e parking maximums, impact fees, etc.). That’s because it is a very effective tool overall.

  • We’re so car-centric now that developers would probably still put parking and car-access as top priority…

    In any even vaguely urban place, developers build as many units and as few parking spaces as legally allowed. Find a random building plan, calculate how many parking spaces are required, and then find out how many they’re actually building. It’s usually the same number, maybe a few more to fill out the floor that they have to build anyway.

  • Joe Linton

    How are “parking minimums” positive?

  • Number8

    I said parking “maximums,” not minimums.

  • Joe Linton

    aha – sorry I mis-read… I don’t think we have parking maximums in effect in L.A. City.

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