Zoning is Tough

Zoning by design is complex, and frankly does not achieve anything but a healthy and lucrative litigation practice. The complexity of zoning is evident in all adopted zoning language which is best illustrated through the number of pages in their code. You can see how unhealthy the process is by watching or attending any community zoning hearing. Finally, you can see how lucrative a business zoning is by the number of staff on the zoning review, the number of professionals to demonstrate compliance to the code, and the number of litigation waged on both sides in the name of zoning.

The most common zoning, and the foundation of all American planning, was born out of a lawsuit. Our Euclidean zoning system is named after the small village outside of Cleveland that was sued by Ambler Realty Co. over new restrictions the village placed over their land holdings. Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The governing framework of zoning is based on telling people what they cannot do. Zoning is a document of NO. This is a normal response from a community that wants to protect its character. However, if you have ever worked a zoning desk, you will soon learn that there are very smart and savvy people that will find the path around no into the abyss of zoning unknowns. Its a continual battle between doers and regulators to find more and unique was to say no. This is never positive and usually generates grumpy public sector planners upset about the last project that slipped through the zoning “NO” net.

The system and the paradigm needs to change. In 2008, a young Senator from Illinois campaigned on the platform of this change. During a campaign stop in Toledo, Ohio, the following happened:

This video went viral during that Presidential campaign through all of my feeds. Every urbanist and Jane Jacobs fan literally broke down in tears and stuck a Hope and Change sticker on their bikes and cars. The impression is that they had a candidate that understood the issues facing cities in the context of the observations shared by Jacobs.

It took 8 years from this campaign stop until the President published the Housing Development Toolkit. Within this September 2016 document, zoning is identified as a barrier to to the development of affordable housing. Even the White House, with the might of the federal government and strength of the military was not able to crack zoning.

The issues with zoning is tough, and there are no simple answers or fixes. The current system is broken, but it is also engrained into the DNA of current city planning. It will take a significant change in how we manage cities to lift these conflict based codes.

There are some smart people working on a paradigm shift from NO to YES. There are visionary codes that explain the character of the community, and illustrate what is permitted. These codes use Form or Design Regulations to guide investment and development.

Even these efforts struggle with conventional zoning. Their biggest pitfall is that they must be crafted in a a Euclidian Zoning style and structure. This only bandaids the issues with zoning. It will not be until new case law and new regional legislation is passed until we can abandon zoning and return back to town planning.