Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Upzoning?

4 minute read

Upzoning is a term used to describe changes to a zoning code made to increase the amount of development allowed in the future.

New York Development

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Upzoning is a commonly used term in urban planning that describes an alteration to a community's zoning code to allow new capacity for development. Upzoning is distinct from rezoning, which usually indicates a zoning change pertaining to the allowable land use of potential developments.

When trying to understand the effect of an upzoning, the "building envelope" established by zoning code can be a helpful conceptual reference. The building envelope describes the potential for development in the city—the physical extent, in the abstract, of future development capacity allowed by the zoning code. The process of upzoning expands that building envelope. 

The most frequently used term to describe the effect of upzoning is density. In fact, to many people, upzoning is synonymous with new density. While many examples of upzoning will increase the floor-area ratios (which actually measure development intensity, not density) allowed in zoning codes, there are many ways for upzoning to increase the building envelope. Increased height restrictions, lower parking requirements, or density bonuses (additional density offered in return for investment in affordable housing or public works infrastructure) are just a few examples of the numerous options for upzoning to create new development capacity.

For most of the history of zoning in the United States, upzoning has been fairly uncommon in practice, except in small sections of cities and for specific purposes. More common is for neighborhoods and cities to downzone, or reduce the size of the building envelope, as the preferences of the white middle class in the United States shifted to the suburbs. 

Contemporary Practices

Proponents for upzoning will frequently point out that contemporary upzoning will return the building envelope to a previous, historical state, before episodes of downzoning reduced the building envelope of most U.S. cities and made it illegal to build many forms of housing. Historic residential neighborhoods all over the country include housing developments that would no longer be allowed under subsequent zoning codes. 

The history of downzoning in U.S. cities is quickly changing, and upzoning is an increasingly common practice in communities facing housing affordability challenges and in other places attempting to attract new development for the purposes of economic development.

Some of the political success of recent upzoning efforts is owed to a change in public relations strategy. Instead of upzoning, plans for new forms of residential density will frequently refer to Missing Middle Housing, "elegant density," or some other more politically palatable term. While cities like Minneapolis, Berkeley, Sacramento, and Portland have achieved very public progress toward upzoning huge swaths of their residential neighborhoods to allow for Missing Middle Housing types in neighborhoods previously open only to single-family housing. More urban locations, like numerous parts of New York City, have also been upzoned in recent years. Even more neighborhoods in New York City are considering additional plans that would upzone neighborhoods for new density and development in the future.  

Controversies and Consequences

The fact that upzoning is being implemented in a steady stream of cities is a testament to shifting public perceptions about the practices of planning. High housing costs, a cultural backlash to the sprawling development patterns of most of the United States, and the high costs of housing in many of the urban areas in the country are contributing to the growth of a political coalition that supports upzoning. Political supporters of upzoning are frequently referred to as YIMBY, for Yes in My Backyard. YIMBY politics have grown in part also as a reaction to the long held political power of NIMBYs, which stands for Not in My Backyard.

The political successes of the YIMBY movement, however, have not come without controversy, and debates about upzoning are some of the defining controversies of this era in planning history. Both sides of the issues, therefore, refer to scientific research as evidence for their cause—and both sides can find evidence to support their arguments. 

Opponents point usually to point to the impact of upzoning on land values and the effect of new density on neighborhood character (in single-family neighborhoods) and as a force for gentrification and displacement (in low-income and neighborhoods populated by a majority of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color residents). 

The most recent effort to gather and summarize the relatively small body of research into the consequences of upzoning and the resulting development can be found in a report written in early 2021 by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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