Planning in 2022: Year in Review

A review of the major themes, debates, and events of the year in planning that was 2022 (part one of two).

Read Time: 7 minutes

December 15, 2022, 8:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell

@CasualBrasuell


The Golden Gate bridge viewed from Marin, with cars passing in either direction on a sunny day.

Will 2022 be a “Golden Gate” for more zoning reforms in 2023? | Dragos Asaftei / Shutterstock

It's the end of 2022 and most people have moved on from the social distancing and masking of the Covid-19 pandemic, but nothing is normal. For starters, Covid-19 hasn’t been eradicated, although my doctor corrected me this year when I used the word pandemic. “It's endemic,” she said, echoing a concept explored in Planetizen's "Planning Trends to Watch in 2022" post published in January. 

The signs of a strange new world are all around us: There's a terrible new war, Donald Trump's favor in the GOP seems to be faltering (at least for now), Elon Musk owns Twitter, and the World Cup is being played in the winter. In a more obvious connection to the processes and outcomes of planning, telecommuting, working from home, and hybrid work schedules have completely disrupted the pre-pandemic renaissance of downtown areas, emptying commercial areas of employment base and tax revenue. Also, the recovery of transit ridership continues to lag behind the recovery of vehicle miles traveled by automobiles. The world lives, works, and plays in much different ways than at the end of 2019—the difference is noticeable both in the aggregate and in the experiences specific to neighborhoods, streets, and buildings. 

The ongoing transformation of daily routines have yet to realize their full consequence. Fiscal crises are looming. Recall that many effects of the Great Recession emerged slowly—the foreclosure crisis and layoffs were just the beginning. Many more consequences would become conspicuous in the coming years—worsening racial inequality, gentrification, and generational barriers to the employment and housing market. Until 2016, one might have been convinced that the Great Recession hadn't been that bad. 

Based on what you'll read below, the trends and events we are seeing in 2022 are likely to have lasting impact in how planners and communities envision and implement their futures. In fact, planners might look back decades for now and recall 2022 as a deeply significant year in the history of the profession—think 1916, or 1922. We will be evaluating the Covid-19 pandemic’s impacts for decades to come, and hopefully responding more effectively than we did to the Great Recession. Here's a first pass at the big events and themes of the year for planners. [Part two of this post was published on December 19.]

Zoning Reform Redraws the Political Map

The skyline of downtown Cincinnati, with a major league baseball park in the foreground.
New political leadership in Cincinnati was among the first to set the tone of 2022 in favor of zoning reform. (Image by Smart Pro Imaging, via Shutterstock)

In the most obvious sign of 2022's likely importance in planning history, cities and states spent 2022 implementing a wave of planning reforms—from relaxing residential zoning codes, removing parking minimums, implementing tax abatements, and allowing residential development on lots previously zoned for commercial uses. 

Political support for zoning reform, in its various manifestations, is growing in governments of every scale in the United States. Zoning reform legislative progress, a 2022 timeline:

  1. In January, new Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval announced a new package of housing policy reforms, that include legalizing multi-family housing and increasing tax abatements for projects funded by Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. 
  2. In February, Woodside, California, an affluent community on the periphery of the Silicon Valley attempted to resist recent statewide upzoning laws by declaring the town mountain lion habitat (the city eventually rescinded the effort). 
  3. In March, Auburn, Maine approved new residential and commercial densities in the city's core.
  4. In April, Maine signed two laws meant to spur construction—one allowing accessory dwelling units and the other providing incentives for adaptive reuse.
  5. In May, the Biden administration announced a program that would reward jurisdictions with less exclusionary zoning policies with advantages during competitive grant programs funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
  6. In May, Eugene, Oregon approved revisions to the city's minimum lot coverage requirements to allow more medium density multi-family residential.
  7. In June, Portland approved the "Residential Infill Project - Part 2," which approved new housing types and densities on lots previously zoned for single-family residential.
  8. In June, San Francisco replaced single-family zoning with new residential codes that allow duplexes or, in some cases, more.
  9. In July, Oregon adopted the Climate-Friendly and Equitable Communities rule, making parking requirements in dozens of Oregon cities.
  10. In August, California approved a pair of historic statewide bills—AB 2011, to allow by-right development of residential development on lots zoned for commercial units, and AB 2097, to rescind parking requirements near transit.
  11. In August, Ann Arbor eliminated off-street parking requirements for a variety of development types. 
  12. In October, Cambridge, Massachusetts eliminated parking requirements citywide.
  13. In October, Gainesville became the first city in Florida to eliminate single-family zoning.
  14. In November, Anchorage eliminated parking requirements citywide.
  15. In November, Nashville replaced its downtown parking minimums with parking maximums.

Several other cities, counties, and states are pursuing and exploring reforms to change course and allow more development than currently allowed by applicable land use regulations—including Washoe County, Prince William County, Dallas, Alexandria, New York State, Arizona, Honolulu, Maine, Columbus, Spokane, Pittsburgh, and San Antonio—but haven't yet crossed the finish line. In reading through this list, a notable number of examples include governments pushing through with reforms despite the traditional political opposition, so even short of the finish line, some of these examples represent a tangible shift in the politics of land use. 

One of the most discussed urban planning books of the year  (and top rated), Arbitrary Lines by Nolan Gray, built on the momentum generated by these legislation actions. Arbitrary Lines cracks the Overton window for zoning reforms even wider by presenting a complete reversal of the status quo: zoning abolition. 

Despite all of the new examples and information about the goals of zoning reform, distinguishing between the political lines of the debate about zoning reform remains one of the biggest challenges of understanding and navigating the historic moment. There are numerous open questions about what kinds of zoning changes can be reasonably assembled under the banner of reforms, rather than more of the same with different packaging. 

For example, inclusionary zoning, a term used to describe a variety of regulatory incentives or mandates for affordable housing. The American Planning Association endorses inclusionary zoning as an effective affordable housing tool. Some pro-development forces (i.e., YIMBYs) argue that inclusionary zoning can be abused to prevent affordable housing—the exact opposite of inclusionary zoning's effect. YIMBYs point to San Francisco as an example of how inclusionary zoning can frustrate development rather than encourage it. (San Francisco Mayor London Breed launched a technical advisory committee in July to study alternative affordable housing incentives as development in the city slowed to a crawl this year.) 

Quantifying the effectiveness of inclusionary zoning policies is only one piece of the remaining work to elucidate the concepts and remove the confusions of the debate. Looking for research ideas? A November article by the Brookings Institution called for new research into the outcomes of zoning and housing policies to study the impacts of the recent changes.

Collectively, the wave of reforms accomplished by planners in 2022 outpaces any similar collection of accomplishments in the recent history of the field. The question now is how well the trend builds momentum and spreads to other cities, and whether the federal and state governments can find ways to help local governments achieve desired goals like equity and climate change mitigation. The federal government has certainly been capable historically, from the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1922 to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. While some of the programs and policy restructuring included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021) and the Inflation Reduction Act (2022) could potentially put federal weight behind the reform movement, we're still a long way from a collective, national movement away from the car-centric, detached single-family communities prioritized by every layer of government in the United States for more than a century.

California Dismantling the Planning Status Quo

The shoreline of the Pacific Ocean, with pier and green water, in Redondo Beach, Caifornia.
A developer proposed 2,300 units of residential development in Redondo Beach after the city failed to meet the standards of the California Department of Housing and Community Development during the Regional Housing Needs Assessment process. (Image by Kirk Wester, via Shutterstock)

California deserves attention for contesting the zoning reform at stakes unparalleled anywhere in the rest of the country. You might have heard of the "builder's remedy," a new policy lever meant to encourage housing development around the state. Actually, "encourage" might be too mild a word. The builder's remedy is a consequence of inaction. Depending on the perspective, the builder's remedy might be described as a punishment.

In effect, the builder's remedy is invoked when a local government fails the assessment of state regulators during the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process (California's "builder's remedy" is explained in more detail here). The consequence of the "builder's remedy" is nothing short of the forfeiture of local control over zoning laws—theoretically making development a question of market, free of regulation, in all cities running afoul of the process. January 2022 kicked off with a bang, as an article circulated suggesting that because of its RHNA failure, the city of Davis could be developed with skyscrapers. Cities as renowned as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Redondo Beach have flirted with the consequences of the builder's remedy in 2022.

Two-thirds of the cities in Southern California missed their RHNA deadlines, risking the loss of local zoning control. Northern California cities performed a little better, but only just.

Expect builder's remedy stories for the foreseeable future.

Part of the 2022 year in review was published on December 19.

 

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