The Street-Level Consequences of Zoning

Modern zoning practices separated uses, claiming this was a better way to organize American cities. However, the social, cultural, and urban design outcomes drastically changed the world we live in.

2 minute read

November 2, 2018, 8:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

Washington DC Adams Morgan

Washington, DC / Max Pixel

A new video from the Institute for Humane Studies at George Washington University takes a closer look at the history of zoning in the United States and the effects zoning has had on the design and makeup of cities.

During the 1920s and 1930s, modernist planners moved to separate land uses in cities. They said it was a solution to nuisance and pollution problems, but it was also a way to promote the single-family home and, by extension, the nuclear family. One of the main effects of single-family zoning was to drive up the cost of housing, as housing densities decreased and supply failed to meet demand, says economist Sandy Ikeda.

Starting in the 1950s, cities started rezoning and designating particular areas as blight. The result was the forcing out of residents in poor and minority neighborhoods. In addition, zoning laws helped perpetuate segregation and discriminatory housing practices.

Zoning also reshaped the ways cities looked, with a focus on designing for the automobile instead of people. Jane Jacobs challenged conventional planning practices, points out Christina Sturdivant Sani:

She bucked at planners’ separation of people from the bustle of commercial districts, where they could gather with friends and get to know strangers. Because of car-centric planning, she said the modernist planners’ designs made streets less safe and discouraged folks from visiting small businesses.

Jacobs advocated for mixed-use zoning that would encourage more vibrant and diverse street life.

Ikeda says Jacobs’ lessons are relevant for planners today. “Be aware of the consequences. Try to take into account the costs of what you’re doing. The true city, where experimentation goes on, where you have face-to-face contact, where you have social capital, cannot be completely planned, so you have to be modest. You can’t make people use something in exactly the way that you wanted it.”

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