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.”

Thursday, October 4, 2018 in Greater Greater Washington

Aerial view of homes on beach in Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii Passes First Legislation Regulating Short-Term Rentals Statewide

The new law will give counties the power to limit number or short-term rentals and convert existing short-term rental units back into long-term residential housing.

May 13, 2024 - USA Today

Google office building in Virginia.

Virginia Data Centers Draining State’s Water Supply

Being the world’s largest data center hub is having a severe impact on local water resources.

May 9, 2024 - Grist

Entrance to a drive-through car wash at night with green 'Enter' sign.

Ohio Towns Move to Ban New Car Washes

City officials in northeast Ohio are putting limits on how many car wash facilities can open in their towns.

May 16, 2024 - News 5 Cleveland

Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

Northwest Power Demand Could Surge as Data Centers, Transportation Electrification Ramps Up

New estimates project a steady increase in electricity demand due to population growth, data centers, and the shift to electric power in homes, buildings, and transportation.

May 17 - Governing

Blurred traffic speeding by on freeway with Los Angeles skyline in background.

California Testing Per-Mile Gas Tax Alternatives

A summer pilot program will test the fairness and efficacy of collection mechanisms for mileage-based fee options.

May 17 - Newsweek

Close-up of 'Pay rent' note in red marker on day 1 of monthly calendar.

After Months of Decreases, Rents Nationwide Are Going Up

Average rents rose by $12 around the country so far this year.

May 17 - Smart Cities Dive

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.