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Reexamining the Origins of Zoning

According to Seymour Toll's 1969 book, New York City's 1916 zoning code was less a civic-minded project than an attempt to protect elite retail districts from the riff-raff. The ramifications for American zoning at large are significant.
July 7, 2016, 2pm PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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The first American zoning code turns 100 this year.
New York City Planning Commission

For a short time during the late 1960s, Jake Blumgart writes, "zoning received the attention it deserved as a monumental force shaping the character of many American communities—in large part due to civil rights protests over its exclusionary effects in newer suburbs." Today, renewed debate about urban segregation has cast zoning into the spotlight once again. 

In his 1969 book Zoned American, Seymour Toll gives us "an in-depth history of the 1916 New York code, the progenitor of zoning codes nationwide, and the impetus for its creation. The received history of zoning often frames it as a creation of Progressive-era good government planners. But Zoned American shows that the code was actually created as a weapon to defend the narrow self-interest of a small group of prestigious merchants."  

In a move that presages problematic zoning later in the century, "wealthy retailers based along Fifth Avenue were the advance guard of zoning in New York. Dubbed the Fifth Avenue Association, they believed their investments would be compromised by the northward advance of the garment industry and the hordes of foreign born workers that accompanied it." 

The zoning that emerged from these conditions had specific and recognizable prejudices. It sought to constrain density and height, separating uses to preserve "the northern stretch of Fifth Avenue—and Manhattan more generally—for businesses that catered to the wealthy."

Stephen Smith, well-known as the voice behind @MarketUrbanism on Twitter, remarked, '"There wasn't some grand plan, zoning was taking whatever was there and freezing it [...] Toll convinced me it wasn't really planning, it was just reacting to whatever was already built.'"

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Published on Monday, June 27, 2016 in PlanPhilly
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