What is Zoning?

Zoning is a tool that most cities use to govern “uses” (e.g. residential, commercial, or industrial), the size of buildings, and how buildings relate to their surroundings, including other buildings, open spaces, and the street. In the U.S., zoning began as a tool to separate uses from one another, and in particular was used to separate more impactful uses (manufacturing) from more sensitive uses (residential). This type of zoning is largely known as Euclidean Zoning, named after the U.S. Supreme Court Case that legitimized the use of the tool.

The combination of Euclidean Zoning, the mass production of the automobile, and very favorable bank loans for single family homes after World War II are widely held as the principal factors in suburban expansion across the U.S., and the modern form of American cities, particularly west of the Mississippi. In recent decades, this suburban expansion—also known as suburban sprawl—has been criticized on many levels: social, economic, environmental, and even individual physical health.

Best practices in urban planning and zoning now look to diversity to help improve communities: diversity of housing types to provide options to different types of people and different-sized families; diversity of uses to get people closer to where they work or buy their daily needs; and diversity of transportation options, so that driving is not the only way one can get around. Additionally, the quality of physical character is also viewed as an important contributor towards a sense of community and place in contemporary planning practice. Performance Zoning and Form-Based Zoning are two other types of zoning tools commonly used to help accomplish these ends. Performance Zoning regulates by providing enhanced development flexibility (e.g. greater density or height) in exchange for achieving community objectives (e.g. affordable housing). Form-Based Zoning is a more graphic-oriented and design-driven approach based on building types, with a reduced focus on land uses.