How did we get here? A Zoning Primer

Zoning has transformed everything from historic skylines to modern living, steering the growth of cities like New York and shaping the places we call home. Discover the hidden impact of zoning on your daily life: from the skyscrapers to the suburbs, learn how invisible lines shape our cities.

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Show notes & links

Key Takeaways

  • Zoning is the codification of land use, grouping land into categories like residential, commercial, and manufacturing, to dictate what can be built and where.
  • Historical zoning practices were often reactionary, with many current rules considered antiquated and outdated, yet they persist across the U.S.
  • New York City’s zoning laws, as an example, are complex, with numerous district types and specific regulations governing building attributes like height, setbacks, and floor area ratio (FAR).
  • Zoning regulations can significantly influence housing availability and prices, with restrictions often leading to a shortage of homes in desirable areas.
  • The City Beautiful movement, originating from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, promoted aesthetic urban environments, influencing early zoning efforts to separate industrial and residential areas.
  • New York City’s 1916 zoning code was the first in the U.S., created in part to prevent skyscrapers like the Equitable Building from overcrowding streets and blocking light.
  • The Supreme Court case of Euclid vs. Ambler Realty (1926) established the legality of zoning as a municipal exercise of police power, setting a precedent for zoning ordinances nationwide.
  • The 1961 New York City zoning amendment introduced the FAR concept, regulating building size relative to lot size and encouraging public open spaces through bonuses for developers.
  • Zoning has roots in various social, racial, and economic biases, with early regulations often reflecting elite desires to control urban development and demographic composition.
  • Modern zoning debates continue to balance between preserving neighborhood character and accommodating growth, with calls for more flexible and equitable zoning practices to address housing needs.


[00:00:00] Before you hit fast forward or close out your podcast player. Just stop and think about this. Probably live in a town or city. That town or city has a municipal government. And it has rules about what you can build and where you can build it. And those rules affect how you live and move about your city. So sit back, we’re talking about zoning.

Welcome to journey with purpose episode 20. This is your host, Randy Plemel. We are going to talk about zoning. It’s our zoning primer episode. So zoning is a huge topic and we’re going to have to leave some out today. We’re going to have a bibliography in the show notes and other links for you to connect to. But really this is a first step in us helping explain things and to connect to other issues that you’ll find on the podcast.

What is zoning?

So what is zoning? So a bit of innovation in air quotes of zoning was the codification of land [00:01:00] use. How you can use your land. And what you could do on it.

Zoning groups land in different types of use with different rules about what you could do and build in each zone. And most zoning rules segregate that usage into rigid zones. Generally you find different categories of zoning. You can have residential zones where people are supposed to live. Commercial zones where people are supposed to work and buy things. Manufacturing zones where people make things. And special purpose zones like harbors, airports, whatever.

So, this is a really new thing. For most of human existence, we worked in lived and made things in a very small area.

Marchetti’s constan shotws that across time, people really only wanted to commute. A maximum of 30 minutes or so each way. So for most of our time is people when we lived in cities, that meant it was pretty low rise because. Material science kept it pretty low and people really didn’t want to walk up lots of stairs. [00:02:00] Then the combination of high quality fireproof structures, which includes cast iron and steel allowed us to build safer and taller. The safety elevator allowed people to not have to walk up a bunch of steps. The stock corporation allowed a bunch of different investors, too combine into one larger company. And financing allowed people to build taller and more diverse set of buildings.

Now there’s many reasons why zoning came about, but most of them are fairly reactionary or the reasons are pretty antiquated and outdated. But almost everywhere in the U S has some form of rules on what you can build.

Zoning 101

First a little bit about the ins and outs of zoning. We’re going to start with New York city because that’s where I live. That’s where I’ve done the most work on zoning. We have residential commercial manufacturing, special zones. We also have a bunch of special overlay zones and districts where it gets more [00:03:00] complicated, which allows different types of usage. And then for each zoning district. We have further details.

So in residential zones we have 10 district types. From R-1 to R-10 districts. R-1, R-2, R-3 are various flavors of single-family homes. R4 and five districts are generally row homes and lower apartment buildings. R-6, R-7, R-8 are mid-rise apartment buildings. And R-9 and R-10 districts are tall apartment buildings. We also have eight commercial zones, which are primarily focused on commercial activities, such as offices and bodegas and stores and such like that. But many commercials zones also allow residential usage. So you can see how this gets complicated, fast, and also we have manufacturing districts which allow everything from storage, a heavy industry, but again, in some manufacturing districts, we allow housing of different types.

Every [00:04:00] piece of land is zoned, which in New York prescribes how you can use that land. How tall you can build a building. If you need a setback to allow for front side or rear yards. How much of the site you can cover with your building. How many buildings you could put on a site. How much of a building you can put on that land through a formula, we call floor area ratio or far. And many other very specific, very minute details of that building.

The New York zoning resolution consists of 14 articles and 11 appendicies plus maps. The PDF is over 125 megabytes big and it clocks in at 3,437 pages long. I used to have a physical copy of the zoning acts when I worked as an architect. Which came in multiple binders. They were really helpful as paperweights when I made models.

So our city uses an as of right approval process, [00:05:00] which says that if you’re building conform to the zoning rules of that site, it should be approved. It’s often complicated and there’s often arguments with the building department about interpreting some parts of the zoning rules. This is a far better system than say conditional approval municipalities, such as San Francisco, or Chicago, where you need to get specific approval, oftentimes from council members to build your building. This unsurprisingly leads to slower and more expensive approval process for buildings. And politicians have figured out that this is a really great way to exact rents and as a cash cow for them to either directly receive it or indirectly re. financial gain. So we should never do that. Every municipality that has a conditional use regimes should really change to as of right approval process. Part of this is to make it faster and to allow people to understand what can it get built in their [00:06:00] neighborhood, but really it’s to reduce the chance of graft and. Lining. Politicians pockets.

My interest

My interest in zoning comes from really two places.

My love of cities. And the fact that home prices have skyrocketed the last 10 to 20 years. There’s lots of different reasons, but it really comes down to the fact that we aren’t building enough homes to house people. We’re not building homes in places they want to live. If you want to live in an economically unproductive place. where can’t really get a job. There are many houses for you. Now people will bring up the census Bureau’s ACS and say, oh, there’s so many vacant or empty homes.

We have a lot of homes, but those houses aren’t where people want to live.

If you want to place the has jobs, nice schools, economic future. We haven’t built enough homes there.

And this is pretty consistent across America. This is why places. As disconnected as New York city, [00:07:00] san Francisco, Columbus, Ohio, Austin, Texas, and other places are seeing such a sharp rise in housing costs.

Supply and demand for housing is hard to independently isolate and it’s very chaotic system. It’s very hard to draw a circle around a municipality and do a study because everything’s so interconnected. But. We have lots of high quality research, which point to the fact that when you build more. Or when demand drops, housing prices drop. We’ve seen this happen in Auckland where zoning was loosened and prices dropped because people built more.

And we’ve seen the opposite when demand drops, like during the first part of the COVID emergency. Where rents dropped because people moved away. The reaction by landlords was to increase incentives. Hold a, reduce the rents and to do things like extend the rental terms. So the shows that supply and demand actually do connect to housing. It’s [00:08:00] just complicated.

So, where did all these rules come from? How do we go from the idea that maybe we should not put factories next to homes? To creating a legal structure, so complex. That we really only build single family detached homes. These days, the new starts for February of 2024 shows that 64% of new dwelling units are all single family detached units. That’s pretty bonkers.

As usual, it’s not just one reason, but a bundle of reasons coming together over a very long time period. Which create a great amount of legislative inertia. Which is kind of causing this mess.

Some of it comes from the idea that beautiful cities are better cities. Some of it comes from good old fashioned racism, classism and ignorance of market forces. Some of it comes from modernism and modernist architecture theories. And lots of it comes from the idea that car based single family homes are [00:09:00] some sort of natural state of the world.

It’s not.

For the rest of this episode, we’re going to dive into some of the trends which shape our cities. So come and stay with us.

City Beautiful

Let’s go back to 1893. The city beautiful movement was inspired by chicago’s world fair. on the south side of Chicago. The message is city should aspire to be aesthetically beautiful for the res idents. We have a whole epic set of episodes coming soon on Chicago’s world’s fair. So stay tuned. But this movement was really principally driven by the upper classes which was concerned with poor living conditions in all major cities. They promote a beauty, not only for its own sake, but also they wanted to create moral and civic virtue in urban populations.

In Washington, DC, this led to the creation of the Macmillan plan, which was the first governmental plan to regulate aesthetics.

In New York city, the municipal arts [00:10:00] society was one organization that was formed out of the city beautiful movement. And it exists today. Cleveland Detroit, Kansas city all had plans, which were influenced by the city beautiful movement and all were experiencing rapid industrialization and mass influx of immigrants and people of color from the south.

Daniel Burnham’s Chicago plan of 1909 is also a famous example. Not only for the spatial impacts of the plan. but for the Axiom that is often repeated supposedly by him of make no little plans.

Jane Jacobs described the movement as a quote, architectural design cult end quote. While, many of the neighborhoods created during this period are very beautiful. It’s hard not to see the city beautiful movement As a reactionary, moral panic by elites to both change in the city. And the type of people who are moving to that city.

This movement provided the vision, which was looking for a legislative [00:11:00] means to enact the vision.

NYC 1916 Zoning

This takes us to New York city in 1914. The five boroughs were unified 16 years prior in 1898. The city was going through an enormous growth in population, industry and wealth. This was the age of the fights between the machine politicians of Tammany hall. And the progressive reformers who were trying to professionalize the government. The city was booming as were the skyscrapers. One skyscraper particularly was a catalyst to pass long stalled zoning laws. The equitable building isn’t office skyscraper located in lower Manhattan, a Stone’s throw away from Trinity church and wall street. It’s about 40 stories tall. It seemed from the sky it looks like a giant upper case H and takes up the whole block and is almost an extrusion of the site. The shadows cast to this day on the narrow streets are a sight to behold and the [00:12:00] building is not that beautiful, but it’s definitely indicative of the time.

This caused much consternation in the city. And the construction was one of the influence behind the passage of zoning reform in New York city. Now there’s talk of implementing zoning controls as far back as 1894 some 21 years before the start of construction.

And in 1913, when construction began, there were already initial reports on new zoning laws working its way through the system.

Equitable didn’t launch the drive for zoning in New York city, but it sure did give the alders something to point to. And in 1916, New York city and acted the first citywide zoning code in the United States. The aims of the zoning code was to provide light and air to reach the streets.

The impact of the 1916 zoning on the city was the creation of a series of setback requirements. Ostensibly for light and air to reach the street. the zoning didn’t impose height limitations, but restricted the towers to [00:13:00] 25% of the lot size.

this created the art deco skyscrapers from the twenties and thirties that we know and love today. The empire state building Chrysler building and the Rockefeller center complex.


Let’s skip ahead a little bit and head over to Ohio. It’s 1926 and developer has a plot of land on the edge of Cleveland and Euclid, Ohio. On the city’s east side. This was the setting for the landmark case, which established the legal basis for zoning.

The 1926 Supreme court decision in the village of Euclid versus Ambler Realty company. Found that local ordinance zoning. Was a valid exercise of the city’s police power.

In this case, the developer owned land in Euclid, Ohio. Where the city wanted to stop neighboring Cleveland from expanding and changing the village character. My family lived in that part of Cleveland and that part of Euclid. And they were first-generation Americans from Eastern Europe. They worked on the railroad and other industries. Euclid [00:14:00] wanting to stop people like my grandparents for moving a few blocks east.

So the city enacted a zoning ordinance based upon six classes of use. Three classes of high end four classes of how much area they could take up. Ambler Realty sued the village arguing the zoning ordinance substantially reduce the value of the land they owned by limiting use. Amounting to taking Ambler’s Liberty and property without due process.

The Ohio chapter of the American planning association submitted a friend of the court brief on behalf of Euclid. Arguing that zoning is a form of nuisance control. And therefore a reasonable police power measure.

The court ruled in favor of the city, 6-to-3, holding that there was a valid government interest in maintaining the character of a neighborhood. And in regulating where certain land uses should occur. This opened the door for an explosion of zoning ordinances across the country.

Yet in Euclid, Ohio, they were able to stem the tide of [00:15:00] industry and change. Since two large automotive plants were built on the Ambler site.

These themes of wanting to maintain neighborhood character. Treating different types of buildings as a nuisance. And using zoning to enact social control is a theme of zoning. We see through today.

NYC 1961

Now back to New York. by the mid century, many of the buildings that were meeting the setback requirements by the 1916 zoning code were setting those requirements by setting the entire building back from the lot line and extruding the skyscraper vertically and creating a set of plazas. Now not everyone liked that for a variety of reasons.

And so they amended the code. The new 1961 zoning code introduced the floor area ratio the far. Which instead of a set of setback rules, it created a maximum amount of floor area. [00:16:00] That was regulated by a multiplier consisting of taking the lot area. Say a 10,000 square foot lot. And multiplying it by a floor area ratio. That was dependent on what zoning district the lot was located. So in low density zones, the far could be 0.5. Which would allow you build a building with 5,000 square feet on a lot of 10,000 square feet. Or if that lot was in a dense zone saying 10. Which will allow you build a hundred thousand square foot building. On a 10,000 foot lot.

Another feature of the new zoning was adjacent public open space. Developers put adjacent open space to their buildings they could get an additional floor area bonus so they could build more and oftentimes they could build higher. Seagram’s building by Mies with Philip Johnson And Lever House by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill are really good examples of this. These buildings changed with the skyline of New York city with both the advent [00:17:00] of simple glass box design and their treatment of adjacent open spaces.

Form-based zoning

Well, New York city continues to work, to modernize our zoning.

With mayor Adams, city of yes initiative, there’s examples of bigger changes happening in other cities.

A, newest trend in zoning is to move away from Euclidean zoning. Remember that name that’s based on the precedent from the Ambler versus Euclid Corp case. We just discussed. So moving away from that to a form based zoning. So foreign-based zoning prescribes the building bulk and forms of the neighborhood. And it really does connect back to the city beautiful movement, the premise is that buildings should be regulated on their appearance and relationship to the public realm. Not just a spreadsheet.

This is indelibly connected to new urbanism com. With an early example of form-based zoning used at seaside, Florida by Duany Plater-Zyberk.

Many form-based codes are organized around the [00:18:00] concept of the transect. Or the idea that there’s a series of zones at transition from sparse rural farmhouses, all the way to the dense, urban core. In specific steps. Now life is a little bit more complicated than that, but the transect is an interesting diagram of how we organized space in a spatial format, not just a two dimensional format. There’s been many new developments, which use this organizing principle and just recently in an amazing bit of circularity and rhyming, Cleveland Ohio is piloting a form-based code, not far from the site of the original Ambler property that kicked off this whole zoning thing.

Critique of Zoning

And lastly, it’s really good to highlight. There’s been a bit of blow back against zoning as a construct itself. Most recently the book arbitrary lines, how zoning broke the American city and how to fix it. By former New York city planner, M Nolan gray. Has come out and it argues that cities should abolish [00:19:00] zoning, root and branch. So get rid of it.

The book presents four critiques of zoning. First set of increases housing costs. Second that zoning reduces economic growth. Third that zoning, foment, economic and racial segregation. And lastly it mandates sprawl by its very nature. The book makes the case for abolishing zoning, outright and considers what city planning could look like in a world without zoning.

I don’t buy the case for the total abolition of zoning, but I am sympathetic to as a position. And I appreciate that the case is being made by people like M Nolan gray, because I think it’s important to be clear, but also it moves the Overton window.


We could talk for hours about zoning. But then there’d be zero listeners left on this podcast.

In upcoming episodes, we’re going to explore how other factors, both adjacent and connected to zoning have caused real and deep problems. We’ll touch on how governments through [00:20:00] programs like the federal housing administration and lending programs have induced low quality sprawl, poor land use and how financing and regulations need to evolve.

As usual, all words and opinions heard on today’s episode do not reflect the views of our employer, but you knew that. Please check us out at for more podcasts episodes.

And please Heart, like, share, give us a review. Non-monetary benefits are a fuel to the fire and we appreciate it. In other news, the scientists have told me that they continue to decode more and more transmissions from the Avery files. And we will post them when they are available.

That’s all we have for today.

Be well, and we’ll see you on the internets.

“There’s many reasons why zoning came about, but most of them are fairly reactionary or the reasons are pretty antiquated and outdated. But almost everywhere in the U S has some form of rules on what you can build.”

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