Zoning out: planning without zoning

Zoning is one of the most used tools in a planner’s tool box. Anyone that has ever tried to build anything, from a house to a chicken coop, has an idea of how zoning can impact what gets built where. For those that are unfamiliar with the basic ins an outs of zoning, look at this page for a little background on how it works.


New York 1932, accessed 10/28/2013, wikipedia.org

Zoning is by no means a new concept. It is generally accepted that zoning in the United States grew from methods instituted by Germany and Great Britain. Zoning in these countries was not specifically designed to regulate single-family residential, or commerce districts. Germany originally instituted its planning law to “[pioneer] regulatory attempts to create districts in terms of character“. Although United States zoning laws may have been born from European regulatory codes, the zoning ordinances in the United States quickly developed their own identity and function. A few cities in the United States experimented with regulating buildings and services with little effect in the late 19th and early 20th century, but the first example of effective zoning came from New York, New York in 1916. NYC instituted regulation for sky scrapers, with the intent of letting air and sunlight reach the streets. This regulation shaped the early skyscrapers in New York in a way you can still see today with the “step back” architecture of high rises in the early 20th century.

Houston,_Texas_at_Night_2010-02-28_lrg (1)

Houston, accessed 10/28/2013, wikipedia.org

It is established that zoning can play a part in shaping a city; but there are a few criticisms of zoning. Some general drawbacks include the regulating of personal property rights, stifling development, adding cost to new building, and creating issues with enforcing standing zoning ordinance. There are some cities that do not employ zoning as their method of restricting or regulating development. Houston is the most notable example of a city without zoning code. Of the top ten largest cities in the United States, Houston, the fourth largest, is the only city that doesn’t use zoning. Land use is controlled primarily by the market with minimal input from the government. Houston is home to over 2 million people, and the second highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the nation. The lack of zoning in Houston has had an impact on the free market personality of the city and its growth in general, for better or for worse.


Valley County Seat, Cascade Idaho, accessed 10/28/2013, wikipedia.org

Although Houston is by far the biggest, and most well-known example of a city without zoning, there are other places that prefer to operate with little to no zoning. At the Idaho APA conference I had the pleasure of speaking with Cynda Herrick, the Planning and Zoning Administrator at Valley County. Her responsibilities include administration duties related to unincorporated areas in Valley County.  She informed me that Valley County has one zone for the whole county. In a basic sense using one zone is fundamentally similar to using no zoning at all. She gave me a run down on some of the pros and cons of operating with this system. The distinct advantage of this performance based one zone system is that it gives developers the flexibility to create uniqueness within their developments. This system may seem like it lacks regulation, but that is not the case. The one zone system gives the county the ability to assess each development application on its own merits, ultimately providing the city with more control.

On the other hand, property owners and purchasers don’t have a guarantee as to what they can do with their property, which can potentially scare away speculative investors. Another potentially adverse effect is that it can create spot zoning, and potentially incompatible uses. Even with the possible negative consequences of the one zone system in Valley County, Cynda Herrick is supportive of the system.

zoning map

Zoning map of Skopje, accessed 10/28/2013, wikipedia.org

In both a rural low population county like Valley county, and a large city like Houston the relative absence of zoning has positive and negative effects. Ultimately not having zoning doesn’t mean that the local government doesn’t have control over the growth or use of city lands; it simply means that it is controlled in a different manner. Eliminating zoning in certain cities may be an effective way to promote development, and squelch exclusionary zoning practices.


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