How Old Zoning Laws Are Holding Back America's Cities

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published October 4, 2018 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

Changes to zoning laws starting in the 1920s sparked decades of construction that separated people from the things they tend to love about city living, such as easy access to shops, restaurants, entertainment venues, and random encounters with diverse people. A new video by the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University shares some history of the impact of car-centric planning and zoning for single-family homes.

From about 1920 to 1960, the modernist planning establishment began tightening zoning regimes that separated commercial, industrial, and residential projects in cities across the country, according to the video, which details a myriad of negative outcomes.

The planners encouraged the development of single-family homes to create communities that stretched miles away from city centers. The emphasis on single-family as opposed to multi-family projects made homes in cities more expensive, said economist Sandy Ikeda, who appears in the video.

To make matters worse, in the 1950s and 1960s, cities gained backing from the federal government to tear down apartment buildings for minor infractions, which forced poorer, minority residents out of cities.

A loud rebuttal came from journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacobs, who published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. 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.

Today, planners in the Washington region and beyond are returning to mixed-use zoning like cities had before 1920.

Urban Resilience