Zoning: What’s the Point?

June 21, 2011ZONE

Sometimes, we get lost in the details and forget to step back and ask the basic questions. In the speed of the everyday, we end up focusing on nuances, instead of looking at the big picture – the proverbial forest for the trees. When dealing with New York City zoning, this can often be the case. In this case, the “basic question” that needs to be asked here is – ‘What is the Point?’. Why do we have zoning? What is its goal?

Initially, zoning grew out of health and safety concerns for New Yorkers living in terrible conditions in the Lower East Side’s tenements. Shortly thereafter, zoning began to be used to separate uses from one another – prohibiting objectionable uses from residential uses. Additionally, light and air, shadows, and property values were all part of the larger impetus to comprehensively install zoning districts throughout the City (and beyond).

In NYC today (and much of the rest of the country), zoning regulates the use and bulk of a property. The type and intensity of the use and the height, setbacks, and floor area of the form are the basic areas of regulation for zoning. Oftentimes, various nuances are added, to regulate specific design or livability preferences.

On occasion, however, zoning goes beyond regulating use and bulk. It is used towards promoting other goals entirely – to mixed results.

Affordable Housing

The goal of encouraging diverse communities, while ensuring the existence of affordable housing is a noble one. Some cities have taken to mandating affordable housing. Others, like NYC, have used zoning as a tool to incentivize affordable housing; providing floor area bonuses for the inclusion of affordable units in a project. The success of such a program in providing adequate low-cost housing is an ongoing debate, but few think this is an inappropriate use of zoning.


Targeting density around transportation nodes, encouraging mixed-use neighborhoods, and putting limits on parking are just some of the many ways planners use zoning to meet a city’s sustainability goals. This alternate goal, while not strictly within the confines of regulating use and bulk, does fall within the broader goal of promoting the public welfare and therefore would also be seen by very few as an inappropriate use of zoning.


Sometimes zoning is used with the intent of getting at other municipal problems. In the case of preservation, zoning has been used to limit growth and disincentivize tear-downs. Such a use of zoning, not with the intention for regulating the use or even the bulk of an area, but more of as a political tool to appease a certain constituency, can be viewed as less in keeping with planning goals and more in line with political calculations.

Economic Development

The final alternate goal used by some city planners is a complicated topic that is not in and of itself separate from zoning. Economic development is certainly part of the calculation when considering certain zoning districts for an area; for what is planning if not the attempt to create a successful city – economically and otherwise. The problem arises when economic development becomes the main goal behind the specific zoning designation. The attempt is often a noble one – take protecting the garment industry in NYC or manufacturing in SoHo – but city government, private developers, and the economy all move at different speeds and react to the world around them differently. What may have seemed liked a good idea at the time, is suddenly having unintended consequences, limiting true innovation and opportunity, and yet has an entrenched constituency and is a political football.

To be fair, there are successes when it comes to prioritizing economic development when using zoning. An example of this is the High Line. It’s a well known story – in the waning days of the Giuliani administration, the City was itching to tear down the elevated rail line on the west side of Manhattan. The surrounding (and underneath) property owners felt the structure was detracting from their property’s full potential. Advocates worked tirelessly to save the structure and zoning was used to transfer development rights from those properties above which the old rail line stood. Fast forward more than a decade and the High Line is universally praised and in fact Phase 2 opened up just last week to a new round of acclaim. The neighborhood around the High Line is vibrant and economically successful and it is no great leap to say that zoning played a large part in this urban success story.

In graduate school, urban planners are taught that zoning is a tool – one of the many tools in an planners arsenal. It is not the end-all, be-all in urban planning. Some however, missed that class. Too often, zoning is used to promote one goal, but has unintended, long-term consequences. When rezoning an area, we must ask ourselves…What’s the Point?