Where Does Zoning Fit Into Our Future City Planning?

NYC.GOV – Department of Planning

“Let’s dump the word “zoning,” as in zoning ordinances that govern how land is developed and how buildings often are designed. Land-use regulation is still needed, but zoning increasingly has become a conceptually inappropriate term, an obsolete characterization of how we plan and shape growth.” - Roger K. Lewis 

Zoning, a concept just over a century old, is already becoming an outdated system by which the government regulates development and growth.  Exceptions and loopholes within current zoning legislation prove that city planning is pushing a zoning transformation that reflects the current and future goals and needs of city building.  To determine how zoning and land use needs to evolve we must first assess the intentions of future city building.  

Planners, architects, legislators and community activists have already begun establishing guidelines and ordinances that approach the goals of sustainability and livability.  For example, the AIA has established Local Leaders: Healthier Communities through Design and has made a commitment to the Decade of Design: Global Solutions Challenge. has come up with Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design and its Zone Green initiative in regards to updating its zoning resolution. In addition, Philadelphia has augmented its zoning to include urban farms and community gardens and it is safe to assume that many other cities will follow this precedent.  

So what is it about current zoning codes that makes it so outdated?  Follow us after the break for more.

Zoning Codes as they exist today are inherently inflexible, rigid and predetermined.  They outline not only districts where certain types of use may be developed, but also restrict heights, setbacks, yard widths, parking spaces, balconies, window sizes, roof shapes, porches and front yard landscaping.  In the most basic terms, the Zoning Code describes the box within which a building must fit on a particular lot, optimizing it for its most utilitarian conception.  But for all its utility, the zoning code has little regard for architectural quality or urban design.  The first zoning codes came into effect in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The goal of the code was a noble one: keep districts with disparate uses protected from one another for safety and public health.  The mapping of a city in terms of zoning regulations created subdivisions based on land use, keeping incompatible uses apart such as residences and factories.

Philip A. and Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover, the pathway rises eight feet above the High Line, winding through a canopy of trees, between West 25th and West 27th Street, looking South. © Iwan Baan

It also devotes large tracts of land for their most purposeful application without regard for its value to the city.  The traceable history of the way in which zoning maps from the mid-20th century appear today speaks to the cultural values of the time.  The way planners talk about transportation today is perhaps one of the more distinct changes that may influence zoning.  Early zoning maps and regulations in New York City emphasize car use by requiring parking spaces or garages.  Early maps also have created single-family residential neighborhoods isolated from public transportation and accessible amenities.  These regulations imply a preference for car use and have shaped the way neighborhoods have developed.  These outdated codes reflect a social dynamic that is being left behind by new concepts in city planning and urban design.

Highline © Iwan Baan

For example, even the most updated zoning maps show much of NYC’s waterfront devoted to manufacturing districts.  The maps are gradually being amended to accommodate recreation and projects, but reflect a time when New York’s waterways were the critical gateway for the city’s economy.  As these shifts slowly take effect, with legislation and reality working towards a somewhat common goal, land use will begin to overlap in areas where obsolete infrastructure still has a hold over what is now considered recreation space.

Photo: Rendering by Visualhouse

New York City’s Highline is a perfect example of this type of development, as well as the surrounding neighborhood of Chelsea, its Gallery District and the Meatpacking District nearby.  These converted neighborhoods are still housed within the same structures once used in industry, manufacturing, and infrastructure but have altered their use while working within the confines of the zoning codes that helped shape the neighborhoods.  The recreational Greenway and soon to be developed Blueway along the FDR on the east side is also facing reconstruction as planners contend with the infrastructural developments along the East River. Today, runners and cyclists meander below and around the paths along the FDR and the various utilities that have been developed along the water’s edge.  The west side of Manhattan is no different, lined with sanitation facilities, barges, cruise ship terminals, restaurants, and museums lining the Hudson River along side one another.

This aggregation of land use, shifting within the city, guided by zoning that has yet to catch up, is one of the battles that architects and planners must engage in to establish quality over utility.  The utilitarian ideal of NYC’s first zoning resolution of 1916 and its subsequent ammendments do not necessarily accommodate the ideal urban design solutions of today.  Mixed use projects, such as Hudson Yards in Midtown West, will alter the landscape as it was defined in the original codes.  This type of development encompasses the current theories of public transportation, accessible amenities and workplaces, along with diversity and convenience.

The ideas that are being perpetuated within the profession today are frequently in advance of legislation that permits it.  Architects, planners, and communities are all pushing to develop solutions that work within their project goals, for the most part, supporting infrastructure that is sustainable with urban design concepts that promote diversity, efficiency and community self-reliance.  The “conventions” of zoning, to which Roger K. Lewis refers, are no longer applicable. Ultimately  dropping the word zoning, encourages more diverse and customized solutions to city planning and urban design as it pertains to the particular needs of individual neighborhoods and their future development

References: Washington Post: As land use planning changes, ‘zoning’ is no longer appropriate by Roger K. LewisThe Atlantic Cities: The Birth of Zoning Codes, A History by Amanda Erickson

Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "Where Does Zoning Fit Into Our Future City Planning?" 27 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=337042>