The Origins of Zoning

From the Recivilization website. Hat tip to Raven Warrior.

241 the origins of zoning

It’s just like Sim City: R for Residential, I for Industrial, C (here, ‘B’) for Commercial. But in real life it gets a lot more complicated. This is part of the zoning map of a Minneapolis suburb. The ‘Zoning Designations’ in the legend, typical of zoning codes coast to coast, show how intricate the segregation of land uses has become. Government in its wisdom tells us where we may build a four-family apartment, and where a five-family apartment. It divides commercial uses into seven categories, each with its spatial pigeonhole. Why should it?

By 1920, it was clear that zoning was to be the city practical‘s magic bullet. With cities on both sides of the Atlantic booming and sprawling out in all directions, it was inevitable that some kind of land-use regulation would appear. Zoning was a European idea, first adopted in German and Swedish cities in the 1870’s. In decades to come, however, most European countries would use it only as part of a comprehensive land-use planning that was much more ambitious and restrictive. The United States wasn’t ready for that; it still isn’t. The country did take to zoning, however, and has used it ever since as the major vehicle for regulation.

Sadly, and typically, America had ulterior motives from the start. The first steps towards zoning appeared in California, and they arose less from a concern for orderly growth than from racial prejudice and exclusion. To the Californians, the real menace was not polluting industries, smelly stables or unsightly coalyards, but something far more dangerous and sinister—Chinese laundries. Neighbors complained that these laundries, however useful, had become hangouts for ‘undesirables’: that is, for Chinese. The federal courts threw out San Francisco’s first attempt to outlaw them in 1886, but other California towns, starting with Modesto, soon found a primitive sort of nuisance zoning a viable alternative, and it was not long before they were applying the concept to less ethereal nuisances, such as whorehouses and slaughterhouses.

Building on this experience, Los Angeles came up with America’s first modern zoning ordinance in 1909. The movement was gathering steam; in the same year Boston’s law governing building heights was upheld in the Supreme Court, and by 1913 several states had passed enabling laws permitting cities to control the location of industry. Meanwhile, in New York, necessity was pushing the project along, as two novel nuisances brought new factors into the discussion.

One of these was the Equitable Building (1915), still standing, rather unobtrusively, among its bigger modern neighbors at 120 Broadway. When it was built, though, this squarish 42-storey monster, covering an entire block, was the talk of the city; it shut off window views, hid the sun and reduced property values and rents for blocks in all directions, besides overloading the surrounding streets and transit stops with its 13,000 employees at rush hours. The outrage over the Equitable led to New York’s landmark ‘setback laws’, not merely regulating building heights, but introducing the more sophisticated concept of a ‘building envelope’ to assure some light and air for everyone. Meanwhile, up on Fifth Avenue, wealthy residents and carriage-trade shops faced an invasion of warehouses and factories from the growing Garment District around Seventh. The merchants’ powerful Fifth Avenue Association was exhausted from years of using legal threats and bribery to keep the factory lofts at bay. Zoning offered a permanent fix, and the Association marshalled its considerable influence to push through a comprehensive zoning law in 1916, which became a model for other cities across the nation.

The 20’s brought the great breakthrough; zoning swept the nation, and by the end of the decade 60% of the urban population lived in zoned cities or suburbs. As Commerce Secretary under Coolidge, Herbert Hoover formed a committee to create a model state enabling act for zoning ordinances; his Division of Building and Housing designed model zoning codes for cities, and propagandized heavily for their adoption. The Supreme Court had already upheld Los Angeles’s ordinance, which was largely limited to industry, but it still hadn’t weighed in on the larger constitutional issues involved. When it finally did, in the 1926 case Ambler vs. Euclid, it would uphold zoning and take a big bite out of the perverse interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that had upheld property rights against urban regulation since the Civil War.

In the Cleveland suburb of Euclid, zoning had stopped the Ambler Realty Company in its plans to assemble choice land near the lakefront for industry. The arguments went well beyond this, however, and the famous case presented in the planning textbooks as a simple victory for progress and sweet reason looks a little murkier viewed close up. Ambler’s attorney was no less than Newton D. Baker, one of America’s most distinguished Progressives, an old protegé of Tom Johnson who had gone from the Cleveland mayor’s chair to Wilson’s cabinet. Baker made some telling points. Under Euclid’s zoning the best parts of the village, fronting Lake Erie and in the wooded hills south of Euclid Avenue, were reserved for single-family housing, while ‘All the people who live in the village and are not able to maintain single-family residences…are pressed down into the low-lying land adjacent to the industrial area, congested there in two-family residences and apartments, and denied the privilege of escaping for relief to the lake.’

From the start, residential zoning had been twisted into an unprecedented legal mechanism for parcelling out the best land to the ‘best people’, but that was not the issue before the court. The decision, written by Justice George Sutherland, showed that the court was most impressed by the scientific pretensions of the planners, the ‘commissions and experts…that the results of their investigations have been set forth in comprehensive reports, which bear every evidence of painstaking consideration.’ It was all the more remarkable, that this decision would come from a court that spent most of the 20’s striking down anything that reached them smacking of Progressivism, including even child labor laws. Sutherland, who also wrote the infamous child labor opinion (Adkins vs Childrens’ Hospital) was a moldy mossback who had more opinions repudiated by later courts than any justice in US history. But he seems to have got the point that zoning was a new scientific fix meant to preserve property values.

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1 reply »

  1. Very enjoyable. Do you know when zoning hit the San Francisco Bay Area, and if so, was it accompanied by “setback” standards? Also, have you, or anyone you may be aware of, addressed the origins/authority of “design review” — a designation that attaches to the unbounded, arbitrary, discretionary control over the use of property?

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