Zoning at 100

Zoning has a dual personality. The last 100 plus years of zoning is a story of protecting and creating healthy places for society’s less powerful. It is also a story of segregation and privileging the wealthy and well-connected.

New York’s landmark 1916 legislation changed the city’s skyline and the form of skyscrapers to come in order to protect the public’s health, safety, and welfare by ensuring light and air on the streets for every New Yorker. Even earlier, New York's Tenement House Acts of 1867-1901 forced builders to abide by basic rules for light (an outward facing window for every room), ventilation, and sanitation. The by-product of this law was a building type transformation from a basic box to a dumbbell form with light-wells.

Around the same time, San Francisco passed its first zoning laws, using similar language of health and safety. Yet here, zoning was a means to control who could do business in the City. These laws, passed in the early 1880s, required discretionary review for laundry facilities that operated in wood buildings in an effort to protect against fires. The vast majority of laundries were Chinese owned and housed in wood construction. The thinly veiled laws criminalized the operation of these Chinese laundries, directing enforcement and arrests at Chinese owners while providing licenses to white owners. Litigation quickly elevated the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1885, overturned the discriminatory legislation, yet throughout the 20th century zoning laws across the country tell a tale of simultaneous societal progress and discrimination.

Over a century later, who do our zoning laws serve? The same contradictions and split personality persists today. Zoning is a blunt tool that we often try to stretch beyond its means. The effects are not always what we intend. For example, the City wants to make it easier for more families to live here. Over the last decade, San Francisco established zoning controls in some districts that require a higher percentage of two and three bedroom units in new residential projects. A solution in theory; in practice, these larger units are often used for young workers living as roommates rather than families.

Another example: the City wants vibrant streets and space for retail and services. San Francisco established zoning controls to limit the ground floor of many areas to retail. In practice, particularly when the economy is weak, storefronts are empty if retailers aren’t available or can’t afford the new spaces. San Francisco requires a high percent of glass or transparency on those ground floors, again to promote activity on the street. Yet so often, the large glass expanses of new buildings feel corporate, impersonal, and uninviting. 

Zoning can’t guarantee good design, but I believe it can be a tool for good urbanism: places that are healthy, humane, and sustainable. Do our laws do that today? We monitor compliance, not performance. What if we measured both?

If we did, we might see that, at least in San Francisco, even in our zoning, it is a tale of two cities. Wealthy, owner occupied neighborhoods successfully lobby for low height limits and density caps, creating de facto moratoriums. In contrast, neighborhoods populated by recent immigrants, renters, and low and middle class residents disproportionately host the City’s growth, new construction, affordable housing, and major infrastructure. It is no surprise that these impacted neighborhoods resist rezoning efforts.

Zoning grew from a need to regulate use, form, and growth for the collective good. While the collective good may benefit from up-zoning to increase density, public space, and affordable housing, it’s not really a collective good if only one half of the city serves as host to the city’s future needs. These laws don’t only shape the form of our city, they shape its health. My hope for the next 100 years of zoning is that we regularly test and measure (however possible), the outcomes of zoning – in the places that are the focus of rezoning efforts and in the places that are not.