Review: A Better Way to Zone

A Better Way to ZoneI have mixed feelings about zoning, which may explain my thoughts about Donald Elliott’s new book about it, A Better Way to Zone. A land use law consultant in Colorado, Elliott’s book is dedicated to making “simplicity and understandability not just an aspiration but a guiding principle in zoning.” While I agree with much of the sentiment of the book, I’m not sure he’s struck upon the new way to zone he seeks.

Organized around the goal of making zoning “better, more efficient, and more understandable,” the book contains a brief history of zoning, a critique of the current system as used by most big cities, a discussion the legal framework and values of good governance, and finally a discussion of “ten principles” to improve zoning. Filled with lists of reasons, lessons, principles, and cross-references, this book is obviously the work of an order-oriented legal mind.

Elliott’s concise accounts of the origins and logic of most cities’ “Euclidean Hybrid Zoning” would serve as a good primer on the subject for students or citizens new to the field. Convinced that “almost no one outside of city government, zoning lawyers, and very committed citizen activists can explain how the system works” Elliott passionately argues “zoning ordinances should not be understandable only to lawyers or zoning staff; they should be understandable to average homeowners.” I think the mantra about simplicity is the most important part of the book, and completely agree with Elliott that “the more the public knows, the better they can participate at the policy- and rule-making level.” Let’s hope his call for simplicity and transparency is heeded.

The book’s “10 principles for more livable cities” will come as no surprise to informed readers: 1. more flexible uses (simplifying the number and type of uses regulated), 2. the mixed-use middle (simplify number of zones, create mixed-use zones at the heart of the code), 3. attainable housing (reduce regulatory barriers to affordable housing), 4. mature area standards, 5. living with nonconformities (legalize some nonconforming uses), 6. dynamic development standards, 7. negotiated large developments, 8. depoliticized final approvals, 9. Better use of the internet (he oddly uses the word “webbing” for this section, which I’ve never heard used this way), 10. scheduled maintenance.

While most of the topics discussed under these headings are sensible and needed reforms, all together they don’t add up to anything close to a “new” way to zone. In fact, Elliott is convinced our strange combination of conventional Euclidian zoning, planned unit development regulation, and form-based zoning, will continue. While some communities have implemented the form-based SmartCode, I agree with Elliott it doesn’t appear likely it will totally replace the existing tools in most communities.

This brings us to my mixed feelings about zoning in general.

On the one hand, zoning has caused lots of problems. Its separation of uses has encouraged driving and low-density development. Its parking requirements cover the land with impervious parking lots. It has been used as a tool of racial and economic exclusion in communities across the country. When used to require low density development, it consumes land and worsens global warming. Worst of all, it has often failed to achieve one of its original impetus: to separate polluting industries from residences.

On the other hand, just because a tool has been used poorly doesn’t mean the tool itself is flawed. It is the most important source of power for urban planners, and it can be used to sculpt the public realm, create affordable housing, and genuinely improve cities.

The problem with A Better Way to Zone is the book is mostly unaware of such nuance. In a discussion about an alternative to conventional zoning, the author observes that there may be parts of the city suitable for experimentation, but “in and around stable middle- and high-income neighborhoods, there will still be a demand for zones that produce more predictable development.” The reasons or implications for this go undiscussed. There exists an intellectual chasm between historians who observe zoning has been a highly effective tool of exclusion to the detriment of our cities and types like Elliott who are generally sanguine on its basic foundations. The book’s central strength — its focus on making zoning with simple, efficient, and understandable — is also its central flaw. After all, a simple, efficient, and understandable zoning code may not necessarily achieve a desirable, just, or sustainable outcome. For those we must turn elsewhere.

> A Better Way to Zone: official website, purchase from publisher
> A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Cities

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Is there a good book that compares US land use / zoning laws with those used by European cities and districts? Does this book get into comparative land use systems at all?

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