Book review/Commentary

How zoning reveals our deeper cultural values

This scene of Ashburton, in southwest England, shows how English land use law, unlike typical zoning in the U.S.,  protects open spaces from development. Photo: David Walters

The average American city zoning ordinance could win a contest for most boring book, and a book about zoning might normally be a close second. However, Sonia Hirt’s closely reasoned new book, Zoned in the USA, makes a seemingly dull subject resonate beyond a professional audience.

Hirt, a professor and associate dean in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, achieves this by showing that zoning regulations are not just dull technical tools to control land use and development. They are “culturally loaded constructs” that illustrate many aspects of our political and cultural ideologies. They tell a lot about who we are and why we think the way we do, especially compared with very different attitudes and land development regulations in other Western democracies.

Zoning as traditionally practiced in the U.S. since its inception in the late 19th century, has been based on categorizing uses and separating them into geographically segregated areas. But classifications we make are based on a worldview. With zoning, such views continue to be based on concepts of separation, social order and hierarchies. Indeed, within the dry and often obfuscatory language of zoning codes lie deeply embedded cultural clues to American history and current community politics. Any brief review of this nation’s zoning codes reveals clear social values, and Hirt’s lucid discourse makes this abundantly clear.

By far the most dominant land use category in U.S. zoning codes is detached, single-family housing. This reflects the common belief that this is the “best” category. Other residential types such as apartments, and the people who live in them—renters—have historically been seen as less worthy, sometimes even a community threat. Yet despite the heavy regulatory focus on protecting homeownership, Hirt points out that America ranks low on the global scale of home ownership—17 out of 26 advanced countries.

But within America, this valuing of ownership over rental is clear. The U.S. income tax code rewards homeowners with tax breaks; it has nothing for renters. This priority (some might say discrimination) is more dramatically on view in rezoning hearings across the nation, where residents rise up to stop “undesirable” apartments near them.

This exclusionary attitude has clear and disturbing echoes of one of the original theories behind zoning in the early 20th century: –to reinforce a “natural social order” and thus codify areas of white privilege to the exclusion of blacks and other races. While many (not all) racial overtones have dissipated, homeowners today are still determined to protect their property values. Herein lies one of the most useful sections in the book, a cultural comparison between zoning practices and attitudes in America and in western European democracies.

America was once justly famous for assimilating people and ideas from other countries. The U.S. Constitution owes much to 18th-century British philosophers and political activists, and to the worldview of the European Enlightenment. Additionally, much U.S. property law finds its origins in English Common Law and precedent. Zoning laws were imported from Germany in the late 19th century as a means of protecting private property rights.

But today, the way America organizes land development through rigid local zoning codes is unique among Western democracies. This doesn't mean it's better—or even good. My own research shows that what passes for “normal” political quid pro quo here would be borderline criminal in many European countries.

A British government report on the U.S. system in 1990, commissioned to see whether Thatcherite Britain could learn from America’s emphasis on deregulation, called American local government “fragmented, balkanized … (and) corrupt.” This was echoed by another respected British authority on planning, who described the U.S. system as one where “corruption is regularly rewarded.”[1]

For her part, Hirt points out most Americans have become so used to zoning that today it seems part of the natural order. Zoning has been absorbed into the property market as an economic value to be bought and sold, adding to America’s bedrock concept of land as a commodity to be traded and as an investment in the pursuit of personal happiness.

Although property rights are fundamental to English jurisprudence, British land owners have no inherent rights to develop their land.

That attitude differs markedly from German concepts. Whereas the U.S. Constitution links property rights with ideas of individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, Article 14 of the German constitution is more serious: “Property entails obligations. Its use shall serve the public good.” It follows clearly that most German planning is about community values rather than individual expression.

Britain doesn’t even have a constitution, and while owning property is key to much English jurisprudence, British property owners have no rights to develop their land. (You read that correctly: “no rights to develop their land.”) This dates to the rebuilding of Britain after the devastation of World War II, when German bombing reduced many cities to rubble. Rebuilding a shattered nation could not be done piecemeal. It required strong central and regional coordination, and so the development potential of all land was taken under state control in 1947. A coordinated regional planning system followed, where physical rebuilding and providing social services proceeded under strong government guidance.

Today, development plans for new growth in any English community are worked out in a public discourse. Government sets out basic expectations and principles, and local communities make decisions on a (more or less) rational basis of needs and resources, where the public good is paramount and environmental values generally have high priority. Similar procedures exist throughout the northern European nations. While the system is far from perfect (European cities have LOTS of ugly parts!) it maintains the beauty of small towns set in lush and productive landscapes. These fields, farms and woods are privately owned, but their community value is such that they are protected from development—and taxed at relatively low rates.

As a final point, Hirt makes a strong case that American zoning today, with its emphasis on single-use districts and separating home from work (very much a 20th- century invention) fails to provide the right tools to make communities more resilient to coming challenges: demographic change as traditional families decline, environmental changes from global warming, and a huge public health crisis of obesity and diabetes.

Zoning: the ‘invisible web’ beneath the appearance of every city

Our widely scattered car-dependent patterns of living, working and playing are among the causes of those problems. And our zoning rules require them. So zoning itself, or the way we have practiced it for the last half-century, leaves us in a weak position to cope with changes that will dramatically affect the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit. In fact, it leaves us powerless to effect meaningful change.

Zoning has been accurately called “the invisible web” beneath the appearance of every city. Hirt spends little time discussing new forms of zoning that provide better tools to meet those future challenges, codes based on recreating the successful urban forms of older neighborhoods and town centers. Those older areas are walkable and safe for bicycles, and car dependency can be dramatically reduced. Hirt’s emphasis is on understanding how we got here and why we hold on to so many misconceptions about our system.

Above all, Hirt shows how zoning is a “moral geography”—truly a map of our values—and it’s not the author’s fault that with such a map, we seem to be lost.

David Walters is an architect and town planner and professor emeritus of urban design at the UNC Charlotte College of Art + Architecture.

Views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, its staff, or the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

[1] Wakeford, R. (1990). American Development Control: Parallels and Paradoxes from an English Perspective. London: HMSO


Cullingworth, J. B. (1993). The Political Culture of Planning: American land Use Planning in Comparative Perspective. New York: Routledge.