Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Washington DC

Making Your City More Walkable? That’s Not “Zoning”

In last week's Washington Post, Roger K. Lewis, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland, wrote an intriguing column suggesting that it's time for a big rethink of the concept of zoning, which he says is a relic of the early 20th century:

Zoning traditionally served to separate businesses from residences. Now maybe the term is outdated, says a Maryland architecture professor. Image: ##http://annarborchronicle.com/tag/zoning/## Ann Arbor Chronicle##

Zoning conventions are no longer conventional. 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.

Zoning laws were first conceived at the outset of the industrial era. At the time, the economy was dominated by factories churning out noxious byproducts of all kinds, from sludge to foul fumes to loud noises. The original zoning laws sought to segregate homes from businesses that might be nuisances -- a legacy that American cities and towns are still living with:

Traditional zoning first took hold in the early 20th century with a clearly logical intent, as the word implies: to establish and keep apart discretely delineated areas of land use within counties and municipalities. Single-purpose zones ensured separation of incompatible uses such as dwellings and factories.

But that's not what "zoning" is all about anymore. Lewis's example -- Washington, D.C. -- is examining and revising all kinds of long-standing regulations, from minimum parking requirements to its famous height restrictions. These reforms seek to change cities in a way that's completely distinct from segregating uses. The intent of reducing parking requirements, for instance, is to make places more walkable and reduce housing costs.

Since the way we design and regulate cities is changing so quickly, Lewis suggests that maybe it's time we had a new word too:

Dropping the word 'zoning' necessitates using an alternative vocabulary. It’s time to talk less about zoning restrictions and limits and more about visionary plans, urban design goals and architectural aspirations.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Monday’s Headlines Go Through Basic Training

An NYU study looks into why the U.S. is lagging behind on high-speed rail, and one transportation expert ponders the impact on growth.

July 15, 2024

Sustainable Transportation Advocates Need to Talk About Sustainable Urban Design

A new book hopes to act as a "magic decoder ring" to our built environment — and a powerful tool to understand how sustainable transportation networks can fit within them.

July 15, 2024

Friday’s Headlines Take Me to the River

Politico reports that the Biden administration is investing $2.5 billion in updating aging Mississippi River locks and dams like this one in Iowa. Transporting freight by barge produces less emissions than trucks or even rail.

July 12, 2024

Friday Video: Take a Spin on Boston’s Electric Cargo Bike Share

Can't afford a $7,000 Urban Arrow cargo e-bike ? In Boston, you can now rent one for just a few bucks.

July 12, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: Electrify the Rails

Adrianna Rizzo of Californians for Electric Rail on California's looming lobbyist-fueled hydrogen train mistake: "We’re locking in low service for potentially decades."

July 11, 2024
See all posts