Zoning Reform (Japanese Zoning)

Isaac Wang
Oct 29 · 5 min read

“Zoning is the process of dividing land in a municipality into zones in which certain land uses are permitted or prohibited.” — Wikipedia

Zoning is done differently everywhere across the world, but American zoning is uniquely inefficient.

This is my favorite primer on zoning by Recode.la, and it explains

  • EUCLIDEAN ZONING
  • PERFORMANCE / IMPACT ZONING
  • INCENTIVE ZONING
  • FORM-BASED ZONING
  • HYBRID ZONING

American cities traditionally follow something called Euclidean Zoning.

Euclidean zoning is a system of zoning whereby a town or community is divided into areas in which specific uses of land are permitted. In short, you can build single family homes in area A, industrial in area B, agricultural in area C, and commercial in area D, high density homes in area E.

Our current model of zoning tells people exactly what CAN be built. Nothing else is allowed without some type of exemption. So if you wanted something else, you’d have to get permission.

Ex. Let’s say I wanted a small coffee shop or specialty grocery store in my suburban neighborhood.

You would probably need some type of ‘conditional use permit’ that would likely be reviewed by city staff and take forever.

As a result of separated land uses rather than mixed land-uses, the distance it took to get to your job site, grocery store, basic services, and other places greatly expanded and made walking impractical.

Empirically, cities have found that there’s a tendency for Euclidean Zoning to produce cities where most trips must be made in a private vehicle, and where the mixed-use neighborhoods that 21st century Americans have come to expect, are discouraged.

In response, cities have begun utilizing Performance/Impact Zoning or Incentive Zoning to shape cities in desired ways.

  • Under impact zoning, performance standards are established to manage impacts and better promote compatible development.
  • Under performance zoning, dimensional ratios are used to regulate land-use intensity (ex. ‘FAR’, open space ratio, livability space ratio).
  • Under incentive zoning, projects can exceed standard requirements in height and density if developers provide some form of benefit to the local community in exchange for amenities (ex. parks, plazas, transit access, public art, or affordable housing)

While all of these have allowed cities to move away from stringent land-use separation, they still have a foundation of Euclidean Zoning. These types of zoning also frequently required greater time and monetary inputs from all stakeholders (ex. local government staff, developers, residents).

“In many cases, this balancing act between development and community improvement occurs through a discretionary process that attempts to match the intensity of additional development to the scale and quality of the benefits provided. This can require significant staff time to determine.” — Recode.la

In plain English, they’re slow and bureaucratic. Their complexity also often leads to final results that leave residents feeling more confused and angry.

So how do we fix this?

In America, some places have begun pursuing something called Form-Based Codes instead of the above mentioned models that rely on a model that orients around land-use. Form-Based zoning focuses on scale, design, and placement of buildings in relationship with streets and public spaces.

The underlying belief is that form influences function and getting the right form can promote walkability, transit-friendly development, and more compact settlement patterns. Many progressive architects and urban planners also believe that the look and arrangement of buildings more strongly define a community’s character than actual land uses within the buildings.

I’m a huge fan of this approach, but I think there’s something even better for people who favor a free-market, low bureaucracy approach.

Japanese Zoning

Japanese zoning tells people what CANNOT be built. Everything else is allowed and completely fair game.

Check out Japanese Zoning ! Read it. It’ll blow your mind.

There’s many core pieces to it, but the one principle most fascinating is: “Zones still restrict uses, but they tend to allow a “maximum” use instead of an exclusive use for each zone”

In North American zoning, there are often hundreds of different zones with different characteristics.

In Japanese zoning, cities can only define 12 different zones, going from low-rise residential zones to exclusively industrial zones.

“In North-American zoning, zones clearly specify which use is allowed on it. In general, zones allow only one or two uses. For example, a residential single-family detached home zone tolerates only single-family detached houses. Don’t try to put a convenience store or a school in one, nor a duplex.

Japanese Zoning does not impose one or two exclusive uses for every zone. They tend to view things more as the maximum nuisance level to tolerate in each zone, but every use that is considered to be less of a nuisance is still allowed. So low-nuisance uses are allowed essentially everywhere. That means that almost all Japanese zones allow mixed use developments, which is far from true in North American zoning. Euclidean zones CAN allow mixed uses… but in practice, it is very rare that they do so.

This great rigidity in allowed uses per zone in North American zoning means that urban planing departments must really micromanage to the smallest detail everything to have a decent city. Because if they forget to zone for enough commercial zones or schools, people can’t simply build what is lacking, they’d need to change the zoning, and therefore confront the NIMBYs. And since urban planning departments, especially in small cities, are largely awful, a lot of needed uses are forgotten in neighborhoods, leading to them being built on the outskirts of the city, requiring car travel to get to them from residential areas.

Meanwhile, Japanese zoning gives much more flexibility to builders, private promoters but also school boards and the cities themselves. So the need for hyper-competent planning is much reduced, as Japanese planning departments can simply zone large higher-use zones in the center of neighborhoods, since the lower-uses are still allowed. If there is more land than needed for commercial uses in a commercial zone, for example, then you can still build residential uses there, until commercial promoters actually come to need the space and buy the buildings from current residents.

So in a way, regarding use restrictions, North American zoning tends to be “exclusive”, Japanese zoning tends to be “inclusive”.

Definitely checkout the read on Japanese Zoning. Here’s the link again.

Google Japanese Zoning.

Here’s another read on it from Market Urbanism.

“Japanese zoning is relatively liberal, with few bulk and density controls, limited use segregation, and no regulatory distinction between apartments and single-family homes. Most development in Japan happens “as-of-right,” meaning that securing permits doesn’t require a lengthy review process. Taken as a whole, Japan’s zoning system makes it easy to build walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, which is why cities like Tokyo are among the most affordable in the developed world.”

More flexibility. Less Bureaucracy. 21st Century Neighborhoods.

Written by

Candidate for San Diego City Council D5: Visit www.isaac.vote // Paid for by Isaac Wang for City Council 2020 FPPC ID# 1416799

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade