How Zoning Hurts Our Cities

Eric Carlson
The Urbanist
Published in
5 min readMar 31, 2020

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Traditional zoning has separated uses and done damage to cities

Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

Zoning. When you hear that word you may not feel anything. Many of us go about our lives without giving zoning much thought, even though it can be one of the biggest shapers of our cities, and as a result, our lives.

In most cities around the United States, zoning tells us where we can live, work, and play. It controls the location and form of commercial, industrial, and residential interests.

Without going into too much zoning history, traditional zoning was created to make cities healthier and safer. In the early 20th century, cities were plagued with overcrowding, pollution, and and a mishmash of unsafe buildings jammed into urban areas.

Though zoning helped facilitate quiet residential streets and separated children from factory smoke, it also sprawled out our cities and made it difficult to get anywhere by walking.

Zoning has been criticized as a tool that has hurt urban form because of its tendency to separate uses. In many municipalities, single family homes were separated from retail uses, office uses, and other commercial uses.

Other land uses such as industrial factories and manufacturing plants were located away from any area where people lived, meaning that long commutes for workers soon became the norm.

Soon, our cities were filled with huge highways and neighborhoods lost much of the vibrancy they once possessed. The country wrecked dense, culturally diverse neighborhoods to build huge roads and interstates, all to facilitate the new suburbs.

Over the next few decades, people would begin commuting in droves in shiny new cars, and any urban form that American cities had was lost.

From Separate Use to Mixed Use

Back 100 years ago, there were many advantages to separating uses, especially at a time when industry and commerce was largely a dirty, ugly affair, filling streets with acrid smoke and noxious smells.

You can imagine how people wanted to get away from all that. You can watch movies like Gangs of New York (Fictional but somewhat accurate) to get an idea of the filth and chaos of urban life in that time.

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Eric Carlson
The Urbanist

I write, I play music. Work in Urban Planning, Graphic Design, and Marketing. Sometimes I feel like I need less hobbies. https://ericcarlson.pro