Zoning Regulations and Codes

What is it? A brief Development History and Definition

Overview – Zoning Regulations & Codes 

This article provides an explanation of what Zoning Regulations and Codes are and why these are important in the development of cities and communities. The article provides some historical insight into the two different ways of understanding zoning regulations and codes.

To clear out any misunderstandings, the terms zoning regulations and zoning codes are used about each other and mean the same; approved or revised ordinance that regulates and controls the land use within a city.

Zoning History

The early zoning regulations date back thousands of years to the ancient times. During this time the ancient city walls protected the middle and higher class from undesirable land uses that were smelly or noisy (disposal of waste, brick firing, butchers etc).

Within the city walls civic and religious land uses were found. Consequently, land uses generally differed between the low class and the middle and high class. A similar social distinction was also present in the Zhou Dynasty in China (1046 – 256 BC), Vedic Era in India (1500 – 500 BC) and the Roman Empire (31 BC – 476 AD), where the class diminished from the city centre towards the urban fringe.

A major change in land use and residential location occurred during the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the land uses were mixed to a greater degree. Consequently, residential homes were also used for commercial uses.

The Industrial Revolution brought about physical, cultural and socio-economic changes with the separation of the residential land use from the commercial and industrial land use (Euclidean Zoning). City Planners saw a need to functionally separate uses due to the pollution, overcrowding and dirtiness.

As a result, United States, Britain, Germany and France were among the first countries that used zoning to prevent polluting industries to be build within residential areas.

To understand the modern evolvement of zoning, we need to look at the American and European zoning separately.

American Zoning

In the United States, Zoning was a tool was most often used to separate residential, industrial and most commercial land uses. This became more evident with New Yorks 1916 Zoning Resolution, the first comprehensive citywide zoning code in the United States.

The 1916 Zoning Resolution became the blueprint for the rest of the country, and yet to this day American mixed use zoning is treated as a exception as opposed to European Zoning. This may be due to the fact that Euclidean Zoning has been around an entire century.

The adoption of Euclidean Zoning across the United States came as a result of the 1926 Supreme Court decision in Euclid v. Ambler, and the Standard Zoning Enabling Act. These events allowed for the land use separation (now known as Euclidean Zoning). The Supreme Court decision declared zoning a constitutional right for municipalities or counties to regulate land uses. Furthermore, the Standard Zoning Enabling Act endorsed the idea of single land uses.

Although, Euclidean Zoning is the most prevalent in the United States, performance-based codes (requires development to meet certain standards – in terms of impervious surface, noise, traffic, etc. – without specifying land use) and form-based codes (defines zones according to the built-form character – placement, scale and style – rather than land) do exist in some cities but have had little impact.

New York City Zoning Regulations & Land Use Map

European Zoning

In a number of European countries, Zoning was initially used as a tool to separate land uses. However, later on the bulk and density of buildings become more important, whereas America emphasised land-use control.

Planning in Europe, in the 20th century, rarely prohibited industry within residential areas (mixed use was seen as a good thing). Instead, it was permitted under certain performance standards.

Despite the land use classification in Europe and the United States being remarkably similar, the regulation of it is rather different. For instance, a proposal to place a small new store within a residential land use area in United States would require rezoning to commercial land use (and such approval would also be hard to attain).

In Europe a rezoning or reclassification of land use would not be necessary, as a store would often be an allowed use within a residential area to serve the locals. Consequently, in America it is not allowed unless proven otherwise, while in Europe it is allowed unless proven otherwise.

It is also interesting to look at how different American zoning has become the past century. In most of America you would commonly find that single-family residential zoning is located at the top of the urban land use hierarchy. The single-family residential zoning is commonly also the most dominant land use within cities in America. However, it hasnt always been like this, as the New York’s 1916 Zoning Resolution initially did not inlcude a single-family zone. It may seem like the single-family zone is very dear to Americans, as it is playing a major role in American zoning.  

In Europe, however, the local development plans usually define strict limits for residential density. The zoning for residential development is regulated by setting a maximum limit of dwelling units within a given land area. This is in contrast to Americans Zoning that decide what building type may be built on a land.

Berlin's Zoning Regulations & Land Use Map

What is Zoning Regulations and Codes?

Zoning regulations has been well defined by the City of Los Angeles as follows:

“As genes determine people’s height and eye color, zoning dictates cities’ land use and built environment.”

Zoning regulations are used in city planning to structure and manage the overall city. They are in place to ensure segregation of incompatible uses, and also to ensure new development does not harm the existing community.

The zoning of land is generally carried out by local governments. However, the Federal Government or State usually sets the framework for how zoning codes and regulation can be used.

Zoning regulations and codes are often debatable, but has great legal impact on citizens. While to many this may seem like a boring matter, zoning regulation can affect individuals substantially and have economic impacts.

Only through zoning can a municipality or county legally ensure their policies are made into specific land use regulations for a given area. Zoning is the primary urban planning tool which local governments, such as municipalities and counties, use to regulate development.

This tool allows the authority to restrict a development’s location, bulk, scale, style, and permitted use of buildings within a specific area. There are a number of land uses usually grouped within the key zoning land use categories, including residential, commercial, open space, education, mixed use, public facilities, industry etc, and each one of them have their own regulation they adhere to.

Increasingly zoning regulations have begun to deal with how building design interacts with the public realm and surrounding buildings (form-based zoning). Typically this is more commonly known as streetscape regulations and ensures the establishment of ground floor retail, landscaping of parking space, street trees and general regulations for the public realm.

The latter paragraph illustrates that some planning systems around the world do not have a fine-grained difference between zoning regulations and more specific building regulations.


Types of Zoning

In this article we have mainly discussed the euclidean (functional) and performance-based zoning types. However, we can generally differentiate between four different zoning types (excluding the hybrid zoning type). To understand the difference between these we have created an simple overview of the zoning types:

Functional Zoning (Euclidean)

This is the most common form of zoning, especially in America. The typical characteristics is that land use zones are defined based on their function; residential, commercial, industrial etc. Specific regulations regulate the type of development that can be built within each of the zones.

Form-Based Zoning

This type of zoning is determined based on the built-form character (placement, scale and style), and their relationship to the public realm. Therefore, these zoning regulations are more commonly used in cities where a specific design outcome or identity is intended (see Miami’s form-based Zoning Code). It is important to note that this type of zoning are not guidelines, they are regulatory.

Performance Zoning

This generally uses functional zoning as the base, but is more rational and flexible. It regulates land use by using a performance or goal-oriented parameter criteria to assess proposed development. The zoning typically allows developers to be more flexible in development type.

Incentive Zoning

This zoning type, first enforced in New York City (1961) and Chicago (1957), originally allowed height restrictions and density limitations for buildings to be exceeded if a public plaza was developed in return. It can be used by planning authorities to give developers some rights if they carry out works that benefits the overall public or a community.

Hybrid Zoning (mix of zoning types)

Many Zoning Regulations today are not built upon one of the above zoning types, but rather a combination of them. Typically in America, the use of both functional and performance zoning is common. In large cities the zoning system would typically also include incentive zoning, i.e reduce or eliminate parking requirements to promote affordable housing. A combination of these zoning types is what we refer to as hybrid zoning.

The different types of Zoning Regulations - Zoning Types

How is Zoning in your city?

Learn More from the cities and countries we have analysed in our Urban Planning Magazine.