AS LAND THAT CAN be developed gets more and more scarce, close-knit communities are gaining cachet. Concerns over skyrocketing gas prices and Americans' expanding waistlines are but two of many factors fueling a renewed interest in pedestrian zones near public transit, whether they're new urbanist towns or revitalized infill neighborhoods.

The miracle is that so many such communities have taken shape already in spite of euclidean zoning restrictions that favor sprawl by enforcing segregated land use and prescriptive densities. Watch for a heightened focus on zoning reform in the months ahead—be it for form-based codes introducing mixed-use in the suburbs, master plans for urban infill districts, or other progressive community planning models.

A few pioneers have gone so far as to rewrite the books completely. Jim Soules, founder of The Cottage Co. in Seattle, has worked with several Washington state communities to formulate alternative zoning ordinances. His Innovative Housing Codes make way for smaller homes on smaller lots with shorter setbacks—in places where 7,000-square-foot lots have become the norm. The goal isn't just to mete out land resources more judiciously, but also to recognize the downsized lifestyle needs of empty-nesters and the other “nontraditional” (one- or two-member) families that now constitute 60 percent of U.S. households. “This is the beginning of what I think you'll see as a return to higher density in single-family zones,” Soules says.

The most dramatic re-zoning experiment on the horizon may well be in the Gulf Coast region, where master planners such as Andres Duany (of Seaside, Fla., fame) are already weighing in on how smart-growth principles might be applied to create neighborhood cohesion and break the cycle of poverty. Stay tuned.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA.