Houston is the only major city that has not adopted the practice of zoning because city officials put it to popular vote. Why, then, has it taken legs everywhere else and how will it adapt to future urban planning considerations?

In my lonely war on US zoning, I often hear a defense of zoning that goes something like this: “You may not like zoning, but it sure is popular with the American people. After all, every state has approved of zoning and virtually every city in the country has implemented zoning.”

One of two implications might be drawn from this defense of zoning: First, perhaps zoning opponents are missing some incredible redeeming benefit that obviates its many costs. Second, like it or not, we live in a democratic country and zoning is evidently the will of the people and thus deserves your respect. The first possible interpretation is vague and unsatisfying—I’ll wait for this purported benefit to be identified and remain opposed to zoning in the meantime. The second possible interpretation, however, is what I take to really be at the heart of this defense. After all, Americans love to make “love it or leave it” arguments when they’re in the temporary majority on a policy.

But is zoning actually popular? The evidence for any kind of mass support for zoning in the early days is surprisingly weak. Despite the revolutionary impact that zoning would have on how cities operate, many cities quietly adopted zoning through administrative means. Occasionally city councils would design and adopt zoning regimes on their own, but often they would simply authorize the local executive to establish and staff a zoning commission.

Houston was among the only major U.S. city to put zoning to a public vote—a surefire way to gauge popularity, if it were there—and it was rejected in all five referendums. In the most recent referendum in 1995, low-income and minority residents voted overwhelmingly against zoning. Houston lacks zoning to this day. Meanwhile, the major proponents of early zoning programs in cities like New York and Chicago were business groups and elite philanthropists. Where votes were held, as in cities like St. Louis, support for zoning was often openly predicated on the idea that zoning would implement and preserve racial segregation. Needless to say, the poor, immigrants, and African Americans were often prevented from voicing their opposition to zoning and other racial segregation programs at the ballot box.

Yet the puzzle remains: if zoning was never popular, why did nearly every state and adopt it? Here it might help to clear up the actual origins of US zoning policy. Contrary to the popular view of zoning as a ground-up phenomenon, zoning was in fact developed, promoted, and heavily incentivized by the federal government.

Zoning as it exists today was developed by the federal Department of Commerce under future president Herbert Hoover. In 1924 and 1928, the department published the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and Standard City Planning Enabling Act, respectively, and distributed copies of each to every state legislature in the country. These acts aimed to accomplish three goals: First, to popularize the policies among legislators and provide a clear federal seal of approval. Second, to provide a model for zoning enabling legislation—legislation whereby the state allows municipalities to undertake certain police powers—and make it easy for state legislatures to quickly pass it. Finally, to secure court approval of zoning. At the time, the constitutionality of zoning was very much in doubt. Many zoning advocates both feared that poorly drafted zoning would prompt the courts to declare the policy unconstitutional nationwide and hoped that the widespread adoption of zoning would leave the courts hesitant to overturn it. Their strategy clearly worked: before 1920, just over a third of states had adopted any kind of zoning enabling legislation. By 1930, nearly three quarters of states had adopted the legislation. In 1926, a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of zoning.

Over the next 90 years, the federal government would continue to promote and in many cases require zoning, particularly during the New Deal. In 1936, the USDA published rural zoning enabling legislation, designed to push zoning into small towns and rural hamlets. Whether or not towns and cities needed or even wanted zoning, waves of grants and technical experts were forthcoming to nudge municipalities to draft zoning ordinances.

Read More