The story of American zoning is really the story of how Americans learned to legislate their NIMBY impulses.
Before zoning, cities mostly regulated what could be built through nuisance laws. If someone didn’t like how their neighbor was using their property, they could haul them to trial and let a judge decide what to do about it.
But in 20th century New York, the process had already become cumbersome. In Manhattan, new building techniques were pushing building heights higher, costing neighborhoods sunlight and air. And factories and warehouses were encroaching on fashionable shopping districts, much to the chagrin of said fashionable shoppers.
There were early efforts to temper New York’s building streak. A landmark 1885 law restricted tenement buildings to one-and-a-half times the street width (the Supreme Court ruled that height restrictions were legal in 1909, when builders challenged Boston’s decision to restrict buildings around Copley Square to 90 feet).
The building that broke the camel’s back was the 42-story Equitable Building. Built in 1915, the building’s height and heft were unprecedented. As NYC Zoning tells it:
Rising without setbacks to its full height of 538 feet, the Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value and setting the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution.
Neighbors demanded that the city regulate the building somehow. In 1916, the city responded by passing the country’s first comprehensive zoning code. That effort was largely spearheaded by lawyer Edward Bassett, who went on to invent the freeway and parkway.
According to Columbia University’s Andrew Dolkart, the law worked by regulating building shape rather than height. He writes:
The idea was that that light and air would reach the sidewalk; light and air were a major issue. So the law stated that you could build right up to the lot line on your building and you could rise up to a certain height and then once you reached that height, you had to step back, you had to set the bulk of the building back.
This, he explains, is why New York’s skyscrapers from the period have such a particular profile. The Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue, for example, stacked smaller and smaller boxes on top of one another, with a crown on top. Other architects experimented with cascading setbacks and buttresses.
city’s zoning code. Courtesy: New York Architecture Images*
The city’s new zoning code did more than just regulate building design. It also set up separate residential and business districts (as well as unrestricted and undetermined areas).
New York wasn’t the first place to divide the city up based on who was doing what, where. “The really big constraint of land use regulation was the inability of people to get very far within cities,” says William Fischel, a Dartmouth College professor who studies zoning. That changed with public transportation. “Once you got the street car you could separate residents from jobs,” he says.
The first city to experiment with this was San Francisco. In 1885, the city banned public laundries from most areas, a not-so-subtle attempt to zone the Chinese out. That law was invalidated by a 1886 Supreme Court case.
In 1909, Los Angeles experimented with a city-wide regulation that kept heavy industry and commerce out of certain neighborhoods.
Initially, officials were reluctant to do so, fearing that they’d lose businesses to neighboring cities. But land-owners were insistent, arguing that their property values had gone down thanks to brick-makers and smoky glue factories. “Zoning was seen as a way of assuring buyers that their neighborhood won’t change adversely,” Fischel says. “It was a dangerous tool in one sense, but also offered security.”
So it was that homeowners across the country changed the face of cities in America. As Fischel writes in a paper on this subject:
It seems unlikely, then, that zoning thus was the product of circumstances in one particular place. Nor, I submit, was it the product of planners who had embraced the ‘City Beautiful’ movement, progressives who supported scientific management of government or lawyers who argued for an expansive view of the police power. The roles of planners, progressives and lawyers were, I believe, supply responses to a popular demand for zoning. This popular demand did not manifest itself as direct democracy. It was filtered through housing developers, who, I shall demonstrate presently, found that they sell homes for more profit if the community had zoning.