The case for zoning reform

A Q&A with Sara Bronin on why zoning matters.

City zoning shapes our lives. But for many of us, this powerful tool remains hidden and confusing. I spoke with Sara Bronin, a Cornell University professor and director of the National Zoning Atlas in the U.S., about why zoning matters—and how to better understand it. This is the first story in The Sprawl's October edition, which is about urban density.

Subscribe to Sprawlcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. A lightly-edited transcript of this episode is below, for those who would rather read than listen.

This episode begins with a crash course on the history of zoning in Calgary:

  • How zoning bylaws were created in the 1930s to protect property values
  • How Calgary's growth pattern was established in the 1950s, then entrenched
  • How city hall shied away from changing zoning in the '60s and '70s, instead embracing a status quo that perpetuated car-reliant sprawl

In my conversation with Sara Bronin, we discuss:

  • The hidden ways zoning affects our lives—socially, economically and environmentally
  • How zoning 'kills housing by a thousand cuts’
  • How requirements like mandatory parking minimums further perpetuate sprawl

SARA BRONIN: I think that now is a great time for us to capitalize on what I would call concerns or critiques aired about zoning—and really invest in the deep dive that we need to turn those critiques into action.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): I’ve got to be honest. I’ve always found zoning a little confusing. Okay, not a little confusing—very confusing. People are speaking in code. R1, RCG, R-C1L—or is that R-C1Ls? You get the point. It’s alphabet soup, and I’ve always viewed it as the realm of planners, developers and a select group of people who have a lot of free time to make sense of all this.

Zoning is invisible to most of us who don’t speak the language. But zoning affects our lives in profound ways. And when there are changes to how we zone the city—well, all of a sudden, it becomes contentious.

In this episode I want to zoom out a bit. Because to understand why we’re in this situation, we need to understand why we have zoning in the first place—and how it has and hasn’t been used over the past century.

A brief history of zoning in Calgary

So why do we have zoning? Well, Calgary has had different forms of land control since it became a city, but a zoning bylaw was introduced in the mid-1930s. Its purpose was largely to protect property values. And this was done by separating land uses—residential goes here, commercial goes here, and industrial goes here. Separation was the name of the game.

You sometimes hear people say offhandedly that Calgary is stuck in the 1950s when it comes to the way the city grows—and that’s not much of an exaggeration. That’s more or less the argument that Max Foran makes in his 2009 book Expansive Discourses: Urban Sprawl in Calgary. It’s all about post-war urban development in Calgary. And Foran says the pattern for the sprawling city we see today was set in the mid-1950s, when city hall handed over responsibility of subdivision development from the city to developers—and they in turn became the drivers of how Calgary grew, rather than city hall.

And then, over the following decades, that became entrenched and city hall was stuck trying to mitigate the financial and environmental impacts.

Attitudes toward zoning remained inflexible. Property values were to be protected as much as possible.

Max Foran,

Expansive Discourse: Urban Sprawl in Calgary, 1945 - 1978

So where does zoning come in? On paper, zoning was a powerful tool the city could use to introduce more housing density in neighbourhoods—and to start mixing land uses, rather than separating them. But city hall shied away from this. In his book, Foran traces how city hall took the path of least resistance in the '60s and '70s, deferring to the automobile and the sanctity of single family neighbourhoods.

“Attitudes toward zoning remained inflexible,” writes Foran. “Property values were to be protected as much as possible.” And this contributed to the car-dependent urban sprawl that defines our city today.

Foran writes that zoning could have been “a progressive instrument to manage growth imaginatively” over those formative years. But it wasn’t.

Now, some changes have been made over the years—to allow for duplexes and backyard suites in certain parts of the city, for example. But zoning for single family homes remains dominant. And even incremental changes to the land use bylaw have been excruciatingly slow—like secondary suite reform, which took years.

The current city council is burdened with a conundrum that previous councils have kicked down the road for literally decades.

Fast forward to today. The current city council is burdened with a conundrum that previous councils have kicked down the road for literally decades. But now, zoning is starting to change. Not just in Calgary. In the face of both the housing crisis and the climate crisis, cities are reforming their zoning codes in different ways. And Calgary is set to substantively review its land use bylaw next year.

Sara Bronin has given more consideration to the issue of zoning than most people. She’s a professor at Cornell University and director of a project called the National Zoning Atlas in the U.S., which maps zoning across jurisdictions. She’s also the founder of a group called Desegregate Connecticut, a pro-housing coalition that advocates for land use reform. She’s working on a book about zoning that’s slated to come out next year.

I spoke with Bronin about zoning reform—and why it matters.

Sara Bronin is director of the National Zoning Atlas in the U.S.

Sara, welcome to Sprawlcast.

Thank you so much for having me, Jeremy.

To start—zoning is confusing. I think a lot of people find we know vaguely what zoning does, but it's very confusing. What does zoning really do?

Zoning is the local regulation of land uses, structures, and lots. And local governments, all around the country, use their powers to zone to articulate exactly what types of developments can happen in what parts of the city or town.

So even though it seems like this sort of out-of-the-way, esoteric function of government, it actually is hugely important because it tells us where residential communities can be developed, where industrial areas must go, and even tells us how we organize our cities as a whole and, thus, how we organize our economy and even our society.

Yeah, on the surface level, it's this idea of what gets built where. But zoning affects a lot else as well. And I'm curious in your work what you've seen come to the surface as you dig into zoning—what zoning has affected in North American cities over the last century or so.

Well, zoning, as I mentioned, has an impact on the economy because it tells people, property owners, where exactly they can conduct certain kinds of economic activities. So, can they put a business in this lot? Can they build a factory? Can a school locate there and, thus, provide people in that community with educational opportunities? So it certainly impacts the economy.

But beyond that, zoning impacts a wide range of social outcomes. So, for example, access to education is a really critical outcome of zoning. And we're only just beginning to scratch the surface of the links between zoning and access to education.

Even though it seems like this sort of out-of-the-way, esoteric function of government, it actually is hugely important.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

Some preliminary work that I've been doing with a colleague at Cornell has suggested that zoning leads often to—or exclusionary zoning often leads to—more segregated schools and locks people into their communities and doesn't allow them to have school choice.

The other things that zoning affect include the environment, because the zoning rules that we impose on property owners often require them to build in environmentally unsustainable ways. Ways that rely on the car instead of public transportation, ways that make development more sprawling—I guess, as a nod to the name of your show—by acquiring large lot sizes for housing, in particular. So the environment is something that's hugely affected by zoning.

And our transportation systems, our ability to choose something other than cars, is affected by zoning.

So, if zoning is locking in sprawl, then it's really hurting our ability to make smart investments in public transit, which relies on maybe denser areas, and also makes it much harder for us to connect on foot or on bike. So zoning impacts all of these different areas. And I think, hopefully, people are starting to pick up on its impacts.

The zoning rules that we impose on property owners often require them to build in environmentally unsustainable ways.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

Why do you think that's been hidden for so long, all these facets you're talking about? The social impacts, the environmental impacts.

I think part of it is because we haven't really had a good way to talk about how zoning is similar from one community to the other. So we have, in the United States, maybe 20,000, 30,000 different zoning codes, and, frankly, we don't really know what each of those zoning codes say or how they differ or how they're similar.

I think without that ability to, at the very baseline, try to make sense of how we zone now, it's a lot harder for us to critique zoning—other than through the maybe more abstract critiques that we've seen from housing advocates and others, as they view zoning as being exclusionary, as causing some undesirable outcomes, but not knowing exactly where the levers are within zoning codes across many different jurisdictions.

So I think that one barrier to our understanding of zoning codes is the fact that we really haven't dug into what exactly they say and how they compare to each other across jurisdictions.

A lot of your work is about building that public understanding of zoning. You've said that it's time for a "coordinated effort to illuminate zoning." Why do you think that's so crucial at this point in time?

I think we're at a turning point when it comes to zoning, in that we've had a lot of—in the last couple of years—a lot of attention on the topic in national magazines, in national newspapers, and at the local level too. And we've also seen a lot of organizing around zoning, and maybe as much as we've seen at any other time in modern American history anyway. We've seen a lot of focus on zoning.

If zoning is locking in sprawl, then it’s really hurting our ability to make smart investments in public transit.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

I think that now is a great time for us to capitalize on what I would call concerns or critiques aired about zoning, and really invest in the deep dive that we need to turn those critiques into action.

Turn those critiques into something we can actually change to improve people's lives by making zoning better.

I think the U.S. might even be ahead of us on this, to be honest. It feels difficult in a city like Calgary to pull this subject to the foreground. It kind of bubbles up when it comes to city council and there's contentious zoning changes. But it feels difficult to bring to the surface. That's just an observation. I don't know if you've looked at the differences between countries, but it seems like the U.S. is ahead.

That may be true in terms of the conversation, but I actually don't think we know whether the U.S. or Canada has better zoning because, unless you've done a deep dive into all of your zoning, and then we finish our deep dive we're working on now, I don't think we actually know which country is starting off at a better starting point. And it could very well be that Canada's starting off from a better starting point and so you've seen less conversation about it. But I guess we don't really know.

We haven’t really had a good way to talk about how zoning is similar from one community to the other.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

I want to ask you about something you said about zoning and housing. You've said that zoning "kills housing by a thousand cuts." I want to unpack that a bit. What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that there are lots of different—and in some ways hidden or at least understudied—ways that zoning constrains the housing that property owners can build on their lots. So it's not just the single-family, two-family, three-family, four-or-more-family—I guess you would call that number-of-units zoning—that matters, but it's also all of these little particulars, like minimum lot sizes, minimum parking requirements, maximum height caps, and similar, I guess I would call them, bulk and lot-type zoning restrictions that constrain the number of housing units that can be built—even on lots where, at least on paper, it looks like you can build multi-family housing.

Through my research, I have encouraged people to look not just at whether a community allows for two or more family housing, but also to look at all of these particular constraints that tend to shrink the amount of house that can be built on any given lot

I think that now is a great time for us to capitalize on what I would call concerns or critiques aired about zoning.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

When we talk about this stuff, on one level there's a recognition that zoning needs to change. Cities need to densify. In Calgary's case, we've just sprawled kind of endlessly onto the prairie. So there's a recognition on one level that this pattern of growth is not healthy, it's not sustainable, it creates homogenous neighbourhoods, etcetera. But when it comes to zoning reform, even small tweaks are quite contentious in a city like Calgary, and I imagine that's the case in many other cities. Why is it so difficult to reform zoning?

Well, I think in part because we have not done enough to ensure that members of the public understand what the nature and the impact of zoning is. So a lot of the debate that we see in the public, including in local public discussions about neighbourhood-specific zoning, or even approvals of specific projects—you see a lot of misinformation, misinformation that has been disproven by study after study of zoning and housing, in particular. That's where you see a lot of the debate—how zoning affects housing.

I think that we see a lot of contentious discussions because we have done a poor job of explaining how zoning can be used to actually improve people's lives and improve opportunities that people have to access all the things that they need to live a fulfilling life. But I'm an optimist, and so I feel like the more information we can put out there about how zoning is now and what zoning does, the better for everybody because then we can make better decisions together.

You touch on something there—how it can actually benefit our lives. Who does benefit from good zoning reform?

Everybody benefits. Every property owner, every resident, every business owner benefits when zoning works to achieve the goals of the community and ensures that everybody has an opportunity to access the things that will make their lives better.

So when we have zoning that provides a diversity of housing options, for example, we have a better variety of people in our communities who can fill jobs that need to be filled, who can help to ensure that classrooms are not homogenous and more interesting and more educational. Good zoning can also help us to ensure that we're not wasting land, we're not overusing land, and we're not over-paving it.

We have not done enough to ensure that members of the public understand what the nature and the impact of zoning is.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

We have to balance so many different things when we make these sweeping land use policies at a very decentralized basis. And I think good zoning that's well-thought-out and that connects communities to each other—including communities with different zoning jurisdictions, coordinating together—makes everybody benefit.

And having people at the centre of it. In Calgary we sometimes have this phenomenon where the arguments against zoning reform are actually not about people at all. They're about cars. They're about parking. They're about where will we park all these cars that we need because we've built a sprawling city.

Yeah, absolutely. And zoning has played a role in that, for example, through minimum parking requirements that say that for every retail store or restaurant or office or housing unit, you have to have a certain number of parking spaces. And if you look carefully at zoning codes, as we have in the National Zoning Atlas Project, you can see that sometimes the amount of parking that's required exceeds even the space that's devoted to the use.

So we've seen in Connecticut, through the zoning atlas that we've done for that state, that there are communities that require three parking spaces for a single studio apartment. If you look at the amount of land occupied by three parking spaces, that's usually more than the average studio apartment would be.

I think that we see a lot of contentious discussions because we have done a poor job of explaining how zoning can be used to actually improve people’s lives.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

When you look at zoning and the history of zoning—in particular, single-family zoning—some have suggested the solution is to do away with single-family zoning altogether. But you've suggested that that is an "inadequate" approach, and I'm curious about that. Why you think that's inadequate?

Well, for the reasons that I mentioned, including those reasons documented in the paper "Zoning by a Thousand Cuts" that you mentioned earlier. I think it really is important for us to understand all of these non-number-of-unit restrictions that are articulated in zoning codes and how they impact the provision of housing.

As another example, in the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, where we have the most complete data on a statewide basis, we did an analysis of the 15 most walkable communities. The communities with the highest walk scores. And we found that tens of thousands of units of housing were being prevented from being built by one provision alone, and that was minimum parking requirements. And so by lifting or eliminating minimum parking requirements, you could then enable the construction of tens of thousands of housing units across these 15 communities alone.

If you add to minimum parking requirements and all of these other constraints, you can see that lifting some of these and deregulating in these specific ways can actually enable more housing. And those kinds of findings are what we're trying to tease out of our zoning atlas projects and what researchers around the U.S. are looking into right now.

And then what about the question of density alone, just simply adding more units? I think of a city like Calgary and our inner-city neighbourhoods. You add more units, row houses for sale, duplexes; they're still very, very expensive, even if you allow for more density and reform zoning for more density. What do you see as the solution there, how to navigate that?

Well, I think that high housing prices are, in large part, a function of limited supply. So there might be a variety of reasons why jurisdictions are not building enough housing. And so, in Calgary or in other cities, you might be able to explain that by, I don't know, maybe poor lending conditions or perhaps market—a lag in between market demand and the ability of developers to actually construct units. Maybe it's high prices for construction, or maybe it's supply chain issues, which is something we seem to have experienced over the last couple of years.

But one of the easiest things to fix that might constrain housing supply is zoning. So, amidst all the factors, you might not be able to change market conditions or whether you can get steel supplied from some other country or even from the United States. That might not be something we can control. But one thing that communities can control is their zoning. So that's how I look at it.

Zoning I consider to be the baseline, the low-hanging fruit, the easiest thing to control.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

There are high housing prices. Yes, they can be caused by a variety of things. But without zoning that enables townhomes and duplexes and the other kinds of multi-family housing that you know can provide less expensive options than free-standing single-family homes—without zoning that allows those things, then they will never get built in the first place. So zoning I consider to be the baseline, the low-hanging fruit, the easiest thing to control, and the things that local communities can do to lower housing prices and make their communities more accessible, including to the people who live there.

What we see in our communities is especially the elderly and people on fixed income being priced out, young families being outbid. Singles who want to buy housing for the first time or even people who are renting are seeing their prices increase year after year, and, over the last two years, increase significantly. And that is a product of undersupply and it's something that can at least in part be addressed by better zoning.

So it's part of the solution. It's not the entire solution, but it's a key component.

For sure.

Are there examples that come to mind of where you've seen this play out in other cities—good examples of zoning reform where it's been done particularly well?

Well, you've seen lots of cities that have experimented with zoning reform. So Minneapolis is one of them, Portland, Oregon. Seattle. I would say Hartford, Connecticut, where I served as the chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, has a pretty great zoning code for a small-sized city. There is no housing that requires a public hearing. It's all as of right. So anybody out there who wants to come and develop here in Hartford and pave over some of our vacant parking lots with buildings—please, come on down.

But there's also been a lot of activity in the state context as well. California legalized accessory dwelling units. Oregon has enabled what we call middle housing, which is housing between two and four units. Vermont has had statewide zoning reform. Connecticut, last year, through the efforts of Desegregate Connecticut, was able to adopt some significant reforms to the Zoning Enabling Act.

Dig down into that zoning data because I think you might be surprised as to what it says.

Sara Bronin,

Professor, Cornell University

But we're not done in Connecticut. And I would say no place is done with everything it needs to do to modernize and update these zoning codes, but there are rays of sunshine all around the country. So I'll give you an example of Montana, where we have a team working on the Montana Zoning Atlas as part of the National Zoning Atlas project. And they have used the data that they have developed through their atlas to actually help the governor develop a series of zoning reforms that just came out this week. So it's really exciting to see these rays of light all over the country.

Montana—our southern neighbour here in Alberta. That could be an interesting case study for us to look into. Sara, is there anything that you would add that I haven't asked?

The last thing I would say is that I would encourage your listeners to consider investigating zoning in their community. And I would invite them to use the methods that we've developed through the National Zoning Atlas to gather information and to put it into the spreadsheet and the format like the ones we are using here in the U.S., because they have really illustrated the nature of zoning regulations in communities around the U.S. And I think it would be really illuminating to develop similar data projects in communities where your listeners are from.

Dig down into that zoning data because I think you might be surprised as to what it says. And I think it will be really interesting to see more of that comparative look. So that's my open invitation—and feel free to be in touch through that project.

Well, knowing our listeners, somebody will probably take you up on that. Thanks very much for your time and insight today, Sara.

Thanks so much, Jeremy, for having me.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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