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Your Zoning Code Is Inherently Exclusionary (But It Doesn’t Have To Be)

by Nolan Gray

Since bursting onto the scene in the 1970s, the concept of “exclusion” now figures heavily in the way urban planners do their work. Now more than ever, urban planners are aware of how certain land-use regulations and forms of public process can systematically exclude certain groups of people. These are both good developments. But so far, the push toward inclusion leaves out a fundamental part of our work: the accessibility of zoning.

If a local resident or business owner with a high school diploma can’t sit down and figure out what she can and cannot do with her property in less than an hour, the zoning regime is inherently exclusionary. After all, one of the key selling points of zoning is that it supposedly provides certainty about what a property owner can and can’t do as of right. The rules shaping things like use and bulk are meant to be clear and predictable. But if zoning rules are hard to access or difficult to read and interpret, this benefit is lost, as locals will be forced to hire a land-use attorney to guide them through the process.

Needless to say, this is unnecessary and expensive, forcing low- and moderate-income households and small, local businesses to either scrap their plans or go underground. Worse yet, it ultimately advantages moneyed interests like out-of-town developers, who typically have the resources to employ full-time land-use attorneys. If that’s not exclusionary planning, what is?

It doesn’t need to be this way. Whether your town needs a full text overhaul, a new zoning handbook, or even just better graphics and charts, consider accessibility in everything that you do. Toward that end, here are four changes your town could make to immediately improve the accessibility of your zoning.

ZoLa, a product of NYC Planning Labs, is the gold standard when it comes to zoning map accessibility.

Make the zoning code and map web accessible and easy to use.
I am frequently shocked to learn that municipalities don’t have their zoning code or map online at all. More commonly—and only slightly better— municipalities will post their codes in the form of a scanned PDF (which cannot be searched) and spread their map across multiple PDFs, each showing only small sections of the city. This turns run-of -the-mill zoning questions into massive hurdles. If a town is going to adopt zoning, it should have an interactive zoning map and a searchable, text-based online code, with section references linked. To really minimize confusion, add a feature allowing users to type in their address and automatically be served with the essential information they may need.

Keep the code simple, both in style and content.
The style piece of this recommendation is straightforward: write every line of code with clarity in mind. Prefer short words over long words. Keep sentences short too. Minimize jargon. Avoid senseless repetition. Use bullet points. All of which is to say, write for regular people, not lawyers. If city lawyers draft legalese, push back. And if you can’t win that battle, work with your colleagues to publish a free, plain language zoning handbook that outlines the key information.

The content piece drives at a broader problem with zoning today: don’t overload your zoning text with excessive rules, exceptions, and qualifiers. Zoning at its best is a broad, fair set of rules focused on avoiding things that everyone agrees are bad. Zoning at its worst is a complicated and detailed mess of rules, packed with hedges, exceptions, and spot text amendments, designed to achieve the preferred design outcome of particular group of people at a particular time. Aspire toward the former when drafting new sections or overhauling your code.

(For all my reservations about form-based codes, they do a fantastic job of illustrating development standards. Here’s a great example of illustrating building envelope from the Boulder, Colorado code. )

Illustrate your design and bulk standards.
Most people don’t spend all day thinking about things like setbacks and lot coverage. What they do with all that extra time, I cannot say. But I can say that we have an obligation to speak at their level. Where bulk and design jargon is unavoidable, planners should include graphics explaining the concepts in an intuitive way. (Here’s a classic example for floor area ratio.) Better yet, for each zone, planners should illustrate the building typologies that the codes are designed to facilitate. (Here’s a great example from the New York City Department of City Planning.) Thank to tools like SketchUp, it’s never been easier for planners to make these kinds of illustrations. Where these illustrations can’t be built into the code, add them to your town’s zoning handbook.

Everyone loves a good chart.
A wall of text is a really weird way to figure out a zoning envelope. Where the same sets of standards will be repeated over and over again—as with setbacks, lot sizes, or uses—this information should be collected into consistently formatted charts. Unlike the other ideas discussed in this piece, this suggestion is more valuable for contractors and architects than for the average layman. But if manning a zoning help desk has taught me anything, it’s that these people need to pull information from zoning codes a lot. Making sure that they can easily access the numbers they need will cut back on a lot of unnecessary brain damage for all parties involved.

Guatemala City’s code, Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial, includes copious, consistently formatted charts, making their code more accessible than the average U.S. code.

Even if your town doesn’t care about the issue of exclusion, there’s a practical case for improving the accessibility of zoning: an inaccessible zoning text or map wastes a lot of time. Since starting work as a professional planner, I’ve been impressed by how much time I and my colleagues must spend teaching the code to ourselves, let alone helping laymen navigate its mysteries—and I work with one of the most accessible codes in the country! In less well equipped offices, an inaccessible zoning text or map could easily suck up hundreds of hours of work time for planners each year. Whatever your town’s motivations, give zoning accessibility the due consideration it deserves.

Nolan Gray has been a regular contributor for Strong Towns since 2016. He is an urban planning researcher and a contributor to Market Urbanism. He lives in New York City.

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