A great deal of our urban—and suburban—ills can be traced back to the often invisible hand of zoning, which essentially controls what we can build and where we can build it. Historically, it has been used to divide and segregate. M. Nolan Gray, a former planner for New York City, has published a new book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, which argues that it’s time to completely rethink zoning. It’s both a provocation and a prescriptive treatise. Recently I talked to him about the book, how zoning fails us, and the challenges of his adopted home city of Los Angeles.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
MNG: M. Nolan Gray
So tell me the backstory of the book, the impetus for it.
I’m a trained city planner. I worked as a city planner in New York and have been following zoning for a while now. When I first started getting into zoning, it was kind of a wonky issue, pretty marginal. People didn’t have strong feelings about it. That’s changed. Now, if you crack open the New York Times or the Washington Post, you’ll see op-eds almost weekly about it.
With the book I thought there was an opportunity, because people often don’t know what zoning is or how it works. We spend a lot of time talking about zoning reform right now. One of the things that I wanted to do was ask: What would a system of land-use regulation that works look like?
The big argument for the book is the idea of doing away with zoning. But the question then becomes: in favor of what as an alternative? Because we have seen unzoned places, and the results aren’t so good.
Zoning tries to do two things: segregate land uses and regulate density. As I detail in the book, these tools have been used for unsavory ends or haven’t been effective toward their stated objectives. In many cases, we say we’re doing land segregation to keep incompatible uses from opening up near each other. In reality, most use segregation that happens in modern cities involves entrenched class- or race-based segregation.
Now, that’s not to say that there is no role for dealing with incompatible uses. We need robust land-use regulation for actual impacts. Things like noise and traffic can affect quality of life. Right now we don’t really regulate that stuff in a direct way or systematic way. The other part of this is regulating density, the idea being that we could regulate density around new infrastructure investments. But in many cases, the zoning regulations on density work untethered from some of these broader objectives. A lot of our planning capacity in the U.S. gets wasted on zoning-related efforts that, I would argue, don’t actually improve people’s quality of life.
Are there movements afoot to scrap zoning?
Zoning reform is happening right now in a really meaningful way.
And where specifically is it happening?
In 2019, Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning. That was a regulation that essentially said you couldn’t build apartments in large swaths of the city. They’ve scrapped that, and a few other cities have followed suit. Another policy that cities are doing away with is minimum parking requirements, which says that for every so many square feet of commercial or industrial, or every so many units, you have to build off-street parking. This raises the cost of everything.
And wastes land.
It’s why you get these big suburban parking lots that sit empty most of the year. So we’re seeing reform on that end. We’re also having big-picture conversations in California about how we’re going to coordinate these local efforts, how we’re going to make sure that everyone’s building, or at least allowing, their fair share of housing. We’re having conversations about to what extent should local governments be completely in control, to what extent should they be accountable to regional or state objectives.
Of course zoning means drastically different things, depending on where the zoning is done. It means something entirely different in the suburbs than it does in a high-density city like New York.
People always ask me, “What’s the one thing in my zoning code that we need to fix?” In suburbs, one of the big issues is minimum-lot-size regulation. These are rules that say, if you want to have a home, you have to have so much square feet of land. A developer might say, I have a 50,000-square-foot lot and want to build 20 2,500-square-foot homes. And, of course, if the minimum lot size is 5,000 square feet, you’ll only get 10 homes, and they’re all going to be much more expensive. In a suburban or rural context, those rules tend to be binding. In cities, it’s different. Apartments might be allowed, and even minimum parking requirements might not be so strict, but you’re still going to have strict rules on things like floor area ratios. Or you might have rules prohibiting single-room occupancies, which are important for creating a floor for the housing market and keeping people off the streets. The priorities with zoning are going to be very locally dependent.
In the future we’re going to have to densify areas that are not now particularly dense. I lived in New Orleans for 10 years and lived in a neighborhood near Tulane that had a mix of different-sized units. You’d have a double next to a single, next to a 10-unit building on the corner. They were all mixed together on tight lots, producing a very walkable, fairly dense, and pleasant urbanity. It’s not like we haven’t done this before.
Absolutely. This is the conversation I have with a lot of local policymakers. They say, “If we remove some of these rules, are we going to look like Manhattan or Dubai?” And what I normally do is point to a neighborhood just like that. Every city has these neighborhoods. In many cases, they were built before zoning, or at least modern, stricter forms of zoning.
Built before the emergence of the car, really.
And, of course, in most cases, these are universally beloved neighborhoods, where the home values are high because they’re so desirable. They have little corner groceries, maybe apartments next to single-family homes. “Everybody loves this neighborhood in your city,” I say. “It would be illegal to build this again today.”
What is their response when you tell them that?
I think the gears start turning and people start to get it, because you can’t give some abstract example. You have to give an example that’s rooted in the local conditions, neighborhoods where people have actually walked around and seen some use mixture and additional density; not only does the sky not fall, but it actually produces nice neighborhoods.
You spend a fair amount of time in Los Angeles.
I’m now working on my Ph.D. at UCLA.
So their issues, again, circle back to zoning, in some sense. If you keep pulling the zoning yarn ball, you’re going to get to housing at some point.
Certainly in the Los Angeles context. L.A. has huge portions of the city where it’s illegal to build apartments. It has high parking requirements. The ratio of rent to incomes is completely out of control. Most people born and raised in the city don’t have a path to home ownership. And that’s partly because we’ve made these smaller, more affordable typologies illegal.
But the other side of the issue in Los Angeles is the transportation planning and the management of the public realm. The city actually is quite dense by U.S. standards. But it’s a city built around the car, and you definitely get that sense when you’re there, that they’ve kind of hit the limits of what this can do. The city is in a very difficult position of trying to make the transition from being this intensely car-oriented place to being a more walkable, transit-accessible city.
So how does L.A. get from here to there? What steps would it have to make to make real progress?
I’ll start with the transportation piece. I think where we’re seeing more progress is with congestion pricing on freeways. Or maybe a cordon zone around downtown, for example. Anything that provides people with an incentive to consider modes of transportation other than driving. Of course, it will be important that you take the revenue collected from that and put that into better transit infrastructure. To L.A.’s credit, the city is building quite a lot of transit. You could argue it’s too little, too late, but they’re extending the Purple Line out further into West L.A. They’re gonna have a rail station to LAX. There’s the Sepulveda pass project, which is very important to me as a UCLA student employee.
So they’re doing incremental things that are positive. Putting congestion pricing funds into these higher quality transit services that are more reliable and frequent will be key. The bicycle infrastructure is also pretty low-hanging fruit. So a mixed blessing of Los Angeles building itself around the car is that the streets are already quite wide. There’s a lot of capacity, and you could easily add protective bike lanes to most boulevards in Los Angeles and not have to take away too much space from cars and immediately make these places much more navigable. I always say, “Los Angeles has got problems, but I think it’s probably the most fixable city in America.”
The housing element is definitely difficult, because there’s a lot of entrenched buy-in for the status quo, which is very exclusionary and makes it very, very hard to build. I would say, again, in the near future, scrapping zoning is going to be a little easier in other cities. In L.A., I think that would be complicated. What you can do in the near term is say: Let’s come up with a simple workable set of rules for what we want our city to look like, and if a project is compliant with those rules, we’re not going to have a big rigmarole for them to get their permits.
It would be like a density override or something like that.
Yes. I talk to a lot of people in L.A., and they will point to a street like Pico Boulevard, and say, it would be really nice if this was four or five stories of apartments over shops, with some street trees, a proper boulevard, with bus and bike lanes. I’m surprised by how often I hear people in L.A. say, yeah, we would love that. Or write clear rules that allow for small apartment buildings citywide, and the opposition I think goes away a lot quicker than you would think.
They’ll have a new mayor, and that will certainly impact things. I have no idea who’s going to win that election. As an urbanist, a Mayor Caruso would trouble me, but I don’t live there and I might be wrong.
Caruso and Bass are in the runoff. It does seem like the election is turning on homelessness right now. That’s a huge quality-of-life issue. You immediately notice it in Los Angeles. I’ve seen some plans for dealing with homelessness that sound good, if you treat it in isolation. But something that I find really distressing is that both candidates have plans, but they don’t want to have broader housing plans. And as long as a market-rate apartment is more expensive than the average person can afford, you’re always going to have a pipeline of people getting pushed into homelessness. And no matter how well you manage it, if housing is not affordable, you’re not going to sustainably solve this problem.
Featured image via The Century Foundation.