A Brief History of Zoning in America—and Why We Need a More Flexible Approach

"As Seymour Toll explained in his 1969 book Zoned America, zoning ordinances were the brainchild of a handful of early 20th century New York businessmen whose high-fashion shops had recently displaced mansions along the middle section of Fifth Avenue. By 1916, they were at risk of being similarly crowded out by their own suppliers—garment manufacturers whose numerous employees ruined the exclusive Fifth Avenue shopping experience. The city’s zoning code that went into effect that year proved capable of slowing the rotation of uses and classes—and was immediately copied by cities around the U.S.

Since such far-reaching land use regulation was not, however, a traditional power of local government, questions arose in state and federal courts. State courts permitted most zoning, but the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on the matter. Questions abounded: How far could localities go? To clarify their newfound powers, several states passed “zoning enabling acts,” which explicitly gave broad regulatory powers to their municipalities."