M. Nolan Gray, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It (2022)
An extremely online city planner makes the case against an institution wrongly assumed to be necessary
We all assume that zoning is good, but it's actually bad. Before I go any further, perhaps that we needs clarification. It certainly doesn't include me, nor does it include most of the urbanists now out there writing about cities in books, in publications, and on social media. In that particular sphere, we know full well that zoning is bad, and at all times stand ready to declare as much with the zeal of the recent convert. For, in more than a few cases, we really are recent converts, having only turned anti-zoning after approaching the technical aspects of cities through some more immediately interesting topic like architecture, infrastructure, or transit. For many in my own generation, raised in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, our fascination with cities and our misconceptions about zoning were instilled by the same experience: that of "a little game called SimCity."
Colin Marshall's Books on Cities is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
So writes M. Nolan Gray, opening the first chapter of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. "Throughout the game, zoning is the essential power in the player’s arsenal, granting them the ability to plop residential subdivisions here or industrial parks there, all while keeping incompatible uses separate," he explains. "Pursuant to a grand, long-term vision, they can coordinate density to reflect the available infrastructure, keeping the city running like a well-oiled machine." As I recall (at least from my edition of the game, 1993's SimCity 2000), you have to designate separate residential, commercial, and industrial zones before you can do anything else. (At least if you didn't follow my strategy of first using the terrain editor to raise a giant water-covered mountain to cover with hydroelectric power plants later.)
This aspect of SimCity's design perpetuated a conception of zoning as fundamental to city-building, but it also reflected beliefs widely held for decades. Despite the increasing complexity and obscurity of its mechanics, zoning as a concept has been strangely well-known to the past few generations of the general American public, if not especially well understood by them. "My sense is that most people think that zoning and city planning are synonymous," Gray writes. "Among the more informed lot, there might even be some vague sense that zoning is a catchall for how cities regulate land." Imagining a city without zoning, their minds conjure terrible visions of chaotic Mad Max wastelands where leather-clad marauders do battle for gasoline amid industrial slagheaps — or, more often, of city dumps at the edges of backyards and rendering plants grinding noisomely away next to nursery schools.
I've never been to Houston, but nor have I ever been privy to a conversation about Houston that failed to mention its lack of zoning. That "great unzoned city" provides Gray with an unignorable case study, if a somewhat ambiguous one. As clearly announced by its subtitle (and indeed its title), his book doesn't just recount the history of zoning but makes the case against it. It would be a boon to that case if Houston were more admired by urbanists than it is, but in a chapter dedicated to that city Gray does make a reasonably valiant effort to appreciate it. "When the zoned American lands in Houston, they are liable to promptly be struck by parking lots reinventing themselves as apartment buildings with ground-floor retail, by entire neighborhoods of postwar subdivisions transforming into dense new townhouse districts, by old strip malls being reimagined as new satellite business districts."
In a normally zoned American city, "any one of these developments would a major ordeal, the subject of endless permitting and raucous public hearings — in unzoned Houston, it just happens." This unhampered building enables a certain briskness of growth, and thus an absorption of new arrivals in relatively great numbers; that, in turn, has allowed Houston to become "our nation’s most diverse city, with dishes like smoked brisket banh mi and Cajun tacos to show for it." This particular endorsement, convincing in its way yet at the same almost comically trivial, reminds me of some of the weaker arguments I myself have made in defense of Los Angeles: whatever the shortcomings of its urban form and infrastructure, it does at least offer a wide variety of immigrant cuisines — some entirely unavailable in other major metropolises — as well as seemingly infinite permutations thereof.
Consumables like smoked brisket banh mi and Cajun tacos tend to appear in libertarian arguments about urban policy, zoning-related and otherwise. Without zoning, you get more development; with more development, you get more people; with more people, you get more business; with more business, you get more of The Good Things in Life. Like many libertarian arguments, this is neither neither wrong nor especially interesting. But Gray also sets himself the task of working the other side of the aisle, appealing to broad left-liberal concerns. "Other than wisely bypassing zoning, Houston planners until recently made nearly every twentieth-century planning mistake in the book," he acknowledges, "building out a city that — while laudably affordable and accessible — was in many respects inequitable and unsustainable." Elsewhere he frames zoning and the outsized resource consumption it encourages (or even mandates) as a "slow-motion environmental disaster."
On the surface, zoning codes simply dictate how land in a city can be used, though their ultimate effects have been many, varied, and almost entirely undesirable. First implemented in New York City in 1916 — and there responsible, as explained in Rem Koolhaas' Delirious New York, for the distinctive stretched-ziggurat shape of the classic Manhattan skyscraper — they were adopted by almost all local governments in the United States by the 1970s. In most major American cities today, Gray writes, "zoning restricts roughly three-quarters of the city to low-slung single-family housing, banning apartments altogether." Even the least economically literate among us can imagine what happens when the consequently severe restriction in the supply of housing intersects with high demand to live in major cities — not that they have to, given the vivid coverage of ongoing "housing crises" in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere.
"Zoning is not a good institution gone bad," Gray argues. "Its purpose is not to address traditional externalities or coordinate growth with infrastructure, as suggested by zoning defenders and envisioned in the sanitized SimCity version of city planning. On the contrary, zoning is a mechanism of exclusion designed to inflate property values, slow the pace of new development, segregate cities by race and class, and enshrine the detached single-family house as the exclusive urban ideal." The role of the detached single-family house in all this merits special emphasis, which Gray gives. In his telling the trouble began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, when "a mixture of rapid inflation and generous federal tax policies heavily incentivized the treatment of a home as an investment." Zoning guaranteed the value of that investment, albeit by draining the surrounding or nearby (or, increasingly, distant) city of its vitality.
Unsurprisingly, American homeowners tend to push for tighter zoning, and in keeping with that country’s robust tradition of disguising economic interests as cultural ones, they often insist that they just want to maintain their "way of life." As for Houstonian homeowners, they have at their disposal something called "deed restrictions," which "empower certain communities — principally middle- and upper-class homeowners — to effectively 'opt out' of non-zoning, writing their own land-use rules for their own neighborhoods. In exchange, this compromise leaves would-be NIMBYs with little say over what happens in the rest of the city." In other American cities, it feels as if the NIMBYs run the show. This holds especially true in California, where opposition has lately arisen in the form of organizations like California YIMBY, for which Gray himself works as Research Director.
The YIMBY cause has gained much traction online in recent years, as have other small acronymic movements like New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens (NUMTOT), a Facebook group whose young (if not literally teenaged), extremely online members labor to generate wider enthusiasm for well-executed urban design and public transportation. "For many in my generation, hating on sprawl was a kind of gateway drug into thinking about cities," writes Gray, a Millennial whose seems pretty online himself. "For a coming-of-age teenager, the seemingly endless series of near-identical strip malls and tract homes that make up suburbia can be an alienating and ugly place." He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, which at least marked an improvement on his mother's hometown, where "it would take a 26-mile car ride among the sigogglin country roads of Appalachia to get from her home at the head of a holler to the nearest full-service supermarket."
I had to look up both sigogglin and holler, and I'm glad I did. Gray's references to his Kentucky origins, which he also makes with some frequency on the internet, contribute to Arbitrary Lines' having more personality than the average academic-written urban-policy treatise. Gray happens to be an academic at the moment, anyway: the book's about-the-author page describes him as currently "completing a PhD in urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles," but his Twitter bio calls him "the once and future city planner." This suggests an intent to return to the trenches of government, in which he previously slogged at the New York City Department of City Planning. Then again, slogged may not be word: he remembers coming to love even working the zoning help desk, with its calls from citizens distressed, bewildered, and often completely ignorant of what zoning was.
It was while employed there, Gray writes in the acknowledgments, that he drew the attention of one of my favorite living public intellectuals, Tyler Cowen. An economist at George Mason University, Cowen is also the co-founder of Marginal Revolution (a blog I've been reading for nearly twenty years, and in fact, now the only one I regularly visit) and was twice my interviewee on The Marketplace of Ideas. His other enterprises include Emergent Ventures, a program that gives out grants and fellowships to applicants working on "moon-shot ideas" that "advance prosperity, opportunity, liberty, and well-being." Gray sent in a proposal "to spend 2020 cranking out blog posts and writing research papers" and perhaps put together "a peculiar little book critiquing an obscure area of policy"; before long, he was settling into a six-month fellowship with the "Urbanity division" at GMU's Mercatus Center, which Cowen directs.
I myself applied for an Emergent Ventures grant back in 2020, without success. My idea was to develop the concept of city criticism, which I outlined in a Guardian piece the previous fall. I grant that it could have seemed frivolous in the early months of COVID-19, a pandemic that inspired many of the proposals receiving Emergent Ventures grants at the time. But I do note that Gray is something of a city critic himself, especially on Twitter, where he cheers and jeers aspects of cities both real and imagined. In Arbitrary Lines, too, he writes without much academic jargon, and with a refreshingly undisguised and straightforward contempt for his subject. The book is less an assessment of zoning's costs and benefits than a manifesto calling for its abolition, not least as a source of “malaise” in urban planing itself.
These days online, of course, you see the abolition of a dozen different things called for each morning before breakfast. Understanding that a total repeal of zoning codes may be too a much of a moon shot even by Emergent Ventures' standards, Gray recommends four specific reforms: "ending single-family zoning, abolishing minimum parking requirements, eliminating or lowering minimum floor area and minimum lot size requirements, and decriminalizing inherently affordable housing typologies" (apartment buildings, for example). Such changes shouldn't make all American cities more like Houston, but more like Tokyo, which also gets its own section in the book — or rather, the Japanese city in general does. Japan zones its cities, but "in even the most restrictive Japanese residential zoning districts, apartments and single-family homes alike are allowed as-of-right, as are small corner stores and certain professional offices."
Each and every part of Tokyo, one of the largest and most densely connected cities in the world, thus feels like its own small town. (I could say almost the same thing here in Seoul, though I admit that I've never looked into its zoning code.) Gray ascribes this outcome to Japan's liberal zoning being implemented on the national level, which constitutes a practically impassable obstacle to most special interests, homeowners or otherwise. (Relevant here is the fact, often brought up in the West as just another Japanese oddity, that houses there have practically no sale value apart from the land on which they're built.) This "calls into question an article of faith central to US zoning: local control," though the American experience shows that "unlimited local control is far more likely to generate local problems — unaffordability, stagnation, segregation, and sprawl — than it is to generate local solutions."
As an avowed partisan of Japanese urbanism (which has also become the fashion, I gather, among the NIMBYs, the NUMTOTs, and so on), I've been known to suggest that American cities could do worse than simply adopt Japan's urban-development policies wholesale. But of course there would be nothing simple about it, and even the wide passage of Gray's four reforms will no doubt turn out to be the work of decades. Yet in 2019 even Minneapolis, nobody's idea of the next Tokyo, became the first city to repeal single-family zoning amid its own housing crunch. Naturally, the immediate responses held that "Minneapolis planners 'banned' single-family zoning, with the implication being that single-family houses were no longer allowed," or even that "the zoning change would mean the imminent demolition of entire neighborhoods." Those who would clear up such elementary misconceptions have their work cut out for them.
Gray himself is engaged in that work even now, and enthusiastically so. The American city — against the quality of whose built environment a host of forces have militated at least since the Second World War, or indeed since the spread of zoning in the twenties — will surely benefit from his efforts and the efforts of those he inspires. (In the latter case, I wonder if his social-media presence won't have more of an impact than Arbitrary Lines and whatever books follow.) What truly remains to be seen is to what extent larger failures of imagination about what cities can become, as well as how and why to let that transformation take place, will admit of correction. The American dream that a genuine city can be constructed mostly out of detached single-family houses is obviously incoherent, but it's the nonsensical dreams that die hardest.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His current projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.
Colin Marshall's Books on Cities is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.