The Progressiveness of ‘As of Right’ Zoning

As I have written on here many times in the last few weeks the government only has itself to blame in terms of importance and mistrust for creating a climate of opposition to the planning white paper.

Chief amongst the complaint is that the reforms are ‘anti democratic’ in reducing the chances to ‘object’ to a proposal from two to one.

The irony is that most progressive opinion in the world is that ‘existing’ zoning systems give too much of an opportunity to resist densification through site specific objection and this is excluding groups in terms of race and income.

This illustrates a number of fundmanetal misinderstandings of what zoning is and is not.

  1. Zoning is not Planning Control

The first modern planning controls – such as in Prussia, were controls over street alignments, subdivision, build to lines and infrastructure. Zoning – in terms of control over land use, came later, especially in America. You can see this most clearly in Houston, which has detailed planning controls but no zoning.

2. Zoning was introduced to protect residential areas from 19C industry, but became in many areas a tool of racial and social exclusion.

The spread of zoning across US cities was driven by a desire to zone out black people. When this was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court many cities just made minor rewrites to zoning codes so that for example ‘R1’ areas that previously excluded blacks now became ‘R1’ areas that only allowed large single family units and so excluded black people socio-economically. This is very well documented. This is the kind of zoning Donald Trump now want s to retain in a blatant dog-whistle.

3. Zoning does not mean complete loss of opportunity for site level consent

In any zoning system there will be applications for zoning variances. permission for things not permitted by code – that is for spot zoning’. Many sophisticated zoning codes require design review in sensitive areas, which typically also require public consultation. The issue is to what extent certain features of the zoning codes are ‘as of right’ that is automatically granted by the zoning code. There is widespread agreement that once a land use if fixed in a plan then there should not be the opportunity for a ‘second crack of the whip’ to object again at development management type stages. This leads to huge uncertainty for investors and just fuels Nimbyism. Lets give an example of an area zones for 4 story apartments where because of opposition a developer proposes 1/4 of the number of units as single family dwellings leading to dozens of people being excluded from the neighborhood. We see it often in England where sites in local plans are still refused by planning committees. This is indefensible. This is why calls for progressive zoning reform, covered below, often call for extensions of ‘as of right’ zoning. This is why I find staggering, and in reality rather ignorant, for so called ‘progressives’ to oppose ‘as of right’ zoning as undemocratic. They are reinforcing the racist nimby-ism and social exclusionary forces that are preventing the building of affordable housing. Im looking at you RTPI, TCPA, IoH, RIBA, why hold the same views as Trump. Your BMT advisory boards should be up in arms. Look beyond the ends of your noses of UK politics and find out what your equivalent professional bodies in other countries think about ‘as of right’

4. Recent Years Have seen Movements for Progressive Zoning Reform

Zoning reform has occurred most positively in Germany and the US. Germany led the way with a shift towards design control. As heavy industry faded the justification for zoning shifted. This followed in america with the work of CNU and people like Andreas Duany and Elibeth Plater Zyberk and the birth of design codes, which morphed into the form based zoning movement and the ending of single family zoning in updated form based codes in many cities such as Minneapolis.

5. Zoning, and Land Pooling, Helps Enormously in Land Value Capture

One of the reason social infrastructure and affordable housing get squeezed is its discretionary nature and lack of clear rules which fix land value.

Zoning itself just porovides a framework for this. It requires a level of control below this called subdivision control to make this work. This can be pared as in Japan and Germany with land pooling powers forcing the polling for land holdings in newly zoned areas. This allows for the subtraction at existing land value land for roads, parks, schools and affordable housing – which is known as exaction.