New York – The Classic Example of Why Zoning Alone is Not Planning

Three things you can do with NYC's new zoning and land use map - Curbed NY

A comment on Twitter yesterday on a planning White Paper seminar – by ASI maybe – Zoning is not a panacea – 75 percent of New York developments being contrary to code.

I agree as a big, and early, advocate of zoning. But its important to understand why.

New York has a zoning code but never had a comprehensive plan – as we would understand it today. It has been updated piece by piece and has become so complicated and bound by involvement of the courts some say it will never be properly reformed and replaced. Just look at the crazy patchwork quilt of its zoning map where zoning varies not by zoning district but often by building. Though the successful replacement of outdated codes by places such as Miami and Minneapolis shows it can be done.

Development contrary to zoning is known as spot zoning – or an exemption. In New York you pay a 100k fee and go through a seven month review process. A process that as a result favours big developers. So New York has evolved into a UK like discretionary system by default. It is not planning by zoning, it is regulation by discretion.

A fair and modern zoning code would see the large majority of development allowed ‘by right’ with only a small majority of cases allowed as exemptions. A fair system would make spot zoning difficult but would be equally open to small developers, small businesses and householders.

If you have zoning without planning you get an inevitable reversion to a discretionary system. This is also why the time it takes for revision of zoning as planning codes is not a good test of the time it takes to prepare a proper zoning plan. It is not just creating elegant simplicity but disentangling a Gordian knot of complexity.

This is also where the Planning White Paper doesn’t get it. Zoning Plans are not just sets of standards. They are plans with a clear strategy of policies. This is the only way to ensure plans are fair and guided by principles (such as zero carbon). Without that strategy they are just wall to wall spot zones likely simply to reflect who lobbied hardest at call for sites stages and without a framework to test their soundness in whatever form. Without an explicate framework of strategy and policy zoning maps and standards simply include hidden assumptions and reflect the prejudices and power of those that drew them up. The classic example being how in the early 20th century zoning was used to subvert a supreme court ruling banning racially exclusionary zoning by setting zones and standards that achieved segregationist objectives through economic means.

Note since writing this piece I discovered Tom Agnotti had first used the term in 2009 (link above)

One thought on “New York – The Classic Example of Why Zoning Alone is Not Planning

  1. Andrew
    You have identified the fundamental flaw of the Government’s proposals – a zoning plan on its own like a plan which is just seen as a series of development management policies – is not a plan, but a document without a vision and strategy that is specific to the place.

    Yes, plans could provide more site allocations, but ultimately it must a place-specific strategy based on a locally-agreed vision. Hand-me-down, generic development management policies is not the way to encourage the delivery of places that their communities will have to live with. Planning is about curating places for the benefit of their communities.

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