Topic 19.1: Planning and Zoning

Learning Objective

After successfully completing this topic, you will be able to explain the purpose of land-use controls and the role of zoning ordinances.

Savannah, GA is an example of good city planning.

City Planning

In the early years of the United States, the most important economic engine was agriculture. Larger cities in the U.S. were generally well-planned until the 1800’s. Washington, D.C. and Savannah, GA are prime examples of well-planned cities.

The United States remained agrarian in nature with its principal semi-industrial activity being  limited to gristmills and sawmills. Later, railroads became important to economic growth due to the separation of the population in such a large territory. Entrepreneurs competed and learned from each other to develop better technology. Cities with rivers and canals and railroads became industrial centers that attracted young people from agricultural areas.

Philosophy of Laissez Faire      

Industrial leaders felt that government should stand aside and let business decide how cities should grow. Laissez-Faire (French for “let alone”) is a libertarian view; the government philosophy of non‑interference in private business affairs.

Industrialization and urbanization
Construction of the Equitable Building in New York brought about zoning laws.

In the 1800s, cities grew without much regulation, and the cities became difficult to live in. At the beginning of the 20th century, the development of elevators resulted in the construction of high-rise buildings that impacted air and light from surrounding buildings.

The last straw occurred when the Equitable Building was completed in 1915 in the Manhattan Financial District. The building was controversial because of its lack of setbacks, which in turn does not allow sunlight to reach the surrounding ground. The real estate industry finally accepted new legislation, and the 1916 Zoning Resolution was passed. The legislation limited the height and required setbacks for new buildings to allow the penetration of sunlight to street level.

Protecting residential property

New York continued to apply zoning laws which were tested and upheld by the Supreme Court. The court ruled that proper regulations could protect residential properties. The zoning concept quickly spread to other cities around the country. Urban planning began to be recognized as a profession.

Planning Goals

City planners work to

  • Save tax money by preventing sprawl. Sprawl comes about with leapfrog development further and further from the city center, requiring large infrastructure expenditures in roads and utilities.  
  • Provide adequate services such as sewer, water, schools, and utilities. 
  • Provide for road rights-of-way and street setbacks. A set-back keeps buildings back from streets providing better sight distances and giving light and air to the surrounding area. Some planners suggest giving builders extra height in the building in return for the builders of high-rises setting the building back on the lot. This makes the city street less like a canyon, and may result in small parks in front of buildings.
  • Protect against costly drainage, flooding or environmental problems.
  • Reduce problems in siting landfills, sewage treatment plants, and prisons. Everyone agrees that these facilities are needed, but it’s difficult to find an area of the city where the citizens will accept them. “NIMBY” is an acronym for “Not-in-my-back-yard,” and is evident from city council meetings when unattractive facilities are to be in an area.

Optional Video: How to Make an Attractive City