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The Rush to Zone

The 1920s saw zoning ordinances appear across the nation with remarkable speed. The causes are not difficult to see. The legal precedents had been or were being established, and a very complex but legally defensible zoning ordinance enacted in New York City in 1916 gave some notion of what might be done. Automobile ownership was climbing at roughly 2 million vehicles per year. Within built-up areas, congestion, particularly in commercial districts, was mounting. Beyond that, widespread automobile ownership was promoting a vast wave of suburbanization. One way to control congestion in commercial areas and prevent the invasion of residential areas by commercial development was through zoning. To many communities, both in older areas and on the suburbanizing fringe, the power to zone appeared to be the best way to protect what was desirable in the status quo against the vagaries of rapid economic and social change. Perhaps a single-family neighborhood was threatened with invasion by filling stations, used car lots, and hamburger stands. Zoning it so that only single-family houses could be built seemed like an effective and costless way to protect it from the undesirable side effects of progress.

Then, as now, zoning was not only a tool of planning and a technique for shaping the future, but also a device for the defense of an existing order. And though no court would accept this as a legitimate purpose of zoning, the act of zoning might raise property values. Zone a pasture on the edge of town for manufacturing, and dreams of a prosperous retirement would glimmer in the eyes of the farmer who owned it. In fact, overzoning for commerce and industry was one of the hallmarks of the early age of zoning. For—aside from the pleas of expectant property owners—what municipality did not need more jobs and more tax dollars?

As we shall see, most planners regard zoning as only one aspect of planning and, in particular, as only one tool for implementing the master plan. In the early 1920s zoning often preceded planning and, in the minds of many, became almost synonymous with planning (a confusion that is much less common but not unheard of today). That view is not terribly surprising. A new technique with apparently substantial power to alter events had appeared on the scene, and it would take a while before its limits and its potential for abuse would become evident.

In 1921 it was estimated that there were 48 municipalities, with a combined population of 11 million, which had zoning. By 1923 the figures had risen to 218 municipalities and 22 million people.13 The move toward zoning was further accelerated in 1924 when the U.S. Department of Commerce, headed by Herbert Hoover, came out with a model state zoning enabling act. Drafted by Edward M. Bassett, the attorney who had drawn up New York City's zoning ordinance a few years earlier, the Standard Enabling Act encouraged many states to adopt their own enabling acts. These acts, which specifically authorized local zoning laws, encouraged many more municipalities to enact zoning laws because the acts reassured them that their new laws would be able to withstand court challenge.

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