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Zoning at 85: Do we still need it?
Myths 5: Houston & Series Conclusion

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court case Euclid v Ambler Realty, which upheld the basic constitutionality of local zoning. Given the current debate between liberals and conservatives about the appropriate role of regulation in shaping our economy and our communities, it seems timely to ask the question: do we still need zoning?

MYTH #5 — Houston, Texas proves that zoning is unnecessary

Fact: It is true that Houston is a different kind of city: brash, booming.  Like most cities, it has sprawl and air pollution, but it also has vibrancy and a can do spirit. What really makes Houston unique; however is that it is the only large American city without a zoning code. Some people view the absence of zoning as quirky, if not downright dangerous.  Others say, Houston's economic success proves that cities don't need zoning.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. Houston does have a strong economy and low priced housing, but housing is even cheaper in San Antonio and Fort Worth, both cities with zoning and despite Houston's boomtown reputation, Austin – another Texas city with strong zoning- has grown faster and has a lower unemployment rate: 6.6% versus 8.2%. Houston's economic success, undoubtedly, has more to do with the presence of the oil industry than it does with lack of zoning.  What's more Houston does have an active planning department and developers have compensated for the lack of government regulations by widely employing private covenants and deed restrictions which serve a comparable role to zoning.  While libertarians would have you believe that zoning results in fewer freedoms, in fact many residential neighborhoods, particularly in suburban Houston are strictly controlled by homeowners associations.

In contrast to outlying areas, central Houston does have its share of land use anomalies (some might say intrusions). Here it is possible to see strip clubs, warehouses, bars, churches and houses all along the same street. What's more, if someone wants to run a marble grinding business out of their house (a real case) there is little the next door neighbor can do. This is of course one of the reasons that no other American city has chosen to follow Houston's lead.


Zoning's original supporters included both liberals and conservatives who shared a belief in the power of land use planning to improve people's lives and to protect property values.  It was former President Herbert Hoover, who as US Secretary of Commerce chaired the commission which drafted the first model zoning enabling act.  As Hoover said in a forward to the act "the discovery that it is practical by city zoning to carry out reasonably neighborly agreements as to the use of land has an almost instant appeal to the American people."

Zoning in urban neighborhoods is not merely a tool for protecting the market value of individual properties, but it is also device for protecting resident's interest in the "neighborhood commons".  In other words, zoning protects a neighborhood from encroachments by land uses that are inconsistent with its character, regardless of the positive or negative effects of a proposed development on the market value of individual properties.

Neighborhoods and communities are not just made up of individual parcels, but include collective resources that comprise a community's commons. The commons is often made up of intangible qualities such as neighborhood ambiance, aesthetics, the physical environment and the relative degree of privacy or neighborliness.  These features together make up the character of a neighborhood.  They are what give a neighborhood a distinctive flavor and feel.  A buyer of a residential property in a neighborhood buys not only a particular parcel of real estate, but also a share in the commons.

Not all uses belong in all neighborhoods. For example, a hot new restaurant and bar might be a welcome addition in a trendy urban neighborhood, but it might be considered a nuisance in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  The point is negative externalities (like noise, traffic, crowds) are contextual.  A land use that would have severe negative externalities in one neighborhood may be considered an amenity in another.

Zoning is aimed at preventing, or at least limiting, precisely those changes in the use of property that are disruptive of neighborhood character because they are inconsistent with current uses of the neighborhood commons.  These changes can include density as well as shifts from residential to commercial or industrial uses. 

Not all neighborhoods are alike, nor should they be.  The whole point of zoning is to allow people to live in the kind of neighborhood they want.  In a community without zoning, a developer is free to ignore the neighborhood commons.  On the other hand, in a community with zoning the developer must "buy" the support of the neighborhood through concessions.  Zoning allows developments to proceed as long as they are consistent with the current uses of the neighborhood commons or in a way that the neighborhood has agreed  in advance (through the political process) to allow.

Perhaps the most important reason that zoning has persisted despite its imperfections is because it gives citizens a voice in local government.  Without zoning, citizens would have no voice when an out-of-town corporation or insensitive landowner decides to run roughshod over local values and traditions.  Zoning also makes land use decisions more public. This is important because the more a community understands how decisions are made, the better future decisions will be.

Zoning is really about balance.  At its best, zoning can help strike the elusive balance between quality of life and economic vitality.

© 2011 Urban Land Institute.

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Part I: Zoning at 85: Do we still need it?

Part II - Myths 1 and 2: (1) Zoning is un-American and (2) Small towns and rural areas don't need to control uses of land.

Part III - Myths 3 and 4: (3) Land use controls will reduce property values and increase taxes and (4) Land use planning is a bad idea.