The End of Zoning

The sustainble thing is to unlearn what we know about land use.


A video about a Volkswagen factory in Dresden highlights the problems with the way we legislate land use in the Northwest. The factory is right in the downtown of a major German city—precisely the opposite of everything we know about industrial zoning. But it works.

As long as cars are still being made, this is a great way to do it.

But what about freight mobility for the factory? Won’t trucks get stuck in traffic while they are delivering parts and product in and out of the plant? The answer is “no” because a cargo tram that shares rails with the city’s transit system gets the parts in to the factory thereby avoiding street congestion. It’s a good example of thinking creatively about freight movement instead of spending billions on new tunnels and bridges.

Technology and science-informed policy changes have changed the very nature of industrial manufacturing: today it can be clean, quiet, and sustainable. Yet our zoning regulations are so stale that I’m tempted to run them through the shredder.
The End of Zoning Free Photo From Morgue File
The principle of zoning—literally creating a zone for one kind of use that excludes all other use—is based on a legal decision called Euclid v. Amber Realty. It’s called the Euclid decision and most zoning in our region today is Euclidian zoning. The problem with the Euclidian principle is that it runs counter to what we know about sustainable land use—density pays. Euclidian zoning isn’t necessarily anti-density, but it makes the mixed up uses that make density work harder to achieve. Putting uses together is beneficial in numerous ways, including aggregating demand for transit, saving energy, and reducing sprawl and infrastructure costs.

The problem for mixed-use development in Northwest cities (as in most places in North America) is that is has to swim against the tide of Euclidean zoning. The Euclid decision set the stage for dividing uses when it suggests that

segregation of residential, business and industrial buildings will . . . increase the safety and security of home life, greatly tend to prevent street accidents, especially to children, by reducing the traffic and resulting confusion in residential sections, decrease noise and other conditions which produce or intensify nervous disorders, preserve a more favorable environment in which to rear children, etc.

In fact, just the opposite seems to have happened. Segregated zoning resulted in sprawl, long car-bound commutes, traffic congestion, increased collision fatalities, and perhaps even weakened social ties.

Maybe we should start over. One opportunity to rethink our zoning codes is in the powerful tool of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). I’ll argue that TIF done right will mean “blowing up the code,” requiring that, in exchange for the TIF tool, local governments radically rethink their zoning philosophies (which others far better versed in the topic than myself have suggested). The Volkswagen factory in Dresden is a good example of what the future can hold if we’re willing to think outside the Euclidean box.

Photo credit: Tferr from

Thanks to Rob Harrison for sharing the Volkswagen video.

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  1. Jan Steinman says:

    Here in BC, zoning is an anathema to sustainable land use.We live in the Agricultural Land Reserve, an area that has been thoughtfully set aside for agricultural use. But wait—within that zone, we cannot process agricultural products unless 51% of the ingredients come from our property!We would like to build a community fruit and vegetable processing centre here, one that would allow farmers in our valley to collaboratively produce value-added products, as opposed to having to deal with all their ag products at time-of-harvest. But no—our “agricultural” zoning won’t allow it!But there’s more. The Capital Regional District is trying to reduce landfill usage, and is banning food waste from landfills. There is money available to do community composting of food waste—but composting for other than one farm’s use is not allowed on agricultural land! So you cannot legally put a composting centre right where the compost is most needed. Sheesh.The good news is that as energy declines, so will bureaucratic complexity, if you believe Howard and Elizabeth Odum. I can’t wait for that to happen!

  2. Mike OapostropheBrien says:

    Euclid was an early example of judicial activism, the supreme court stretching to come up with a rational for separating land uses when there was no such authority in the federal constitution or in the definition of police powers. Zoning proponents argued rhetorically that zoning would protect property values, without producing any evidence of actual examples. In my view, upper class white people of the 1920s liked zoning as a new way of legitimizing social barriers—for example setting a minimum lot size for a house so only affluent people could afford to buy into a zoning district.Many of us in the Northwest like to visit livable and delightful European cities like Florence Italy where the standard houses have shops or factories at street level with living quarters upstairs, quite a logical and economical design for both the commercial and residential uses—exactly the kind of mixed use that most zoning forbids.Portland’s planners have modified zoning in some districts to provide more flexible development options while trying to anticipate and avoid negative impacts. It’s just a cumbersome silk purse type of process that can make development complex, more expensive and frustrating.

  3. Virginia Bruce says:

    How about somehow rewarding companies for the percentage of their workers who live near the workplace? And rewarding employees for living closer. This would not only cut down on travel but also help build communities.

  4. Levin Nock says:

    Attractive American downtown areas of 100 years ago were built with form-based zoning codes. This defines some basic parameters about how buildings should look, without regulating what the occupants must do inside each building. To create walkable mixed-use areas, this works a lot better than Euclidean use-based zoning, where people’s daily activities are regulated in each location, and separated by large distances. Even better than use-based or form-based, is performance-based zoning. For instance, in an existing residential neighborhood, each property should perform in a certain way, such as no loud noise between 11pm and 6am, no noxious air pollution, no daily truck traffic at 5am, etc. Some details probably vary by neighborhood. A performance-based code can help existing neighborhoods become more walkable/bikeable, by permitting diverse destinations such as childcare, offices, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. near homes. There is a Walgreens in Seattle with multiple floors of affordable housing on top. There are countless shopping centers across America that would be perfect locations for housing, either above the stores (as was common 100 years ago), or in the seldom-used corners of the parking lots. Wal-Mart encourages RV’s to park in their parking lots, but when will they build affordable housing for employees above their stores? On a similar note, there are countless residential suburbs where nobody ever walks, because there are no interesting destinations within walking distance.

  5. civiletti says:

    The Euclid decision was justified at the time. Industry was mostly very loud, very dirty, and very toxic. Traffic science was crude. Progress has made mixed use compatible with high quality of life, so Euclid is pass̩ Рas long as effective regulation remains on the books and is enforced.

  6. Levin Nock says:

    I agree with Civiletti. When the loudest, dirtiest, most dangerous part of the workday was the factory, then Euclid made sense. Today, however, the loudest, dirtiest, most dangerous part of most peoples’ workdays is the highway between their quiet, clean, safe home and their (distant) quiet, clean, safe workplace.

  7. Bill Bradburd says:

    Our single use zones in Seattle – in particular Single Family and Multifamily zones – are problematic in that they prevent the possibility of small businesses locating within zones that cover 70%+ of the city.We should consider allowing ‘gentle’ small businesses in our neighborhoods (restaurants, food preparation and distribution such as a bakery or prepared foods, professionals such as doctors, architects or accountants, light production and assembly, software development, clothing outlets e.g. kids wear, etc). This would not only support the creation of local businesses but would encourage more direct engagement with our neighbors and our community. Of course uses would have to be neighborhood approved, but that would maybe allow the auto repair in some places and not in others.Small businesses today with employees however are required to pay to commercial property owners substantial rents, making small business a difficult endeavor with the barrier to entry being the space to set up shop. A healthy “Walkscore” would not be measured by the distance to the nearest commercial strip as it is today, but instead by the diversity and ‘completeness’ of the community, its residents and what they have to offer locally to their neighbors.

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