Impact of Zoning on American Cities

Zoning was a tool to separate unwanted industrial uses from residential and commercial uses.  However, the impact of zoning has been far greater. It has created racial divide and economic segregation in cities.

Impact of Zoning as a tool

New York City pioneered the nation’s first zoning regulation in 1916 to segregate polluting industrial uses from impacting the quality of life in residential and commercial areas of the city.  It was a noble idea and a disruptive idea when compared to the intermingling of uses evident in traditional cities of Europe and other parts of the world.  Over the years, zoning has evolved into a complex set of rules and regulations that touch on every aspect of city life. 

Racial divide and economic segregation

A recent research report on the city of West Hartford in Connecticut tells a compelling story.  West Hartford is mostly white, while the neighboring suburb of Bloomfield is largely Black.  The report tells the story of racism and segregation in these neighborhoods which is typical of American suburbs elsewhere.  “This is the story, recorded by local historians, of two neighboring Hartford suburbs and how they came, throughout the 20th century, to represent the racial segregation persistent in Connecticut and across the nation.”[i]

West Hartford’s Zoning Regulation

West Hartford was the first Connecticut town to enact zoning regulations in 1924.  It divided residential areas by home size to functionally segregate citizens by socioeconomic class.  Since Black residents could not afford single-family homes in the area, they were less likely to be able to move to West Hartford, which assured that West Hartford would remain essentially a white suburb.

Redlining the Racial Divide

The practice of “redlining” became prevalent in the 1930s to protect the lenders from investing in “undesirable” neighborhoods characterized by inharmonious nationality or racial groups – meaning new immigrants or Blacks.  The Homeowners’ Loan Corporation offered color-coded recommendations on which areas were safe for banks to lend in. The most “desirable” neighborhoods were shaded green, while less-appealing areas were labeled blue, yellow or red. 

Block Busting

The report describes the practice of “block-busting” where real estate agents would sell a home to a Black resident in a white neighborhood, and then use the arrival of Black neighbors to scare other white residents into selling their homes at a bargain rate.  The real estate agents would then sell those same homes to Black buyers willing to pay top dollars for a chance to own a home. 

The Impact of Zoning on City Life

The reason people flock to traditional cities of Europe is because of their charm, complexity, and mixed use.  There is something wonderful when people of all backgrounds can eat, work, relax, live and entertain themselves in the same area without travelling to different parts of the city.  That is what makes a city an exciting place to live and visit.  This notion of a vibrant city is lost in “well designed” American cities with separate zoning districts. 

The End of Zoning as a tool

The use of zoning as a tool has created segregated cities characterized by racial divide, economic segregation, and loss of urban experience.  In addition, the complexity of zoning regulation in many cities with hundreds of pages of text and maps has benefited the real estate developers with high priced land use attorneys and not the public.  It is time to end the use of zoning as a tool in urban planning. Desegregate Connecticut is one such organization that is making a push to reform zoning regulations and make them more inclusive.


[i] West Hartford is mostly white, while Bloomfield is largely Black; how that came to be tells the story of racism and segregation in American suburbs., By ALEX PUTTERMAN, HARTFORD COURANT, FEB 19, 2021

Image Credit:  By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, ttps://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4536737

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