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Do We Need Zoning? ‘Arbitrary Lines’ Author Nolan Gray Weighs In

January 2, 2023 by Judi Pickell
Policy/Legislative

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More communities are exploring zoning reform as outdated codes contribute to skyrocketing housing costs. Photo by VTT Studio/Shutterstock.

For decades, zoning and planning were the kind of inside-baseball topics that never made the leap to dinner tables and cocktail chatter. But as the pandemic brought housing shortages and affordability to the fore, popular interest in these topics surged — alongside criticism and talk of reform.

“I think zoning has distracted us from a lot of the planning work that planners are very good at, that creates a lot of value for people, that really builds the type of communities that we want,” says Nolan Gray, author of Arbitrary Lines.

Gray has direct experience with the on-the-ground implications of zoning. A planner by education and trade, he currently works as the research director of California YIMBY, a nonprofit dedicated to making housing more affordable across the state through zoning reform. He’s also a vocal advocate on Twitter.

On a special episode of the APA podcast series “People Behind the Plans,” Gray sat down with guest host Jason Jordan, APA’s director of public affairs, to talk about how zoning entered the zeitgeist, his ideas for rethinking — or even abolishing — our current zoning approach, and how planners can lead the charged debate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at planning.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.

JORDAN: You’ve said planning and zoning can sometimes feel synonymous to people. How do you see these things connected, and how are they distinct?

GRAY: As a professional city planner, I’m a little bit biased, but I tend to think planners have an absolutely essential role to play in building affordable, equitable, sustainable communities. We need plans for infrastructure growth as cities grow. We need plans for equitable distribution of green spaces and public services. We need plans to transition away from transportation technologies that don’t work as cities get denser and more diverse. There are all these incredible planning challenges.

I talk to planners in the U.S who want to do this type of work. Who say, “I want to focus on issues like nuisances or spillover effects,” who want to talk about things like coordinating infrastructure with growth and do this very nuts-and-bolts planning, the type of planning work that enables people to engage in their own plans for their own lives. And I think that’s a very beautiful and alluring vision.

But what we end up getting is a lot of our planning civil services are misused executing zoning rules that no longer reflect our planning values. So we have amazing planners who are counting up the number of parking spaces for strip malls. You have planners who are doing work keeping fourplexes out of suburban cul-de-sacs. I don’t think this is the type of thing that motivates people to go into planning, and it’s not the type of thing that motivates people to stay in planning. We haven’t done very well over the last half century because we’ve been so focused on keeping cities locked in a zoning straitjacket.

Nolan Gray is a planner, research director of California YIMBY, and author of Arbitrary Lines.

Nolan Gray is a planner, research director of California YIMBY, and author of Arbitrary Lines. Photo courtesy of Nolan Gray.

JORDAN: Let’s talk about some of the examples in the book. What’s happening around the country, and what impacts are you seeing?

GRAY: There are at least three levels of reform happening here. The easiest path to zoning reform is at the local level. And you’re seeing cities all across the country engage in policies like removing onerous minimum parking requirements or adding more flexibility to areas that were historically limited to detached, single-family homes. And accessory dwelling units have quietly been a huge reform success story. We’ve made it to where more homeowners can add additional units in their backyard or in their unused attics or basements here in California. Since we legalized them statewide in 2016, we’ve seen roughly 60,000 new units permitted. These are units that just wouldn’t otherwise have existed. And they’re making even some of our most exclusionary, high-cost jurisdictions a little bit more affordable and a little bit more diverse and accessible.

That kind of leads into the second frame. There’s a lot of reform happening at the state level. We’re doing a lot of that here in California. We’ve passed a number of bills making it easier to build mixed-income, multi-family housing in areas zoned for commercial. So adding a little bit of use flexibility, a little bit of density flexibility, or eliminating minimum parking requirements within a half mile of transit. We want to encourage the more walkable, transit-oriented communities that in many cases are already written in the California context in our general plan.

The third is at the federal level. I think there’s a huge role for the federal government to say on the one hand, “Hey, if we’re going to disperse certain funds, we want to see some progress on zoning reform,” and also to provide money for cities to hire the technical expertise or the planning consultants that they might need to undertake this work. I encounter many jurisdictions where they adopted a zoning code 30 or 40 years ago that doesn’t allow their community to grow and adapt in the way they want it to. And they don’t have a full-time planner on staff. If they’re going to reform that zoning code, they’re going to have to contract out the work.

JORDAN: In reading your book, I was struck by the language. You’re talking about a pretty technical topic, but it’s very accessible. How can planners engage the public and decision makers in a better conversation?

GRAY: I set out to write the first zoning beach read — the first and only, potentially — so I’m glad to hear it was successful. I appreciate that. It was absolutely a priority for me, because it’s so easy to fall into the jargon.

When I go to a new city or a new state, one of the ways that I talk about these issues is I find — almost every city has a neighborhood like this — some beloved pre-zoning neighborhood. It’ll have a mixture of housing typologies. It’ll have single-family homes, yes, but it’ll also have townhouses, it will have small apartment buildings. It might have a corner grocery. And you can point to that neighborhood and say, “This is one of our most cherished neighborhoods and one of our most cherished streets in our city. And our out-of-date zoning rules make it illegal to build more streets like this.”

When you put it in real terms that people understand, when you can point to that fourplex that already exists in the community and say, “Hey, would it be so bad if we had a few more of these?” I think it starts to click. People start to get it.

JORDAN: You also talk in the book about a pathway toward the elimination of zoning. What do you think about that argument?

GRAY: I think in the near term, focusing on reform makes a lot of sense. That’s what we do at California YIMBY, and I think we’re making huge, important progress. We’re getting a pathway where it’s becoming much more affordable, much easier to build affordable, equitable, sustainable communities.

But I worry that some of the reforms that we are advocating for will be on weak footing if we don’t deal with some of the underlying issues. Baked into zoning is this idea that land uses need to be segregated and separated and densities need to be restricted. That was never, I think, actually what we really wanted. My argument in the book is, yes, zoning has failed, and we should abolish zoning, but it’s not a pure deregulation argument. It’s a “we’re-regulating-the-wrong-things” argument.

I actually do think planners have a hugely important role to play in the impacts of new development. We do a very weak job of dealing with some of the spillover effects that zoning was trying to regulate, such as noise or light pollution or traffic generation. In many cases, we only very indirectly regulate these things, or if we regulate them, we do a very poor job of doing it. So I would like to see land use planning that focuses really on those impacts that bother people.

JORDAN: The NIMBY movement is alive and well in most corners of the country and has, in many cases, a lot of sway. How can we address those politics?

GRAY: First is finding a champion, finding an elected official who gets the issues and working with them. And I think planners have an important role to play there in education work. There’s an important role for advocates to play. You need people who are going to show up at these public hearings, who are going to champion some of these reforms.

That’s been absolutely crucial in California, where the YIMBY movement has basically created a political path for this. We had a few contentious votes early on over bills that supposedly were going to destroy suburbia. Everybody voted for them. Suburbia, I’m afraid to say, is still alive and well in California. And everybody realized that there actually weren’t serious political consequences and that, in fact, there’s actually a pretty wide consensus of, “let’s build more housing. Let’s do it in a smart way. Let’s set clear, workable rules and then get the housing built and get the mixed-use communities built.”

There are structural fixes that need to be done. The dependence that we have on public hearings is pretty dysfunctional. I don’t think this should be too controversial. We can do a planning audience, but public hearings are probably one of the worst ways to take the pulse of the community. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these tend to be unrepresentative. I think this is where comprehensive planning is really important. Because on a case-by-case basis where you’re having a rezoning fight or you’re having a special permit fight, the best you can really do is a public hearing where a bunch of people show up and yell “no” and you don’t really learn anything. With comprehensive plans, you can do that type of true outreach. You can do scientific surveys, you can have focus groups, you can reach out to stakeholders, you can have design charettes. You can do genuine public outreach and really get a sense for the type of community that people want to live in. You can’t really get that under our current zoning public hearing framework.

[Arbitrary Lines isn’t] an argument against planning. It’s an argument against, I think, a dysfunctional subset of planning on behalf of the rest of planning, which I think is very important and underappreciated. And then also against this notion that we should just have no rules and no public process at all. It’s an argument against the most dysfunctional forms of public process. So many communities I look at, so much of their planning work is just responding to rezonings, responding to variances, having these caustic public hearings. That’s just not planning. That’s purely reactive. It’s muddling along, and I want to hit the reset button on all of that work — and I think a lot of planners do, too. Lurking below the surface in planning is this eagerness, this appetite for a fundamental rethink. What do we want land use planning to do? What’s it going to take to get us where we want to be?

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