Literature Review of Race and Zoning

In “The Experience of Racial and Ethnic Minorities with Zoning in the United States” (PDF), Andrew H. Whittemore of UNC Chapel Hill offers a good review of the environmental, planning, and legal literature. Whittemore describes how the practice and ideology of modern zoning – physical separation of “incompatible” uses like apartments, single-family homes, and industrial activities – maintained racial and class segregation after successive laws and court decisions forbade explicit exclusion. Planners upheld zoning as the cartographical embodiment of good government, while white homeowners and city officials supported facially race neutral policies to preserve racial and class segregation. White residents demanded restrictive zoning by virtue of their “positions as homeowners, consumers, and taxpayers concerned about property values, community services, and quality of life.” City officials likewise defended the exclusionary status quo by strengthening environmental protection, traffic mitigation efforts, and city finances. The result was “…an American brand of apartheid that saw wealthier and white households secluded from poorer and minority Americans in separate geographies.”

New to me was the concept of “expulsive zoning,” the practice of zoning residential areas for industrial uses, which often displaced the existing (typically Latino or black) residents. In cases where residents remained, they were often exposed to environmental toxins and noxious activities. While YIMBYs may cheer environmental justice campaigns, we often neglect the good work of public health and environmental policy researchers in this area.

Conversing with the economic literature and more recent planning scholarship would have strengthened Whittemore’s brief discussion of zoning reforms to integrate communities. His use of Charles H. Cheney, a planning consultant in the early 20th century, as a champion for the economic advancement for poor immigrants is especially bizarre. Cheney, the co-author of Berkeley’s first zoning ordinance, clarified the purpose of large lot single-family zoning in a letter to Frederick Law Olmstead. Cheney wrote, “The type of protective restrictions and the high class scheme of layout which we have provided tends to guide and automatically regulate the class of citizens who are settling here. The restrictions prohibit occupation of land by Negroes or Asiatics. The minimum cost of house restrictions tends to group the people of more or less like income together...” To achieve housing affordability and integration, we YIMBYs must make common cause with fair housing advocates to dismantle these “high class schemes” in the courts and at the ballot box.

- BH


To date, scholars have examined two common effects of zoning that disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities in the United States: (1) exclusionary effects, resulting from zoning’s erection of direct, discriminatory barriers or indirect, economic barriers to geographic mobility; and (2) intensive and expulsive effects, resulting from zoning’s disproportionate targeting of minority residential neighborhoods for commercial and industrial development. In light of recent legal and federal policy developments, continued research is needed to better understand the scale of the gap between the treatment of white and minority communities and to better understand how zoning can reverse past injustices.