Land Use 101: The History of Land Use Regulation

  • Author: William Reckley
  • Date: September 17, 2020
Scale of Urbanity from Rural to Urban

Land use and transportation are directly connected. The places we need to get to and how we build them directly impact the way we get from point A to point B. That’s why we are launching a new blog series that will dive into the complexities of modern land-use planning, their impacts on transportation, and why mobility management professionals should be paying attention. In this first installation, we will go over a brief history of how we came to plan our communities and the types of regulations we use.


Many of the communities we have come to love were not planned. They grew organically based on the needs, and in many cases the transportation choices, of the people who lived there. Today, many of our communities could not be built in the same way, especially many of our historic neighborhoods, due to our land-use regulations.

The most common land-use regulation in the United States is known as zoning, or mapping our communities based on idealized uses. There are some communities in the US that use other sorts of land-use regulations, such as Houston, but zoning has been the predominant means of regulating the way we build our communities since the Supreme Court confirmed its validity in 1926.

The first true land use regulations can be traced to Los Angeles in 1906, and the first full zoning code was enacted in New York City with the Building Zone Resolution adopted in 1916. While industrialization and its related pollution played a large role in the fight to separate land uses, which the map from Chicago below illustrates well, the zoning code in New York was spurred by the unregulated development of a large building in Lower Manhattan. 120 Broadway, or the Equitable Building, is considered the main reason for the zoning code due to what was seen at the time as its imposing bulk. Neighbors and others in the civic community were concerned about what would happen if this sort of construction were left unchecked, an attitude we still see in many communities today. In urban areas, a main function of modern-day zoning codes is not only to regulate the use of land and buildings, but also their look and relation to the street and neighboring buildings.

Burgess Urban Model, showing the
The Burgess Plan for Chicago, an example of how land use zones were thought of in the early 1900s. These types of plans lacked geographical contexts, but showed the desire to separate uses.


Born out of these original zoning resolutions have been four general types of zoning: Euclidian, performance, incentive, and form-based codes.

  • Euclidian is the rigid separation of use, getting its name from the Supreme Court case mentioned earlier. This is the predominant method of zoning in the United States, and is the basic foundation for most of the other types of zoning codes. The rigid separation of uses has contributed immensely to the low density development patterns we have in our communities, another topic we will discuss in this series.
  • Performance zoning, often built on-top of Euclidian codes, takes additional factors into consideration such as the size of buildings and impacts on surrounding areas. Codes that take floor area ratio (FAR), or the ratio of floor area to lot area, and lot size are some of the most common.
  • Incentive Zoning allows for buildings that do not meet certain requirements to still be built if the developer pays for other projects that benefit the public. Think reduced parking requirements in exchange for building bus shelters or other public transit improvements. Another great example are modern inclusionary housing requirements, which can permit housing developers additional density if they include affordable housing in the project.
  • Finally, form-based codes focus on the size and style of buildings instead of their use. Form-based codes are much more flexible, and allow for close intermingling of uses as long as the building meets the parameters set out in the code. See the Beaufort, South Carolina Form-Based Code for a great example of this idea in practice.

With all of these options, zoning codes look a lot different today than the Building Zone Resolution of 1916. Codes in many communities are complex, with overlapping layers requiring a detailed knowledge of zoning to understand why things are built where they are. Even small towns, such as the example shown here, can have multiple zones for even the same type of use. Mixed use zoning has become more popular over the past couple of decades, as people have increased their desire to live, work, and play in the same location. The desire for mixed use zones has large impacts on the transportation system, as they generally are denser areas and more walkable as well.

Over the coming blog posts, we will explore the ways these codes and other land use regulations shape the way we get around our communities, and what that means for mobility managers.


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