Zoning and Land Use Planning

Zoning is a planning control tool for regulating the built environment and creating functional real estate markets. It does so by dividing land that comprises the statutory area of a local authority into sections, permitting particular land uses on specific sites to shape the layout of towns and cities and enable various types of development. Zoning has a relatively short history as a tool for land-use planning. It determines the location, size, and use of buildings and decides the density of city blocks (City of New York 2015a).

Why is zoning necessary?
The purpose of zoning is to allow local and national authorities to regulate and control land and property markets to ensure complementary uses. Zoning can also provide the opportunity to stimulate or slow down development in specific areas.

The planning and zoning process functions differently around the world and is controlled by different levels of authority. Most commonly, a local authority such as a municipality or a county controls zoning (as in Australia or the United States) whereas in other cases zoning is implemented at the state or national level (as in France or Germany). Sometimes zoning is governed by a combination of the two approaches. Beyond these immediate controls, additional regulations that affect zoning are often used, such as planning scheme overlays in Australia or impact assessments in Germany.

What constitutes a zoning ordinance?
The zoning regulation is usually developed in the form of a zoning ordinance, which is the text specifying land use of specific blocks and even each individual lot within a city block. Zoning regulations include specifications regarding lot size, density or bulk, height, and floor area ratio (FAR). The zoning ordinance is the formal categorization of land-use policies applicable to land within a municipality. It also sets the legal framework. The zoning ordinance establishes permitted land uses and distinguishes between different land use types. Further, it ensures that incompatible land uses are not located adjacent to one another. Regulations also define setbacks and can build on the city’s safety and resilience by setting limitations on building in flood plains and wetlands. The zoning ordinance often also contains information relating to the need for a planning permit for a change of use or development proposal, subdivision of land, construction of new buildings, and other changes to the land (Victorian State Government 2008).

Zoning ordinances usually consist of zoning districts and overlays. For example, in New York City there are three zoning districts: residential, commercial, and manufacturing. Each of these districts is then further broken down to a range of low-, medium-, and high-density residential, commercial, and manufacturing districts. Zoning overlays are special purpose zoning districts that are designed to stimulate a particular set of site conditions and outcomes. They are tailored to the specific needs of certain neighborhoods. For example, a commercial overlay may be allowed on a residential block to provide retail on the ground floor of neighborhood homes. Overlays may also impose height limits or other physical limitations to shape the built environment in a certain way or to protect historic characteristics or waterfront views.

Most zoning regulations also set requirements for the FAR of a development, which often differ from locality to locality. “The Floor Area Ratio is the principal bulk regulation controlling the size of buildings. FAR is the ratio of total building floor area to the area of its zoning lot” (City of New York 2015a). A FAR outlines the intensity of the site use, not the height or site coverage. In New York City, “Each zoning district has a FAR which, when multiplied by the lot area of the zoning lot, produces the maximum amount of floor area allowable on that zoning lot. For example, on a 10,000 square foot zoning lot in a district with a maximum FAR of 1.0, the floor area on the zoning lot cannot exceed 10,000 square feet” (City of New York 2015b).

Can zoning regulations be amended?
The zoning ordinance is a legal framework, but it must also be flexible enough to accommodate and guide development. Amendments can be made to alter it either by the local authority or by the public. An amendment is usually made to “achieve a desirable planning outcome or to support a new policy direction” (Victorian State Government 2008). As such, it must have planning merit and be consistent with the future strategic directions for the local government. Zoning amendments are especially important in urban regeneration projects, as governments can use them to increase the building volume allowed for development to be profitable and attractive enough to the private sector (see chapter 1). In most cases, either a zoning text amendment (changing the zoning regulations) or a zoning map amendment (changing the zoning designation) is necessary to allow for a specific development in a specific location or configuration, currently not permitted.

Making or requesting an amendment is not a simple process. Indeed, it has significant planning implications and will affect the wider community because it “changes the way land can be used or developed in the whole neighbourhood.” Making an amendment to most planning schemes is also a rigorous process, often requiring a higher level of government or city council approval. However in some less established planning processes or structures, an amendment may be used more frequently to achieve a planning outcome.

How can zoning be used as a tool for stimulating private sector participation in urban regeneration?
In addition to the three main categories (residential, commercial, manufacturing), the zoning toolkit includes complementary rules that address specific types of development, as well as the design and quality of public spaces. Some initiatives allow for the modification of underlying regulations when developing large sites, whereas others fine-tune those same regulations to address lower-density areas or the particular challenges and opportunities of development projects on the waterfront.

Urban regeneration projects are usually developed on large parcels of land that span several zoning districts and overlays. In order to allow for a better site planning exercise and relationship between buildings and open spaces, the local government may ease the baseline zoning regulation to allow for a more consistent site planning across all lots and blocks. In addition, to stimulate private sector interest in development, the government can allow for the transfer and merger of development rights. Alternatively, it can fine-tune other regulations to allow for higher density development in exchange for some form of a public good, such as privately financed public spaces or inclusionary housing. In this case, the zoning regulation is amended to allow for more density in exchange for privately financed public space or affordable housing units within a housing complex (see chapter 1).

The push for more affordable housing has led to calls for inclusionary zoning, which is seen as appealing because developers pay for it, and it produces economic integration. However, affordable housing units created by inclusionary zoning require expensive subsidies (Barro 2014). For a full discussion of inclusionary zoning, see the social impacts section in chapter 3. All the case study cities in this volume have well-developed zoning regulations. For example, the evolution of zoning regulation in Ahmedabad is summarized in box.

Evolution of zoning regulations in Ahmedabad, India