New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law

New York City’s comprehensive zoning ordinance became the model for zoning regulations nationwide, ushering in a new era of local land-use controls.

Summary of Event

Zoning is a system of regulations that place restrictions on the ways in which land can be used and on the height, bulk, area, and placement of buildings on the land. Zoning ordinances are probably the most widely used tools that local governments have to protect the environment. Urban planning;zoning laws
Zoning laws (New York City)
New York City;zoning laws
Land-use laws[Land use laws]
[kw]New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law (July, 1916)
[kw]Zoning Law, New York City Institutes a Comprehensive (July, 1916)
[kw]Law, New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning (July, 1916)
Urban planning;zoning laws
Zoning laws (New York City)
New York City;zoning laws
Land-use laws[Land use laws]
[g]United States;July, 1916: New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law[04020]
[c]Environmental issues;July, 1916: New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law[04020]
[c]Government and politics;July, 1916: New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law[04020]
[c]Urban planning;July, 1916: New York City Institutes a Comprehensive Zoning Law[04020]
Bassett, Edward
Ford, George B.

Zoning’s legal foundation lies in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Fifth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) which states that no one shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. This clause gives the government the right to take action to protect the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare. This “police power” is also the basis for the provision of fire, health, and police services by local governments. Whenever a zoning regulation is challenged in court, it must be linked to the goal of protecting the public if it is to survive the legal challenge.

Although it was not the first zoning ordinance in the United States, the 1916 New York City zoning law was one of the most influential. As early as 1911, New York residents united to ask for height restrictions on the skyscrapers that were growing rapidly on the city’s skyline, causing traffic congestion and other problems. Two years later, attorney Edward Bassett, head of the city’s Heights of Buildings Commission, proposed that the entire city be zoned.

Meanwhile, pressure for zoning built on another front. Around 1900, garment factories and warehouses began invading Fifth Avenue. As the exclusive shops that characterized the area moved up the street, the manufacturers followed them, lowering property values and creating truck traffic. The retailers then appealed to the public, taking out a full-page advertisement enlisting the support of unions, property owners, and the financial community. The Board of Estimate adopted the regulations proposed by Bassett’s committee in July, 1916.

The zoning law provided for three categories of use districts: residential, commercial, and unrestricted. There were five kinds of height districts, with the allowable height of a building depending on the width of the adjoining street. Finally, there were five kinds of area districts, which governed the sizes of yards and courts. It was the first time that bulk and use regulations had been combined and also the first time that maps were used to show the district boundaries. The restrictions on building bulk, designed by consultant George B. Ford to ensure that light and air reached the street, are the reason so many New York buildings have a “wedding cake” design, with each successive floor smaller than the one below it.

The ordinance helped retailers by forbidding factories to locate in central Manhattan. Because zoning is not retroactive, however, those factories already in place were not forced to move.

In general, the zoning law failed to solve New York’s problems because it was not based on a city-planning study of the area’s projected future population, how the population could be distributed, or how much land would be needed for various uses to serve this population. For example, the resolution allowed space for more than 300 million employees within the city, providing little relief from congestion. Such overzoning was a problem that would continue to plague New York City.


Despite the warnings of Ford and others who were familiar with the drawbacks of the New York ordinance, cities nationwide began using the ordinance as a model. Urban areas of the United States were experiencing a zoning crisis in the early 1920’s: Zoning was seen as the cure for every city ill. People were tired of repair shops in residential areas, warehouses in retail shopping districts, and apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Bassett’s strategy of justifying the city’s right to zone under the provisions of the police power worked: The New York City zoning ordinance withstood all court challenges. This further encouraged many cities throughout the nation to use the New York ordinance as a model for their own city planning.

The most famous court case that evolved from cities’ establishment of such ordinances was Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926), Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty (1926)
Supreme Court, U.S.;zoning ordinances in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of a Euclid, Ohio, zoning ordinance that prohibited apartments in a single-family dwelling zone. This case raised what is commonly called the “takings” issue, a reference to another clause in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits the government from taking a person’s property without just compensation. Ambler Realty claimed that the single-family zoning constituted a taking; the Court, however, ruled that apartments in single-family zones were little more than “parasites” and thus were subject to regulation under the police power clause. Court battles over what degree of zoning regulation constitutes a taking of property continued into the twenty-first century.

Bassett’s narrow focus on legality prevented him from basing New York’s zoning on a wider, long-term view of what the city should become; that is, the zoning was not based on a comprehensive city plan. This “zoning before planning” approach was widely copied, with unfortunate results.

The New York ordinance employed a pyramidal classification of permitted land uses—that is, uses were restricted in single-family districts, but more and more uses were allowed in the hierarchy of zones, until every use was allowed in the heavy industrial zone. Pyramidal zoning Pyramidal zoning offers little protection to public health, safety, or welfare, because homes can still be built next to factories. The widespread imitation of the New York ordinance left many communities with pyramidal land-use categories that do little to prevent incompatible land uses from occurring.

Berkeley, California, adopted a zoning ordinance intended to remedy this problem. Largely as a result of factory owners’ complaints about having to deal with angry home owners nearby, consultant Charles H. Cheney Cheney, Charles H. designed an ordinance for Berkeley in 1917 that led to another major trend in zoning: rigid segregation of uses. Cheney’s ordinance did not follow the pyramidal scheme of New York; instead, it prohibited homes from being built in industrial zones. This reaction to the New York scheme, carried to extremes in later years, led to the bland rows of similar homes that characterize many American suburbs. Suburbs;zoning

Because the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that all powers not specifically given to the national government shall remain with the states or the people, the U.S. federal government cannot take part in zoning, but national zoning is carried out in many other nations. U.S. states do have the power to zone, however, and a few (Hawaii, for example) have exercised it. In general, however, zoning in the United States is a function of local governments.

In order for local governments in a given state to have the power to zone, the state must first pass enabling legislation that gives zoning power to the localities. The Standard Zoning Enabling Act of 1924, Standard Zoning Enabling Act (1924) developed by the U.S. Commerce Department under Secretary Herbert Hoover for use as a model by the states, is the foundation of the states’ enabling laws. It in turn is grounded in the New York City zoning ordinance of 1916. Another model law developed under Hoover’s auspices, the Standard City Planning Enabling Act of 1926, Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1926) governs the power of a city to develop a comprehensive plan and to regulate subdivisions. Thus even the enabling legislation for city planning came after legislation for zoning.

All fifty U.S. states eventually passed enabling legislation, and nearly every city in the United States enacted a zoning ordinance. The results of these ordinances in terms of environmental protection are a matter of heated debate, however. Zoning administration is widely seen as a point where planning breaks down because zone changes are granted with little regard for the plan. Inappropriate use of New York-style pyramidal zoning has led to ineffective protection, with incompatible uses still appearing together. Conversely, abuse of the exclusive Berkeley-style zoning has led to extreme dependence on the automobile, as residents are forced to leave their suburban neighborhoods in search of basic goods and services. Zoning too much land for business and industry has led to inappropriate mixes of land uses and urban blight.

Techniques were eventually developed to address such problems. Modern zoning ordinances attempt to combine the positive aspects of the two zoning styles by authorizing development on a case-by-case basis using planned unit development zoning districts, in which a variety of use types are permitted under certain restrictive conditions meant to ensure their compatibility. This zoning technique can be used to protect ecologically fragile areas while providing more services to residents.

Houston is the largest unzoned city in the United States. Proposals for zoning have been defeated there regularly, and the city is often cited as an example of the effectiveness of nonzoning. Zoning opponents contend that the city is similar to zoned communities in its geography of land uses and in its appearance. Zoning supporters point to problems of skyscrapers next to homes, inadequate sewage systems, and inadequate street capacity as evidence of the need for zoning in the city.

Although zoning has not been especially successful in protecting environmentally sensitive areas, it retains the potential to become a powerful tool for environmental preservation. Zoning has been widely used to limit development in floodplains, on steep hillsides, in wetlands, in areas sensitive to water pollution, and in areas that provide habitat for endangered species. Related police power laws govern removal of trees, grading, filling, and landscaping for new development. Zoning has also been used to protect areas of cultural and historical significance.

Perhaps most important, it has become widely accepted that good zoning must be based on a comprehensive plan that includes environmental data. Computer programs can synthesize large amounts of detailed environmental information to produce composite maps of areas best suited for various types of land use, allowing planning and zoning to be based on ecologically sound information rather than on arbitrary best-guess land allocations. Zoning is thus one of the most powerful environmental protection tools available to local governments. Urban planning;zoning laws
Zoning laws (New York City)
New York City;zoning laws
Land-use laws[Land use laws]

Further Reading

  • Babcock, Richard. The Zoning Game: Municipal Practices and Policies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. This controversial book argues that zoning has drifted away from its avowed legal purposes, becoming a political game that serves special interests rather than the public welfare.
  • Babcock, Richard, and Clifford Weaver. City Zoning: The Once and Future Frontier. Chicago: Planners Press, 1979. Argues that zoning has failed to be an effective tool and in fact has furthered the decline of many inner-city neighborhoods. Presents proposals for using zoning as a proactive tool in urban settings to encourage more livable city environments.
  • Bright, Elise M. “The ALLOT Model: A PC-Based Approach to Land Use Planning.” Computers, Environment, and Urban Systems 16 (1992): 435-451. Describes ways in which environmental data can be used as the basis for planning and zoning.
  • Cullingworth, J. Barry. The Political Culture of Planning: American Land Use Planning in Comparative Perspective. New York: Routledge, 1993. Offers an extensive history of zoning in the United States and draws valuable comparisons with the systems used in Great Britain and Canada. A useful introduction to the field.
  • Cullingworth, J. Barry, and Roger W. Caves. Planning in the USA: Policies, Issues, and Processes. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2003. Introduction to the theory and practice of city planning. Includes extensive discussion of the history, purposes, and techniques of zoning.
  • Fishman, Robert, ed. The American Planning Tradition: Culture and Policy. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2000. Collection of essays discusses the early planners who shaped American cities as well as the principles of planning theory and modern efforts to plan for transportation and protection of the environment and natural resources.
  • Scott, Mel. American City Planning Since 1890. 1971. Reprint. Chicago: American Planning Association, 1995. Presents an extensive history of planning and zoning, with sections on the New York ordinance and a brief treatment of the Standard Zoning Enabling Act.
  • Thurow, Charles, William Toner, and Duncan Erley. Performance Controls for Sensitive Lands. Chicago: American Planning Association Planners Press, 1968. A thorough treatment of those aspects of the environment that are of greatest concern to planners. Presents and analyzes relevant provisions from zoning and related police power ordinances from localities across the United States. Valuable for anyone who must write an environmentally based ordinance.

Empire State Building Opens

Rockefeller Center Is Completed