Uncovering JAPA

An Overview of Exclusionary Zoning Debates in the United States

Exclusionary zoning has been one of many government practices with racist and classist histories that have received extensive criticism in recent years, particularly given the attention that the Black Lives Matter movement has given to the consequences of these practices. However, many planners, students, and scholars may not know where to begin learning about exclusionary zoning, or how it has been discussed in the academic literature.

Rich Analysis of Exclusionary Zoning Debates' Evolution

Andrew H. Whittemore provides a rich place to start in his article "Exclusionary Zoning: Origins, Open Suburbs, and Contemporary Debates" for the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 2).

Whittemore traces the debates around American exclusionary zoning practices from zoning's early uses in the late 19th and early 20 centuries to post-war equity planners' cries to "open up the suburbs" to a more economic-focused discourse on the impact of zoning on housing markets since the 1980s. Drawing from the wide range of disciplines that study zoning (including urban planning, economics, and legal studies), he notes key developments from each period, shifts in the discourse, and the thought leaders driving these shifts, from advocacy planner Paul Davidoff to economists like Ed Glaeser and William A. Fischel. Given the wide application of the term "exclusionary zoning," Whittemore also reviews many of practices that fall under this umbrella, from large minimum lot requirements to allowances for only single-family zoning.

Doing so allows Whittemore to contextualize many of the contentious debates around exclusionary zoning that still exist today. These include whether maintaining lower density could actually help preserve some existing affordable housing stock, whether upzoning would itself be sufficient to encourage housing development for low- and moderate-income households, and whether the suburbs have been disproportionately criticized when zoning issues also exist in other areas. The article shows that these debates are anything but new, and that planners today can learn from past arguments and strategies.

Promotes Ethics in Housing Solutions

Ultimately, Whittemore argues that scholars writing on this topic should not forget the limitations of market-focused strategies for producing low- and moderate-income housing which have become central in recent decades. Instead, they can "assert their own professional ethics" as the basis of a multi-pronged strategy to address the historically racist and classist effects of zoning, and to hopefully expand housing opportunities.

The article will provide a better understanding of the discourse around exclusionary zoning in the United States for any planner or scholar working on the issue, as well as extensive further reading for those looking to learn more.

Top Image: Image courtesy the State Historical Society of Missouri.

About the author
Ben Demers is a Master of Urban Planning and Master of Public Policy candidate at Harvard University.

July 8, 2021

By Benjamin Demers