Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Grappling with the Racist Legacy of Zoning

As planners across the United States work to advance equity in their communities, many have begun to look more deeply into the history of zoning itself. From the very beginning, zoning and land-use regulation have historically been used to enforce and codify racial exclusion. Many of the maps and policies in place today, reflect this legacy of racism, particularly toward Black people. In the January issue of Zoning Practice, "Ending Zoning's Racist Legacy," Jennifer Raitt digs deep into the foundational role that racial exclusion has played in the history of zoning, her role as a practicing planner in the system of zoning and land-use regulation rooted in that history, and the urgent need for planners to grapple with this legacy of racial exclusion, segregation, and inequity.

The Roots of Racial Exclusion in Zoning

Raitt argues that the planning of today (and zoning in particular) cannot be neatly uncoupled from past policies and motivations that were largely rooted in segregation and racial exclusion. In some cases, communities sought to explicitly codify segregation in their zoning policies and regulations. As the Supreme Court ruled against these openly segregationist policies as far back as 1917, many communities simply ignored its rulings or adopted less explicit language to preserve the status quo. Segregationists sat on the very committee that developed the State Standard Zoning Enabling Act, a piece of legislation that is foundational to zoning and land use regulation in the United States. Particularly in the first half of the 20th century, the Federal government itself played an active and integral role in creating a regulatory environment that favored and incentivized racial segregation within local codes, maps, and policies.

From redlining to the GI Bill to the Federal Highway Act, the form of our communities today was largely defined by policies that often had exclusionary aims.

Raitt contends that since planners today live in and plan for communities that are a product of this legacy, they must act to both reckon with their complicity and work to undue these historic harms.

Cities Lead Equitable Zoning Reform

While the scale of the challenge can seem daunting, some cities are beginning to offer a roadmap forward. Raitt writes of efforts in both Boston and Louisville to reform planning processes, codify project review procedures that eliminate harm against marginalized communities, and develop assessment tools to fully enforce fair housing requirements. These efforts, along with broader attempts in states and cities across the United States to revise exclusionary single-family districts to permit a much wider array of housing types and densities, all can play a role in addressing some of the historic harm perpetrated against communities of color.

However, even with this emerging framework, more fully confronting the racist legacy of zoning will require sustained action on the part of planners. Planners, Raitt argues, must act on the local level, fight for equity, question the zoning status quo, and more meaningfully connect with and learn from marginalized communities.

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Top image: Excerpt from 1938 Home Owners' Loan Corporation map for Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.

About the Author
Joseph DeAngelis, AICP, is a research manager with APA.

January 21, 2022

By Joseph DeAngelis, AICP