Notes on “A Better Way to Zone”.

For thesis, I’ve picked up Donald Elliott’s ‘A Better Way to Zone’. This has served as a useful counterpart to many of the overly saccharine articles I find praising form based codes. Elliot’s point is that many types of zoning codes (and there is a huge variety out there) are broken in very similar ways. They,

  • Actually prevent many types of development that cities would like to approve
  • Do not provide housing at prices that citizens can afford
  • Adjust poorly to changed circumstances
  • Encourage poor systems of city governance.

More specifically tied to my thesis, which is investigating the intrinsic flexibility of a traditional neighborhood, he calls out form based zoning as being overly tied to a snapshot of the present.

“Even if you manage to get a very good snapshot of the present, that picture is static. In contrast, real estate markets are dynamic.”

The value of a neighborhood is in its growth process and its ability to respond to changing demographics. At its best, zoning is reflective of community values. As the people within it change, the codes too should be flexible enough to change. However, Elliot recognizes the need for codes remain predictable enough to inspire confidence in potential developers and home buyers. What he’s questioning is whether the rules need to be static, in order to be predictable.

“We need to think in terms of zoning standards that change automatically, in predictable ways, as plans change and real estate markets evolve.”

On N. Golden Gate Ave. and Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, over the course of ninety years, the neighborhood development around the growing Micheltorena Elementary School and the St. Francis Assisi Church (marked in blue) changed from primarily single family (light yellow), to one of mixed densities (orange and brown) and uses (red):

Neighborhood Block Evolution in Silver Lake

Neighborhood Block Evolution in Silver Lake

Another issue I’m looking into as a driver of zoning code evolution for neighborhoods is the issue of housing availability, choice and affordability. As we can see from the current economic downturn, housing attainability is a huge part of the US economy and future zoning codes should include better tools to address it. Elliot offers three suggestions for this:

  • To look for greater land efficiency, so that more units can be built per acre of land and to better integrate those units into the urban fabric.
  • To be to remove restrictions that limit creativity in the types of housing that are built.
  • To create development approval systems that better integrate citywide needs for attainable housing into review of individual projects.

My thesis project uses the Silver Lake community as a case study which is helpful because it was built largely pre-zoning or the advent of the automobile, yet it has an excellent street grid and access. It also has a great variety in its community make-up, and even though prices remain high in this highly desirable Southern California neighborhood, there is a wide range of housing types and ownership situations and therefore, price points. The fact that this very desirable and well functioning neighborhood was built prior to existing, heavy handed zoning adds further fuel to the fire that developmental controls should be lifted to inspire creativity in lot arrangements, clustering densities and parking situations.

In the closing comments of his historical analysis section, Elliot writes,

“Life seldom turns out like the picture you envisioned, and that is true both for the city and for private developers. It is a mistake to think of zoning as a fixed model of uses and standards and forms. The only sure thing about zoning is that we need it to adapt well over time.”

The book, published last year, also has an associated blog with it.

Another review, with a more critical opinion.



  1. Creating a modern zoning code is difficult now. Back in the 1950’s when all zoning codes where smaller, there where no zoning and development lawyers trying to pick the code apart like you do today.

    I think having a Forma based code may be the answer because it allows more flexibility and promotes development people want to see instead of finding ways to prohibit land uses from certain neighborhoods with conflicting reasons.

  2. aRae

    First, thanks for reading! My primary concern with form based codes is that while they work well for certain parts of a city, namely urban core residential neighborhoods and their surrounding mixed use, it does little for other areas of equal or more importance in the economic viability of the modern city – industry, commerce and infrastructure. Many form based code guide books seem to have a “if you code it, they will come” mentality that I believe ignores the basic underlying economic structure of a continually changing and evolving city. This leads me to believe that the past ninety years of Euclidean zoning has not been in vain, and that what we are truly searching for is a hybrid system that more adequately addresses “place”. Zoning will continue to be heavily influence by local politics, but the system should be designed to direct those political pressures towards long-term goals.

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