Sign for an early Kansas City suburb. Image from the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Ben Ross has published a new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. Greater Greater Washington will be reprinting a few excerpts from the book. In this one, he explains the history of zoning.

Since the last years of the nineteenth century, covenants had been widely used to exclude undesirable people, buildings, and activities from new subdivisions. But these private contracts worked only imperfectly and incompletely.

Older neighborhoods still lacked their protection. In principle, landowners could establish restrictions at any time, but in practice covenants had to be imposed in advance by the subdivider because a large group of homeowners could never agree on the details of the rules. And even when in place, covenants were hard to enforce. ...

Homeowners and real estate developers desired more comprehensive and more effective controls. This was something only the power of government could achieve.

The call for action was not unanimous. What covenants and zoning offered homebuyers was permanence—assurance that in future years they would be surrounded by people and buildings of the same quality as when they moved in. Stopping change was not in everyone’s interest.

The subdividers of large tracts, who maximized the value of the initial sale with promises of permanence, benefited most. They spearheaded the push for government regulation as they had for deed covenants. Small-scale speculators, who dealt in property already subdivided and hoped to profit from new and denser uses, led the opposition.

Los Angeles took a first step toward the systematic separation of land uses in 1908. The Los Angeles Realty Board, dominated by developers of upscale restricted neighborhoods, urged zoning on the city with the support of affluent homeowners. A pair of ordinances created seven industrial districts and defined nearly all of the city’s remaining territory as residential districts. There businesses were allowed only when the City Council granted an exception.

Other cities soon followed this example. In 1913 Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York authorized cities, when property owners so requested, to establish districts where nonresidential uses were banned. The Illinois legislature passed a similar law that died when the governor, on being advised that it was unconstitutional, used his veto.

Early zoning laws often proscribed unwanted races along with unwanted land uses. In 1910 a Baltimore ordinance kept blacks from any block where more than half the residents were white. Birmingham, Atlanta, Richmond, St. Louis, and other municipalities soon enacted racial zoning as well.

Blacks could of course sleep in white neighborhoods when they were household help living on their employers’ property—and the Atlanta ordinance also permitted black homeowners to house white servants. This bow to constitutional doctrine showed how hollow was the promise of “separate but equal.” A black man who presumed, in that time and place, to hire whites as domestic help would be lucky to see another sunrise.

Such maneuvers were too transparent even for the conservative judges of the day. In a 1917 case that gave the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People its first legal victory, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down racial zoning. Louisville’s zoning ordinance, the court held, violated the white landowner’s constitutional right to sell property to blacks. Racial segregation would have to rely on private contracts.

Zoning codes could no longer divide races, but they could still separate uses, and soon the nation’s largest city had one. The skyscrapers that would dominate New York’s skyline had just appeared, and many feared these giant buildings would shut off light and air and congest traffic.

Meanwhile, the spread of garment manufacturers into the upscale shopping district on Fifth Avenue was annoying retailers. Their customers were now forced to mix on sidewalks with immigrant workers. “Gentlemen, you are like cattle in a pasture, and the needle trades workers are the flies that follow you from one pasture to another,” storeowners were told at a private luncheon.

Such rhetoric lacked mass appeal, so the merchants promoted zoning with other arguments. Their well-funded publicity campaign warned of a grab bag of evils from truck traffic to overcrowding to high rents.

The city’s major real estate and commercial interests joined retailers and municipal reformers to seek the separation of land uses, and action came quickly. In 1914 the city gained authority to impose zoning, and two years later a detailed ordinance was in place.

Its underlying principle, as the framers conceded, was to freeze in place the existing land use. This entailed not a full spatial separation along the lines of upscale suburbs but a pattern similar to streetcar suburbs—midblock parcels were restricted to residential use, with commerce allowed on the avenues that carried through traffic.

The code also placed limits on tall buildings, imposing gradual setbacks of higher stories to allow light and air to enter. From this rule came the terraced skyscrapers that have long defined New York’s skyline.

New York’s adoption of a zoning code triggered a frenzy of activity in cities large and small. The landowning public clamored for separation of land uses, and developers of restricted communities joined in the call for government control.

Machine politicians joined municipal reformers in the embrace of zoning—it was easy to see that variances, exceptions, and rezonings would open up a cornucopia of patronage and graft. By 1920 zoning ordinances were in place in 904 cities, including 82 of the 93 municipalities with populations over 100,000. Given further encouragement by a model ordinance issued by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1924, a wave of regulation rolled on through the decade.

The zoning movement quickly advanced beyond the isolation of residential uses to the exclusion of apartment houses from residential areas. The middle and upper classes did not like apartments. The most varied objections were raised. They were ugly; they gave off noise and smoke. They were simply not the way Americans should live.

But most of all, zoners objected to the people who lived in apartments. The flavor of the tenement seemed to attach to even the most luxurious buildings. Residents were prone to disease and immorality. Tenants were “a class of nomads,” said Harvard University president Charles Eliot, “that have no stable footing in the town.”

Many cities were already manipulating their fire and building codes to keep apartments out; with zoning they could reach the same end more directly. Berkeley, California, was first to take this path. Its zoning ordinance, adopted in 1917, enforced a rigid separation of uses that went far beyond contemporaries.

At a time when other cities were merely separating residential uses from commercial and industrial, Berkeley established a multitude of zones—twenty-seven in all. One-family, two-family, and apartment houses each had their own assigned districts, and homes were kept out of industrial areas as industry was from residential areas. Almost immediately, the exclusion of multifamily residences from single-family districts became a standard zoning rule. ...

The people who staffed the new planning bureaucracies had much useful work to do. Although they might, in practice, have little influence on the zoning of the areas already built up, subdivision control empowered them to shape the rapidly growing new suburbs.

Without question, unplanned suburbs had evils in need of correction: uncontrolled rainwater runoff, badly built streets, groundwater polluted for lack of sewers. Still, as a historian of planning has recognized, the overall effect was to “encourage cities to portray in long-range plans the conditions of the present rather than the changes required.”

New subdivisions would avoid past mistakes, but the rigid zoning structure prevented future adjustment if their design was later found lacking. Planners might dream of molding the city of the future. They found themselves embalming the city of the present.