Re-thinking the core toolbox of urban interventions: critical approaches to zoning and land regulation in practice

Many traditional urban planning ‘tools’, such as zoning, continue to be a central force in shaping cities, and frequently perpetuate and create new landscapes of injustice, segregation and inequality. Yet zoning and other institutions of land regulation have drifted out of critical focus over the past decades along with the shift by urban and planning scholars to examine societal and discursive mechanisms of exclusion. Building on a wave of thinking sparked by the centennial of New York’s 1916 zoning ordinance, the moment has come to rethink zoning and land use regulation in practice. Papers for this panel will ideally draw on the critical lenses of the social sciences and urbanism to recast land use regulation beyond the ‘technical’ and identify new intersections between zoning’s inherited patterns, current structures and impacts and future potential to advance inclusion and justice. Also of interest is how institutions of land and construction regulation have themselves evolved and interfaced with planning, building regulations, administration of public services, disaster response, and governance under conflict, uncertainty and displacement.

 Across the board, initial take-up of regulations for urban land typically reflected progressive-era values and the idea only an active government could improve cities and rationally plan for the public interest. Present-day imaginations of governance values have shifted radically, yet land regulations often remain relatively unchanged. Discordant patterns of implementation can be one way to trace shifts in power as well as identify new patterns of injustice. Further, as local governments’ budgets shrink and responsibilities expand, how zoning is used, often as a tool of last resort, can uncover ground-level strategies for the public interest. Scholars and practitioners must frame zoning as an instrument for justice. This panel will rally a series of papers to launch a new era of critical study on planning’s most powerful and enduring tool.


Bernadette Baird-Zars, Columbia University

Cathy Bae, Columbia University