America Needs Better Zoning

The white picket fence may be in the American Dream, but the zoning policy behind it is destroying our cities and making us less healthy.

Sunny Golovine

Oct 02, 2022

I recently moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Denver, Colorado and I noticed something: I stopped using my car. Now I didn't stop using it completely, but I went from using my car on a daily basis to using it maybe once or twice per week. The reason is quite simple, I now live walking distance from a few restaurant, a couple grocery stores, my gym and a local park. While the benefits to my life have been significant from this change, I consider myself very privileged in this regard because few places in the US are designed like this.

If you could describe US zoning laws in two words, those two words would be: car centric. There are exceptions to this rule sure, but go just about anywhere in the US and you absolutely need a car. I grew up in Atlanta and the car centricity of the city always stuck out to me. For a while I lived in a neighborhood called Lenox Park, it was an older neighborhood with a park in the center and flanked by single and multi family homes. You could walk outside and get some exercise in the park but if you wanted to go to the grocery store or the gas station, a car was very much required. This was because Lenox park was firmly in the "residential" zone and the nearest "commercial" zone where you found all your restaurants and stores was over a mile away.

Now imagine a scenario where Lenox Park was instead in a mixed use zone. You would still have the park and surrounding neighborhood, but you would now also have a grocery store, maybe a barber shop or a beauty salon and some restaurants. In this scenario a resident would likely still own a car, but all the "core services" would be walking distance from your home.

But we don't do this, and it's honestly baffling. City councils love to talk about equity, but what can be less equitable than designing your city or town in such a way that you must own a car? We talk about the obesity epidemic in America but no one ever stopped to think that maybe one of the reasons is requiring people to drive everywhere and zoning that discourages walking.

In some regards we have started to fix this problem with more and more mixed use developments, but it seems that we kept our old way of thinking about zoning. I was visiting a friend the other day that lived in one of these developments, 4-5 apartment complexes with businesses on the ground floor. As I walked around I noticed that even though this development was mixed use, the only businesses on the ground floor were expensive restaurant and niche services, no grocery store, no convenient store, no barber shops. This development highlights a problem with how we in the US think about zoning, for us the sprawl is the norm, having to use a car to get everywhere is the norm, and anytime we develop for mixed use, it always seems like more of a vanity piece than something that's actually useful.

We really need to rethink zoning in America.

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