In recent months, the Coronavirus pandemic and reignited social unrest following the death of George Floyd have highlighted ongoing issues in our communities regarding unequal access to quality healthcare, affordable housing and educational opportunities. As society struggles with identifying all the causes of this disparate treatment, we sometimes forget the role in that system that land use ordinances historically played and continue to play to this day. Land use ordinances can be used to socially engineer a community under the guise of “planning.”

We are taught that zoning began as a community building tool in the United States as a way of ensuring “compatible” uses were near each other and incompatible uses were separated. The thought was that stronger communities could be built by keeping zones or districts of compatible uses together. But has this been the only use of zoning?

This article by Robert Orr includes a critical analysis of the historical use of zoning – especially in urban communities – and argues that in some instances zoning has been used as a tool for segregating our communities. Orr argues that zoning has led to “self-inflict[ed] racism, social instability, unaffordability, car-dependency and municipal bankruptcy . . . .” While this certainly is not always the result of community planning and zoning, it raises provocative questions about why certain zoning provisions are the norm in so many communities (e.g. large minimum lot sizes, maximum density, maximum building height, etc.).

Municipalities in Pennsylvania often reflect on the physical impacts associated with the planning decisions they make in drafting and amending land use ordinances (e.g., strain on the sewer and water infrastructure, effect of vehicular traffic added to the road system, effect on stormwater runoff, etc.). But this article suggests there is significant value in looking at land use ordinances through the lens of socio-economic impacts to the community. Although insidious intentions certainly are not the only reason behind the rise of zoning, municipalities could be well-served to consider Orr’s points and the potential benefits of analyzing socioeconomic effects when considering new zoning regulations.