Posted by: Patricia Salkin | May 24, 2008

Summer Reading List – A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Communities

Planner Donald Elliott has written a new book – A Better Way to Zone: Ten Principles to Create More Livable Communities, full of proposed solutions to building livable American cities. Elliott explains how antiquated zoning laws have partly led to the woes of the housing market and the top-down approach to municipal growth. He states, “The changing structure of the American economy is making it more difficult for many citizens to afford housing, and zoning often compounds the problem of providing attainable housing through regulatory barriers or rigid definitions of permissible lots and housing types.” Elliott also asserts that in general, zoning laws are more complex than they need to be; zoning laws actually prevent many types of development that municipalities might like to approve; zoning does not often adjust to changed circumstances; and that the current zoning system reflects and encourages poor systems of municipal governance.


Following a brief introduction to the history of zoning, Elliott exposes failed assumptions in traditional Euclidean zoning. In addition to explaining how one size does not fit all, Elliott notes how early beliefs that variances would be rare proved untrue, as did the belief that nonconforming uses would naturally terminate within a reasonable period of time. He explains through examples how the notions of traditional Euclidean zoning no longer work.


 After identifying a set of new land use drivers, in Chapter Seven, Elliott gets to the heart of his agenda – devising a better way to zone. Among the ten principles to improve zoning, Elliott advocates for: more flexible uses; what he terms the mixed-use middle; attainable housing; mature area standards; living with nonconformities; dynamic development standards; negotiated large developments; depoliticized final approvals; better webbing; and scheduled maintenance.  


He also offers a five-step plan for zoning reform that includes the consideration of zoning as a process. In order to have land use regulations that govern well, Elliott explains that principles of effectiveness, responsiveness, equity, efficiency, understandability and predictable flexibility are both essential and possible to achieve. To get started, Elliott suggests local governments undertake an audit to indentify specifics, and then he offers a roadmap of strategies designed to “fix” the traditional system.   



A Better Way to Zone is a valuable resource for land use planners, developers, zoning lawyers, and community stakeholders interested in understanding the current zoning practice.  It is presented in an inviting and readable format, and is a perfect addition to the summer reading list. 



The book was published by Island Press in March 2008 and is available at:

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