Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, M. Nolan Gray (Island Press, 2022), 256 pages.
It may be hard to believe today, but roughly a century ago, Americans could largely do what they wanted on their own land. All of that changed on July 25, 1916, when New York City adopted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance. Zoning regulates land uses and density—a series of “arbitrary lines” lines on a map telling you how and where to live and work—which with the passage of time spread outward from the Big Apple to Berkeley, carving up nearly every settled part of this country in between.
Still, zoning was for years a localized backwater, the province of ink-stained professionals and amateur busybodies—but no longer. Home prices and rents are at record highs today, and the sticker shock is spreading from coastal hotspots to Sun Belt cities that were once an affordable refuge for hardworking families. Zoning, according to a growing consensus, is inflating away the American Dream. Cutting this red tape has suddenly become a cause célèbre for local “Yes, In My Backyard” (YIMBY) activists to presidential administrations.
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