Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Decarbonization Through Development Regulations

The ongoing and projected effects of climate change are grim. And action to prevent the worst of these effects can't wait. Over the past 70 years, zoning and other development regulations have sanctioned (and often required) land-use patterns and development practices that have contributed to the rapid rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with transportation and buildings.

As Margaret Byerly Williams points out in the April issue of Zoning Practice, "Low-Carbon Land-Use Laws," local land-use and development regulations may also be key to climate change mitigation. In this issue, Williams surveys a wide range of local regulatory strategies that can reduce GHG emissions or promote increased carbon sequestration.

Reducing GHG Emissions

Zoning has driven per-capita GHG emissions up by requiring a strict separation of uses that increases vehicle miles traveled and encourages energy-intensive construction practices. But, according to Williams, altering these regulations to promote pedestrian- and transit-oriented design can help reverse the trend.

The climate change mitigation effects are even greater when these zoning strategies are paired with other development regulations that incentivize or require green building practices and renewable energy use.

Upgrading building codes to boost baseline energy efficiency standards and incentivizing increased efficiency through density bonuses or flexible development standards can dramatically reduce the overall energy needs of buildings.

Removing barriers to passive solar design and installing renewable energy systems at all scales can help shift a greater percentage of those energy needs away from GHG-emitting sources.

Sequestering Carbon

The process of urban development has dramatically reduced the percentage of land covered by old-growth forests and other forms of native vegetation that have been acting as carbon sinks, or natural features that capture and store carbon dioxide. The good news is that young, rapidly growing trees remove carbon faster than old trees.

Local development regulations can promote carbon sequestration by preserving existing trees and requiring or incentivizing tree planting and native vegetation.

While many communities have had tree protection, landscaping, erosion and sediment control, and steep-slope protection regulations on the books for decades, now is the time to revisit and enhance these standards. Same goes for transferable development rights, another established tool, with tremendous potential to boost climate change mitigation and resilience.

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Each issue of Zoning Practice (ZP) provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

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Top image: A view of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis across the Mississippi River. Credit: Umberto Nicoletti / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA.

April 11, 2022

By David Morley, AICP