Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Whose Status Quo Should Zoning Protect?

Here's a paradox: Zoning is often criticized both for perpetuating an inequitable status quo and for driving the displacement of longtime residents and businesses. This seeming contradiction is rooted in how many planners and local officials have historically applied zoning, as a protector of wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods and business districts and as a change accelerant in areas serving historically disadvantaged and traditionally vulnerable communities.

APA's Equity in Zoning Policy Guide calls attention to the need for protective zoning measures for Black, Latino/a/x, Tribal, Indigenous, and other communities of color, older adults, persons experiencing disabilities, persons of different national origins or religious faiths, and LGBTQIA communities. In the August issue of Zoning Practice, "Protecting Historically Disadvantaged and Vulnerable Neighborhoods and Business Districts," Darcie White, AICP, expands on the guide's policy recommendations to explore how communities can use zoning as an anti-displacement tool.

You Can't Protect What You Don't "See"

As White points out, the first step in protecting neighborhoods and business districts that serve historically disadvantaged and traditionally vulnerable communities is documentation. In part, that means using available data and dashboards, such as the Urban Displacement Project, to identify areas at risk for gentrification and displacement. However quantitative data analysis is no substitute for engaging marginalized populations in documentation efforts.

White highlights efforts in Madison, Wisconsin, Pueblo, Colorado, Denver, and Los Angeles to use historical context studies to focus on how historically disadvantaged and traditionally vulnerable communities have contributed to the evolution of these cities. She suggests planners should draw on evidence from similar studies to establish the policy basis for protective zoning measures in the communities they serve.

Tapping the Power of Special Districts

Special-purpose zoning districts can be powerful tools for speeding up or slowing down physical change in neighborhoods and business districts. Perhaps the most common type of protective special district is a historic district overlay, but as White notes, these overlays typically focus on preserving the physical characteristics of the place and not the cultural contributions of its community members.

However, according to White, several municipalities and counties have explored or implemented the concept of cultural preservation districts. For example, Beaufort County, South Carolina, has adopted a Cultural Protection Overlay Zone to protect the culturally significant sites and cultural contributions of the Gullah (Geechee) culture on St. Helena Island.

Protecting Historically Disadvantaged and Vulnerable Neighborhoods and Business Districts.

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in 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: Arild Vågen, Wikimedia

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

August 14, 2023

By David Morley, AICP