The Lasting Legacy of Harmful Land-Use Regulations

Modern land-use regulations emerged in the early 20th century through the landmark ruling of Euclid v. Ambler, which established zoning practice in the U.S. This opened the door to exclusionary zoning, and within decades, planning had created a system built to perpetuate racial segregation and the existing social order of the time. In "The Properties of Whiteness: Land Use Regulation and Anti-Racist Futures" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 89, No. 4), authors Darien Alexander Williams, Laura Humm Delgado, Nicholette Cameron, and Justin Steil discuss how early notions of race as property shaped the discipline of planning, and how these regulations and norms remain evident in cities across the U.S. today.

Race, Land Use, and Exclusion

Three main concepts are tackled by Williams et al.:

  • The history of race-based collective rights of exclusion, specifically about property rights and land use.
  • How early land-use regulations shaped the concepts of race, "whiteness," and property as they are considered in society today.
  • Readers are asked to consider their responsibility and power to establish equitable spaces for Black communities, concerning the aforementioned history of land use and race in America.

The early 20th century saw efforts made by middle and upper-class white residents to institute regulations upon where Black residents could live. With the 1916 racial zoning ordinance in St. Louis setting the precedent of the collective right of exclusion based on race, cities across the U.S. followed suit, such as Cleveland's 1926 case, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Company. Williams et al. identify the common understanding of property rights, including the rights to "possess, use, exclude, and alienate," and note that whiteness is inherently inclusive of the right to exclude.

Table 1. Timeline of landmark early 20th-century developments in race and planning.

Table 1. Timeline of landmark early 20th-century developments in race and planning.

Reforming Zoning Laws for Equity

Early notions of race and property continued to perpetuate inequality in the sphere of zoning and land-use law, well into the 21st century. Williams et al. begin with the argument that Cheryl L. Harris' 1993 concept of "whiteness as property" has changed to the "Whiteness of property" through the codification of the right to exclude starting in the 19th century.

From 1896 to 1948, there were 18 landmark cases and developments concerning the intersection of race and planning, starting with Plessy v. Ferguson and continuing to Shelley v. Kraemer. Through the list of these events shown by Williams et al. in Table 1, it is clear that the earliest cases continued to have direct implications and consequences throughout the years following.

What is the role of modern-day planners in reforming the past and shaping the future of land use and how it is related to race? St. Louis' 1916 zoning ordinance has continued to have implications for over a century, even though it was nullified by Buchanan v. Riley a year after its establishment, highlighting the strength that land-use legislation maintains even in death.

However, Williams et al. state that this does not imply the complete irreversibility of these early decisions. America's history of zoning and land-use laws demonstrates how race has been constructed in our built environment.

As planners, we are entrusted with the responsibility of shaping not just our physical environment, but also our social environment, and must conscientiously work to protect and rebuild marginalized spaces.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - melitas

About the author
Isabella Tice is a first-year master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

November 30, 2023

By Isabella Tice