Skip to main content
Support research and data that ignite change
Donate
Topics
  • Aging and retirement
  • Child welfare
  • Children and youth
  • Climate, disasters, and environment
  • Crime, justice, and safety
  • Economic mobility and inequality
  • Education
  • Evidence-based policy capacity
  • Families
  • Global issues
  • Health and health care
  • Housing
  • Housing finance
  • Immigrants and immigration
  • Land use
  • Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
  • Nonprofits and philanthropy
  • Race and equity
  • Sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression
  • Social safety net
  • State and local finance
  • Taxes and budgets
  • Wealth and financial well-being
  • Workforce
  • View all
  • Stories, Data Tools, Blogs
  • Stories and data tools
  • Urban Wire
  • Critical Value podcast
  • Evidence and Ideas for Change
  • [email protected]
  • Partner projects
  • Our Approach
  • How We Work
  • Year in Review: 2021
  • Researcher Principles
  • Events
  • Events Home
  • Past Events
  • About
  • About Urban
  • Our People
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our Story
  • Support Urban
  • Our Funding
  • Contact Us
  • News Room
  • Careers
  • Support Urban
  • Donate
  • Get Involved
  • Ways to Give
  • Policy Centers
  • Center on Education Data and Policy
  • Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
  • Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
  • Health Policy Center
  • Housing Finance Policy Center
  • Income and Benefits Policy Center
  • Justice Policy Center
  • Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
  • Office of Race and Equity Research
  • Research to Action Lab
  • Statistical Methods Group
  • Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center
  • View all
  • Main navigation

  • Topics
  • Stories, Data Tools, Blogs
  • Events
  • Urban Wire Who Zones? Mapping Land-Use Authority across the US
    Lydia Lo
    Display Date
    December 9, 2019

    To better understand zoning, we need better data. The zoning data we do have are so sporadic and incomparable between jurisdictions that it’s difficult to assess the effect of zoning laws.

    Efforts to create national data on land-use practices and how they change over time have advanced (see the Urban Institute’s National Longitudinal Land Use Survey or the Terner Center’s California land-use survey data).

    But investigation and discussion is lacking around what level of government (e.g., counties, towns, townships, or cities) holds the authority to zone what land. No federal entity oversees or stores any data on who zones what land, and discussions that touch on this topic are only beginning to emerge in the public view.

    We need a better picture of who zones where

    Differentiating who zones where illuminates what sources of data can be used to examine the effects of zoning.

    For example, we shouldn’t be gathering data on statutory mentions of zoning or aggregating effects at the county level if all zoning occurs at a municipal level in that state. We should be collecting data from the municipality. Similarly, we shouldn’t use data from counties that only govern unincorporated areas if we are trying to understand certain zoning laws’ effects on dense housing production.

    In the process of constructing the first national longitudinal survey of the land-use regulatory practices in jurisdictions in the 50 largest US metropolitan areas, I had to map out what levels of government oversee zoning and land use. This varies widely across states and even within states.

    Most cities and villages zone their own land, but similarities across states end there.

    The map’s blue scale shows variation in counties’ zoning authority extent. Counties’ zoning authority ranges from full zoning authority over all land (dark blue), to zoning only unincorporated land (medium blue), to only rarely possessing any zoning authority over any unincorporated land (light blue). Zoning and development permitting authority for unincorporated land in those light blue states rests with the state.

    Meanwhile, the map’s gray scale shows zoning authority variation in county subdivisions, commonly known as towns or townships. Their authority extent ranges from full zoning authority over all land in New England (dark gray), to zoning just unincorporated areas (medium gray), to only occasionally possessing zoning authority over unincorporated areas (light gray). States in blue don’t have these intermediate-level jurisdiction types.

    As affordable housing continues to be a central national concern and as bipartisan support for federal involvement in local zoning swells, we would do well to make sure our policy recommendations are tailored to the local legal realities.

    This means beginning with a basic sense of what level of governments needs to work on their zoning ordinances. One size will certainly not fit all when talking about necessary or praiseworthy zoning policies, and research and policy recommendations should reflect that.

    Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Land use
    Tags Infrastructure Federal urban policies Community and economic development Land use and zoning
    Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center

    Footer Main

  • About
  • How We Work
  • Researcher Principles
  • Careers
  • Support Us
  • Newsletters
  • Legal

  • Privacy
  • Terms of Service
  • Copyright © Urban Institute