Arbitrary Lines: A Move Beyond Zoning 

By Chuck Kasky
CEO of Maryland REALTORS® and host of the Association’s podcast, “Get Real Estate,” which is available through any podcast app.

Imagine that we could bring the United States closer to addressing debilitating housing shortages, stunted growth and innovation, persistent racial and economic segregation, and car-dependent development by replacing a single archaic and unsound policy. 

Momentum is building for doing just that. Until recently, zoning felt like a subject fit for discussion by only a narrow circle of experts. In the last decade or so, however, several noteworthy books on zoning have been published, alongside dozens, if not hundreds, of articles in America’s most august news outlets and thousands of social media posts and blogs. One major city after another, from Miami to Denver to Minneapolis, has significantly revised their zoning ordinances, and states such as California and Oregon have initiated ambitious reforms as well. Zoning is fast becoming a hot topic of conversation, and for a good reason: zoning has always been a deeply political and therefore debatable subject, but one that has artfully disguised itself as a mere technical tool.  

In Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, city planner M. Nolan Gray argues it’s time for America to move beyond zoning. With lively explanations and stories, Gray shows why zoning reform is a necessary condition for building more affordable, vibrant, equitable, and sustainable communities. The arbitrary lines of zoning maps across the country have come to dictate where Americans live and work, forcing communities into a pattern of growth that is segregated and sprawling. 

It does not have to be this way. Reform is in the air and the key pillars of zoning are under fire, with apartment bans being scrapped, minimum lot sizes dropping, and off-street parking requirements disappearing altogether. Some American cities including Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, already make land-use planning work without zoning.  

The purpose of Arbitrary Lines is to show that zoning, which was invented more than a century ago to better our communities, improve living conditions, and reduce health hazards stemming from the coexistence of housing and polluting industries, has devolved into an arcane system of spatial division that worsens the very problems its adopters hoped to solve. The book is a comprehensive, well-grounded, and logically organized critique of the rigid and indeed arbitrary way in which zoning structures our communities. 

In Arbitrary Lines, Gray lays the groundwork for this ambitious cause by clearing up common confusions and myths about how American cities regulate growth and examining the major contemporary critiques of zoning. Gray sets out some of the efforts currently underway to reform zoning and describes how land-use regulation might work in post-zoning America. He shows how zoning has failed to address even our most basic concerns about urban growth over the past century, and how we can think about a new way of planning more affordable, prosperous, equitable, and sustainable American communities.  

Gray provides a compelling case against the parochial zoning rules that have shaped Americans’ lives, from our homes to our budgets to the work opportunities available to us. While the flaws in and the true costs of zoning become clearer each year, few have questioned the basic paradigm of policymakers and how they determine the quantity and type of building that will be permitted on private land in their jurisdictions. Gray weighs in with new ways of thinking about land use and a road map for a future unconstrained by zoning. 

You can learn more about moving beyond zoning from M. Nolan Gray himself, who was Chuck Kasky’s guest in a special live podcast production of “Get REAL Estate Live” at Maryland REALTORS®’ Annual Conference, “ALL IN! Engage. Network. Learn.” Click here to listen, or find it on Spotify, Google podcasts, or Apple podcasts. 

If you want to read the book yourself, ask your local bookseller or click here for the Amazon listing