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ARE Live: Zoning Ordinances

Learn more about the basics of zoning ordinances, why they matter, and how they show up on the ARE.

Before we jump into the five questions in this episode, we’ll give a quick overview of what zoning ordinances are, why they’re important, and why they came about. 

What are Zoning Ordinances?

Zoning ordinances aim to manage growth and development in areas by controlling how large buildings are, both in terms of height and area, but also in terms of footprint. Zoning ordinances also control things like where buildings are placed on the site, usually by requiring different types of setbacks from different types of lot lines. 

Lastly, zoning ordinances govern the types of uses that are allowed in certain districts. So in many ways, you can say that zoning is concerned with the building envelope and outward, and how the building is perceived from the outside. 

That’s pretty different from building code, which is really about governing life safety and accessibility issues. A simple way to think about that compared to zoning is that the building code is concerned with the building envelope and everything inside the building. 

So with that, why do we even have zoning ordinances? You won’t get a question about the history of zoning ordinances on the ARE, but understanding how they came about can help you understand the purpose of zoning. 

A Brief History of Zoning Ordinances

The first comprehensive zoning ordinances in the US was the 1916 New York City zoning ordinances, and it was in response to a number of things. There was a building in Manhattan called the Equitable Building that was built in 1915, and that is a massive building, over 500 feet tall, with zero setbacks. It just goes straight up. 

And as a result, it casts about seven acres of severe shadow across lower Manhattan. A lot of people were upset by this building being built, particularly neighboring landowners who felt it devalued their neighboring properties. 

A couple other factors went into this 1916 ordinance. In the early nineteen hundreds, New York City was an industrial hub, and these industries were starting to encroach on some fashionable areas of the city—particularly the ladies’ mile, the shopping district. So again, landowners in the ladies’ mile district weren’t so happy about that, and wanted some regulation to stop that encroachment from happening. 

There were also a lot of tenement houses in New York City that were generally unsafe for folks to be living in super crowded spaces. Another aim of these zoning ordinances was to improve the living conditions by requiring some light and air into these housing units. 

Zoning Ordinances vs. Building Codes

You might be asking why we need both zoning ordinances and building codes. Why can’t there be just one set of standards? One reason is that zoning is really uniquely tailored to the area that it’s in, in a way that building code may not need to be. 

For example, a zoning map of the Upper East Side of New York City is a really dense zoning map—as it needs to be for that area. The regulations in urban areas govern large buildings that are going to be built really close to each other on really small lots. 

If you compare that to a map of a more rural area, like a small town in upstate New York, the requirements for that kind of community are super different. The city center may have more densely packed smaller lots, and as you get further out from the city and into more wooded areas the requirements change. 

That’s why we need different zoning ordinances. There’s not a single zoning ordinance you’re going to need to know for the purposes of the ARE, because it’s different everywhere. It needs to respond to the local community. 

Usually, a local planning board or some kind of governmental body like that will create the zoning in their jurisdiction that’s specific to their needs. That’s very different from building codes; life safety in a rural community and New York City are going to be pretty much the same.

A residential building will still need the same smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors no matter where it’s located, and the same egress requirements. So a standardized building code makes sense, whereas a standardized zoning ordinance probably doesn’t. 

To see the specific questions about zoning ordinances and how to work through them on the ARE, check out the full episode below: