The best books that show why zoning isn’t as boring as you think

William A. Fischel Author Of Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation
By William A. Fischel

Who am I?

When I studied urban economics at Princeton in the 1970s, theoretical models of urban form were all the rage. Political barriers to urban development such as zoning were dismissed as irrelevant. But as I read more about it, zoning appeared to be the foremost concern of both developers and community members. My service on the Hanover, New Hampshire zoning board made me appreciate why homeowners are so concerned about what happens in their neighborhood. NIMBYs—neighbors who cry “not in my backyard”—are not evil people; they are worried “homevoters” (owners who vote to protect their homes) who cannot diversify their oversized investment. Zoning reforms won’t succeed without addressing their anxieties. 

I wrote...

Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

By William A. Fischel,

Book cover of Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation

What is my book about?

Zoning is the division of a city into separate uses such as residential, commercial, and industrial, and the regulation of each building’s size and location. It has been embraced by nearly every urban government for over a century, but Americans still think that it is mean old developers who cause urban sprawl and segregate our cities and suburbs. Zoning Rules! shows that the condition of our cities is very much the product of public land use regulation. My book explains how zoning works, why its politics is dominated by homeowners, and why it has recently pushed up housing costs. The books recommended here demonstrate that local land use regulation has enormous consequences for the environment, inequality, and economic growth. 

The books I picked & why

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The Zoning of America: Euclid V. Ambler

By Michael Allan Wolf,

Book cover of The Zoning of America: Euclid V. Ambler

Why this book?

Professor Wolf wrote a breezy and well-informed account of how zoning got the approval of the US Supreme Court in 1926. The definitive case, Euclid v. Ambler, was almost struck down, but the intrepid attorney for Euclid, Ohio, James Metzenbaum, managed to get a rare rehearing and saved the day. The case is nearing its centennial, and not everyone will be celebrating. Suburban zoning is now blamed for a host of modern problems, some foretold by the lower-court opinion that was rejected by the Supreme Court: “In the last analysis, the result to be accomplished [by Euclid’s zoning] is to classify the population and segregate them according to their income or situation in life." 

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America

By Conor Dougherty,

Book cover of Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America

Why this book?

Dougherty, a New York Times reporter, gives a timely review of how zoning and environmental regulations have made California the nation's poster child for overpriced housing. More encouragingly, he profiles several of the leaders who are fighting for reforms, including leaders of "YIMBY" movement (Yes In My Back Yard) and a state senator, Scott Wiener, whose initiatives have influenced state legislation to promote environmentally friendly infill development.

Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Book cover of Zoned in the USA: The Origins and Implications of American Land-Use Regulation

Why this book?

Hirt’s title might make you think it is just about the United States, but her well-written book is one of the rare instances of an insightful comparison of zoning policies in the other high-income nations of the world. Zoning actually started in Germany in the late nineteenth century and was imported to the US at the beginning of the twentieth. It was seriously modified on our shores. Rather than orchestrating the orderly development of mixed-use neighborhoods, Americans isolated the single-family, owner-occupied house on a zoning pedestal that it rarely enjoys in other countries. 

The Environmental Protection Hustle

By Bernard J. Frieden,

Book cover of The Environmental Protection Hustle

Why this book?

Not to be confused with Bernard Siegan, who wrote approvingly about the absence of zoning in Houston, Bernie Frieden undertook an on-site study of how the San Francisco Bay area became the pioneer in employing new environmental laws to make suburbs even more exclusionary than they were with garden-variety zoning. Unlike many critics of land use regulation, Frieden was an unabashed liberal who simply believed that ordinary people should be able to buy homes in communities as nice as those of the Sierra Club’s directors. Attacked at the time for overstating his case, Frieden now looks prophetic as California wrestles with its housing-cost crisis. 

Sprawl: A Compact History

By Robert Bruegmann,

Book cover of Sprawl: A Compact History

Why this book?

An architectural historian motivated by simple curiosity concludes that sprawl is not new and is a worldwide phenomenon. Highbrow critics have always condemned suburbanization until the next generation ends up living in it and trying to preserve it against further suburbanization. Bruegmann’s wide-ranging book is a sprightly send-up of the anti-sprawl sentiments throughout history and across the globe. Greenbelts to contain sprawl turn out to be especially toxic to sensible urban development. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in zoning, buildings, and land use?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about zoning, buildings, and land use.

Zoning Explore 4 books about zoning
Buildings Explore 7 books about buildings
Land Use Explore 6 books about land use

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-1960, and A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida if you like this list.