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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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." 

By Michael Allan Wolf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Zoning of America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When the Cleveland suburb of Euclid first zoned its land in 1922, the Ambler Realty Company was left with a sizable tract it could no longer sell for industrial use - and so the company sued. What emerged was the seminal zoning case in American history, pitting reformers against private property advocates in the Supreme Court and raising the question of whether a municipality could deny property owners the right to use their land however they chose.Reconstructing the case that made zoning a central element in urban planning for cities and towns throughout America, Michael Allan Wolf provides the first…

Book cover of Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America

Why did I love 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.

By Conor Dougherty,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Golden Gates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Time 100 Must-Read Book of 2020 * A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice * California Book Award Silver Medal in Nonfiction * Finalist for The New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism * Named a top 30 must-read Book of 2020 by the New York Post * Named one of the 10 Best Business Books of 2020 by Fortune * Named A Must-Read Book of 2020 by Apartment Therapy * Runner-Up General Nonfiction: San Francisco Book Festival * A Planetizen Top Urban Planning Book of 2020 * Shortlisted for the Goddard Riverside…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Sonia A. Hirt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Zoned in the USA as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why are American cities, suburbs, and towns so distinct? Compared to European cities, those in the United States are characterized by lower densities and greater distances; neat, geometric layouts; an abundance of green space; a greater level of social segregation reflected in space; and-perhaps most noticeably-a greater share of individual, single-family detached housing. In Zoned in the USA, Sonia A. Hirt argues that zoning laws are among the important but understudied reasons for the cross-continental differences.

Hirt shows that rather than being imported from Europe, U.S. municipal zoning law was in fact an institution that quickly developed its own, distinctly…

Book cover of The Environmental Protection Hustle

Why did I love 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. 

By Bernard J. Frieden,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Environmental Protection Hustle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No one likes ticky-tacky houses spread all over the landscape and invading the suburbs, least of all the people who already live there. But are environmentalists and suburbanites right when they object? Bernard Frieden, Professor of Urban Planning at MIT, doesn't think so. At least not when their objections take the form that they have in northern California. In this lively and certainly controversial book, Frieden uncovers a powerful, ideologically driven crusade to keep the average citizen from homeownership and the good life in the suburbs. Written in the best tradition of civic reform, Frieden's observations are a warning signal…

Sprawl: A Compact History

By Robert Bruegmann,

Book cover of Sprawl: A Compact History

Why did I love 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. 

By Robert Bruegmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sprawl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As anyone who has flown into Los Angeles at dusk or Houston at midday knows, urban areas today defy traditional notions of what a city is. Our old definitions of urban, suburban, and rural fail to capture the complexity of these vast regions with their superhighways, subdivisions, industrial areas, office parks, and resort areas pushing far out into the countryside. Detractors call it sprawl and assert that it is economically inefficient, socially inequitable, environmentally irresponsible, and aesthetically ugly. Robert Bruegmann calls it a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, with benefits that urban planners have failed…

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