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Euclidean Zoning To The Extreme

November 26, 2008 Downtown 18 Comments

A hundred years ago people didn’t go to zoning hearings, they didn’t worry about being able to operate a business on their property, and any limits to the number of units on their land was more a function of the amount of land. But also a hundred years ago the industrial city was not always a pleasant place. A factory might open in the block behind your newly built home, spewing pollutants and creating noise at all hours.

The solution to these urban ills was zoning. Cities would create “land use” maps segregating industrial, office, retail, and housing. Early efforts were often used to keep industry from spoiling more pleasant areas of town. In Ohio the Village of Euclid, a Cleveland suburb, enacted zoning in 1921 to keep Cleveland’s industry out of its jurisdiction.

A property owner viewed the restriction on the future use of their land as a “taking” by the government and filed suit. The case, Village of Euclid, Ohio v Ambler Realty, went all they way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A lower court had ruled the zoning law to be in conflict with the Ohio & U.S. Constitutions. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed and reversed the lower court’s ruling. Their November 22, 1926 ruling declared use zoning as legal. Since then it has been known as “Euclidean zoning.”

Planning firms such as the St Louis based Harland Bartholomew & Associates prepared “comprehensive” plans for hundreds of cities which included the adoption of Euclidean zoning. By the 1950s they would still encounter cities that had not adopted use-based zoning. In other cases they found cities with “incomplete” zoning because while it might segregate uses it failed to regulate the heights of buildings.

In the 82 years since the Supreme Court validated the zoning ordinance for the Village of Euclid, Ohio we’ve managed to take a simple concept — keeping out heavy industry — to a point beyond reasonable. Cities and their suburbs now over regulate uses on land. Residential areas, for example, are broken down by single-family, two-family, multi-family. Even within Single-family you have different sections requiring different minimum lot sizes.

“Exclusionary zoning” is the term used when zoning is such that it excludes that which might be perceived as undesirable. For example, if a municipality has al their residential zoning so that lots sizes must be at least 3 acres in size. Minimum house size is another way to keep out more affordable housing options. Similarly, maximum sizes for apartments means those will end up being kid-free zones.  It is one thing for a developer to set project specific standards but another for government to mandate it.

Houston is famous for its lack of Euclidean zoning. It does, however, have regulations such as 5,000 sq. ft. minimum lot size for a single family house. In Houston, according to Wikipedia, “Apartment buildings currently must have 1.33 parking spaces per bedroom, and 1.25 for each efficiency.” These sorts of rules produce the same results – sprawl and auto dependency.

I personally like streets that have single-family homes, two & four-family buildings, an apartment building at one end and a storefront on the other end with an apartment over the shop. This is just far more interesting and dynamic than a street of all the same thing.

Unfortunately, 82 years of Euclidean zoning has created a strong bias against anything but strict adherence to maintaining strict segregation of uses. With all of our industry overseas there is little threat to a polluting plants taking over idyllic residential streets yet we act as if that is still the reality.

We’ve taken Euclidean zoning to the extreme and our regions (core, inner ring, edges) all suffer as a result.  It is time for St Louis and the region to evaluate our many varied zoning regulations and revamp them to create the type of community we desire rather than what folks 50-80 years ago thought we should have.  The world is a different place.  Zoning needs to adopt and change along the way.

St Louis’ former director of Planning, Rollin Stanley, got us going in the right direction.  In 2005 the St Louis Board of Aldermen adopted a new Strategic Land Use Plan.  The missing element is the new zoning to go with it.  Without Stanley advocating new the new zoning we are no further ahead than we were before his arrival.


Currently there are "18 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    And in the realm of unintended consequences, many landowners now believe that the existing zoning, no matter how flawed, is sacrosanct, and that ANY attempt to change it (making it more appropriate for the time and the community) equals a “taking” by the government, for which they must be compensated. It doesn’t matter that the market won’t support the maximum use, they still hold government hostage arguing that taking away a prescribed use diminishes the value of their land, and they should be paid in much the same way they would be compensated through eminent domain. You’re right. What we need is a strong leader to move this forward. If and when the market improves, it’ll be that much more difficult to make changes. With the current doldrums / status quo, it’s much harder to argue that any real takings would occur in changing the zoning on most local properties.

  2. Jim Zavist says:

    I don’t know any of the details, but this sounds promising in San Francisco: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/11/25/BAJU147AJE.DTL

  3. Tim says:

    Houston, little to no zone rules, low cost affordable housing. Portland, San Jose, lots and lots of rules and regulations, out of control housing costs and shortages. I’m guessing, not a coincidence. So it’s obvious that people that support lots of zoning rules and regulations must hate the poor. Shame.

  4. john w. says:

    hmmm… Houston = a piece of crap city rife with sprawl, placelessness and bad architecture. A city defined by immeasurable miles of paved highways. Portland and San Jose are fantastic cities with walkable streets, cosmopolitan appeal and desireable amenities. So it’s obvious that providing for planning and regulations that result in the type of form and physical fabric that keeps people flocking to these cities must be working on at least some level, now wouldn’t it? Nah… for you- Houston.

  5. Tim says:

    “placelessness” Wow. If keeping the “wrong types” out of the city is the goal then yeah, keeping prices high via regulation is the way to go. I thought the goal was affordable housing. But I guess not, pretty streets and the “right” amount of this and that planned by those of you that “know best” is the real goal. Now that you have made that clear lets not hear anymore about “affordable housing”. Or is your goal the “right kind” of affordable housing?

  6. john w. says:

    I didn’t realize that San Jose and Portland were devoid of affordable housing, but now that you’ve pointed that out to us all, I don’t see any reason to not just pull up the tent stakes and move to beautiful, homey Houston. I see by your quotation marks that you like to attribute to others remarks not actually made by those implied by the quotation marks, but I’ll let that one pass. For the affordable housing issue, I’d simply say that ALL cities have got to do more to provide what any working person would describe as affordable, because there is a dearth of that just about anywhere. If you can provide for me a few examples of regulation in either Portland or San Jose that expressly prohibits the inclusion of what could arguably be described as affordable in that market, then I’ll be happy with your assertion that there is no affordable housing available in either city, and it’s all because of pesky regulations that encourage more desirable and higher quality developed land. Are you suggesting that Portland and San Jose look to shining Houston for planning inspiration? ” ‘Wrong types’ “? What the hell are you talking about? I can barely afford housing in desirable areas, and flat out can’t afford it in some others… am I the ‘wrong type’ too? Are you suggesting that good urban planning, and the sort that results in strong real estate market and desirable is deliberately exclusionary? I’ll acknowledge that a serious challenge exists, but if the easy alternative is a craphole like Houston I’ll accept the challenge and work for change. Really, Tim, you’re welcome to move to Houston… I’m sure they’d be happy to sell you some affordable real estate.

  7. James R. says:

    And here I thought all along it had to do with Euclidean Geometry.
    I was actually impressed with the way that Portland incorporated affordable housing into their Pearl District development. They had a requirement for ‘x’ number of affordable units along w/ their market rate housing. The affordable even integrated fairly well architecturally, requiring a trained eye to notice the differences in materials.
    Portland does have their urban growth boundary, but beyond that I’m not aware of any regulation restricting affordable housing. And they have responded to their growth boundary by increasing density. Lots of high-rise apartment and condos there and they seem to be building as many as they can. While a certain amount of housing expense could be a result of an artificial scarcity cause by the growth boundary, I’d argue that a large portion is the desirabilty of Portland as a place to live. Same with San Francisco. Same thing with the Central West End in our fair city.
    I’d say ‘placeless’ fits Houston quite well, and I don’t think it has anything to do with keeping out the ‘wrong types’. I think it has more to do with the quality (or lack there of) of the urban space. It’s awfully hard to define space when you can’t see from one side of the street to the other due to the curvature of the earth.
    And if you haven’t been to Portland, you haven’t seen the throngs of poor people all throught the city. They flock there for the outstanding services. Especially, according to my wife, the young slackers ‘who would rather spend their money on tattoos, piercing, and brown-tar heroin than rent, food, or soap.’

  8. northside neighbor says:

    San Jose is suburban sprawl nightmare, rife with racial tensions (asians vs blacks vs hispanics vs whites), best seen through the windshield at 70 MPH.

  9. john w. says:

    Downtown San Jose is a fantastic example of urban design, with a usable light rail system running right in the streets, a great urban park among the CBD core (albeit with Alaska Airlilnes planes flying directly overhead on route to the airport every 45 minutes), and walkable city streets with ground floor shops and living above. The SJSU campus helps add to the mix of pedestrians, and the Dan Solomon building of late 1990s sets a great example of how to build dense, urban dwelling units that address the street in a memorable way. I can’t, and won’t try to speak for the suburbs in San Jose, or any more of silicone valley sprawling from San Jose to S.F., and if you want to drive by that sprawl travelling 70 mph on the highway, go ahead. I’ll stick to the great example of urban design in the San Jose downtown. I don’t care much about what happens in the suburbs- in S.J. or anywhere else.

  10. john w. says:

    …here’s a link to the Solomon building write-up for a design award it received, and, if I’m reading English correctly, I think it actually says that it includes some affordable units… in San Jose… not Houston: http://www.solomonetc-wrt.com/projects/multifamily/san_fernando.html

  11. john w. says:

    So, what can be done with Stanley’s Strategic Land Use Plan, now that the city has chased him away?

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    Put it on the shelf with all the others and continue to do things the same old way . . . 😉
    Realistically, elect people who “get it” and push them to deliver on their promises!

    [slp — we can only elect those who run for office.]

  13. john w. says:

    Back, quickly, on the matter of the Dan Solomon building, 101 San Fernando in downtonw S.J., the first two links (below) show the building’s density, and the third link shows the building in street context from a website that compares some interesting then & now shots of street corners in the S.J. downtown area. Like most cities, there are some losses of historic architecture, but the overall urban quality of this downtown is commendable. I’ve always loved the crafted architecture and building type in Neighborhood Gardens in St. Louis, and the Solomon building is simply a contemporary version of such a building type (if not initial intended use, as N.G. was a social housing project of the 1930s). This building type has much relevance to any urban area, but could infuse urban St. Louis with quality rental units and better precedent-setting form. Here are the three links:


    I’m very certain Rollin Stanley would approve of the Solomon building and its type included in a more dense, vibrant urban St. Louis.

  14. Two things:

    1. There is a much bigger incentive than you’ve noted not to place polluting factories in residential or commercial areas: land values are higher than at the edges of populated areas. Industry is far less dependent on proximity to population than residential or commercial areas, and thus the market will ensure that nobody builds a petrochemical factory in the middle of Lower Manhattan (or indeed anywhere in NYC).
    2. I thought that Wikipedia citation sounded familiar…then I remembered, it was because I put it in there! But, just for the future, it’s not very professional or compelling to cite Wikipedia articles…better to find the source (which I linked to – it’s that Planetizen article that you get if you click on the little [8] footnote marker) and cite that directly. And if it doesn’t have a source, then the info is suspect and you probably shouldn’t believe it to begin with.

    [slp — for my purposes here citing Wikipedia is sufficient. As you note those entries have sources listed. In the Planetizen article you cite no sources are given so referencing it in Wikipedia or in my post would both be suspect in academic circles. It got the point across and provided a starting point for further fact checking. The best source would have been a direct reference to the Houston code directly.]

  15. john w. says:

    Should we elect ourselves, and then activate Stanleys plan? Or should we elect ourselves, and then rehire Stanley back from Virginia or Maryland to realize the vision?

  16. matt says:

    “Houston, little to no zone rules, low cost affordable housing. Portland, San Jose, lots and lots of rules and regulations, out of control housing costs and shortages. I’m guessing, not a coincidence. So it’s obvious that people that support lots of zoning rules and regulations must hate the poor. Shame.”


    Portland is the cheapest metro on the west coast-yet its still on the west coast which might explain the spike in real estate values. Furthermore, Portland is a sort of “urban laboratory,” from which I think other cities can learn from and not disregard what actually works.

    Have you been to Portland?

    Doesn’t seem so out of control to me, if overpopulated by overeducated and underemployed young people from the midwest where their home cities have let them down. Maybe if we picked up the slack, college grads wouldn’t be leaking out of St. Louis like a damn sieve.

  17. john w. says:

    I’ve been to Houston several times on business, and it is a stupid, stupid place.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Houston shows that SOME zoning is needed. (Houston, we have a problem!) At the original onset it made sense. You wouldn’t want to live next to a (North) Korean who wants to build a spaceport and launch rockets at 3AM. Unless the payload is the zoning official! OK, that’s a silly example of why it started, but shows the point.

    But zoning nowadays is normally designed to ensure jacked up property values. Why? To avoid having to raise the property tax multiplier number causing the city officials to lose elections. That’s why zoning is used to prevent affordable housing. Chicago, while not as severe as SF, is all but devoid of affordable housing – except in hazardous neighbourhoods. (the kind best seen through a windshield at a million mph) What Mayor Daley calls “affordable” is 150,000 to 200,000 dollars! Figure a 6 percent 30 year fixed mortgage on the $150K condo. The mortgage payment by itself is $999/month. Add in tax, insurance, and $400 monthly association fee, and it’s not affordable except to plastic surgeons.

    Zoning (and homeowner associations) have the bad effect of banning solar panels and windmills, an issue sure to heat up. Zoners do that to ensure the cookie cutter conformity that ensures the “placelessness” that ensures we all need navigation equipment in our cars like spacecraft.

    We need simplified zoning like Sim City where there are 3 zones, residential, commercial, and industrial. But allow in the residential zones small shops, bars, and other amenities along busy streets.


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