What Is Zoning?

on January 09, 2014

Imagine you’ve been tasked with designing a new city from the ground up. How would you go about it? Where would you begin?

You’d probably first want to decide where the streets would go—whether they’d be curvy or grid-like, and whether some would be side streets and others major thoroughfares. Next you’d probably choose where to place the individual buildings. You might begin with housing, positioning more densely-occupied apartments (the orange blocks in the image to your right) along wider streets, and quieter, single-family houses (the yellow blocks) in areas more removed from traffic. Commercial corridors (in red) would be a natural next phase of planning, and you’d probably want to situate cafes and dentists’ offices where they’d be in easy walking distance of local homes and public transit. Industrial facilities (in blue) might follow, soon after joined by parks and open spaces (in green), positioned where residents and workers on their lunch breaks alike could have easy access to nature and recreational facilities.

Recognizing that your citizens will be counting on you to plan the city well, you’d probably try to control every aspect of every building—from its height and setback to its design and use. Eventually, however, you’d begin to tire from the enormity of this task. You’d still want to make your community as functional, aesthetically pleasing, and livable as possible, but you’d start to recognize that with a huge piece of territory to plan and thousands of individual projects to approve, you simply cannot control everything and still get everything built.

Following that realization, you might consider some alternative means of controlling development in your city. For instance, perhaps if you identified some key design elements that you believe should be standard for all new development—such as a three-story height limit—you could allow more of the buildings you’d like to see to be built without specifically having to dictate the height of each.

You might even go one step further, and break the city into smaller, more manageable segments in order to control how buildings are constructed and used in different areas. You might want shorter buildings in residential areas than in commercial districts, or you might only allow large warehouses to be built on industrial land. By partitioning your city into smaller ‘zones’ according to how buildings are used, or even what they look like, you would be able to create a more fine-grained approach to new development than would be possible if you relied on a unitary design standard for the city as a whole.

Through this exercise, you have just developed the concept of zoning for your community. Zoning is one of the key building blocks of a modern city, managing where buildings are constructed, what they look like, how much landscaping they have, and how they are used. Zoning is usually a two-pronged practice, featuring both a color-coded zoning map (like the one depicted in the images to your right) that identifies which zone each property in the city falls into, and a written zoning code that details what can and cannot be built or operated in different parts of the city.

If cities were living organisms, zoning would be their genetic code. In humans, there are genes that influence height or determine eye color; when it comes to zoning, different kinds of regulations produce different kinds of cities. Some zoning codes require large amounts of on-site parking and shorter buildings set on large lots, and these codes produce suburban-like communities. Other zoning codes require limited building setbacks from the street, permit taller buildings on smaller lots, and constrain on-site parking, producing more typically urban environments. These preferences for certain environments appear within the zoning code, but they may ultimately be traced to policies found in the city’s ‘general plan’.

The general plan is the community’s long-range visioning document for how it will grow, develop, and function in the years ahead. The general plan is produced as a joint venture between local stakeholders and city planning staff, and is routinely updated to adapt to changing demands and expectations. While the general plan contains ideas for the future, the zoning code is the implementation tool that actually makes those visions a reality. For instance, if the community’s goal is to create walkable communities, then the zoning code would likely require human-scale buildings, outdoor dining, and extensive street landscaping within the targeted zones.

What Is Zoning Like In Los Angeles?

Here in Los Angeles, zones are labeled with a prefix, such as R for residential, C for commercial, and M for manufacturing, with subcategories based on intensity. For instance, the M3 Zone permits more intensive uses than the M2, and the M2 permits more intensive uses than are allowed in M1. In general, uses that are allowed in less intensive zones are also allowed in more intensive zones. This means that almost anything, except residential uses, may be built in a M3 Zone, while relatively little may be built in a RE Residential Estate Zone.

A diagram demonstrating the current zones from most restrictive to least restrictive.

Because Los Angeles is so large and geographically, socially, and culturally diverse, numerous efforts have been made to create more tailored zoning policies for particular sections of the City. The City as a whole is segmented into 35 Community Plan areas, each with its own planning and visioning process that identifies which of the citywide zones (shown in the chart above) are appropriate for local development as they relate to their individual general plan land use designations (shown in the chart below). A general plan land use designation identifies a major use category that includes a range of corresponding zones. For example, a community plan may determine that lots in the Single-Family Residential Low II Land Use Designation can only be zoned RE20 or RE15. In the Multi-Family Low Medium II Land Use Designation, the most intensive zone permitted is the RD2 Zone, because this will limit development to be compatible with the neighborhood. In other parts of Los Angeles, however, those more intensive zones are appropriate. Thus, while a fixed menu of zones exists citywide, each community plan area ends up with its own unique bundle, chosen to encourage the type of development desired for that location.

To further customize zoning needs, 48 ‘specific plans’ exist to provide unique design, form, and land use requirements for particular development projects, street corridors, and neighborhoods. Beyond these, over 20 types of overlays and districts have been created to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to zoning. Among these are pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use, and fence height districts, along with historic preservation, and community plan implementation.

Because the City’s Zoning Code is so outdated, additional layers of zoning regulation have been created to permit greater diversity in the built environment. Unfortunately, they have also created significant confusion during the development process for all involved stakeholders. There are now so many overlapping layers of regulations that it has become difficult to ascertain which take precedence. Additionally, the regulations currently in place sometimes do not support the City’s long-range policies for the community. As a result, those interested in making changes to their properties often seek variances, adjustments from zoning requirements, or zone changes to develop their lots as they wish, even when in accordance with the City’s General Plan Framework Element and the 35 Community Plans. These processes are time-consuming and expensive, and discourage attempts to create the types of neighborhoods envisioned in the long-range vision.

While re:code LA will be creating new zones for Los Angeles, it will not be creating new policy. What it will be doing is culling exemplary regulations and guidelines from existing specific plans, community plans, and other similar policy and regulatory documents, and applying them citywide to better achieve the goals of the General Plan Framework. Perhaps by creating more zones for Los Angeles, and potentially removing the need for so many overlays, development consistent with the community’s vision can actually be streamlined. Greater diversity in land use and zoning categories will lead to greater specialization within each district, translating into higher-quality, more human-scale spaces for Angelenos to occupy and enjoy.