Euclid’s Legacy

While well intentioned, like many progressive interventions of the eary 1900s, zoning has contributed to sprawl (which has begun to be demonized by progressives over the recent decades) and served to inhibit the vitality and diversity of urban neighborhoods. The triumph of the core philosophy behind Euclid vs. Ambler later enabled destructive urban renewal projects using eminent domain to displace entire neighborhoods, the emergence of unfriendly NIMBY activism, and more recently helped give legitimacy to the decision in the highly controversial Kelo v. New London Supreme Court Case.

Steve at Urban Review STL, a Saint Louis-based urbanism blog, wrote a great summary of Euclidean Zoning in the US.

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.”

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.

Here’s a link to the source (Planetizen: Zoning Without Zoning) of that Wikipedia quote.