We are blessed and cursed to live in times in which most smart people are expected to have an opinion on zoning. Blessed, in that zoning is arguably the single most important institution shaping where we live, how we move around, and who we meet. Cursed, in that zoning is notoriously obtuse, with zoning ordinances often cloaked in jargon, hidden away in PDFs, and completely different city-to-city.
Given this unusual state of affairs, I’m often asked, “What should I read to understand zoning?” To answer this question, I have put together a list of books for the zoning-curious. These have been broken out into three buckets:
- “Introductory” texts largely lay out the general challenges facing cities, with—at most—high-level discussions of zoning. Most people casually interested in cities can stop here.
- “Intermediate” texts address zoning specifically, explaining how it works at a general level. These texts are best for people who know a thing or two about cities but would like to learn more about zoning specifically.
- “Advanced” texts represent the outer frontier of zoning knowledge. While possibly too difficult or too deep into the weeds to be of interest to most lay observers, these texts should be treated as essential among professional planners, urban economists, and urban designers.
Before I start, a few obligatory qualifications: First, this not an exhaustive list. There were many great books that I left out in order to keep this list focused. Maybe you feel very strongly that I shouldn’t have left a particular book out. That’s great! Share it in the comments below. Second, while these books will give you a framework for interpreting zoning, they’re no substitute for understanding the way zoning works in your specific city. The only way to get that knowledge is to follow your local planning journalists, attend local planning meetings, and dive into your local zoning ordinance.
With all that said, let’s jump right in:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. If you read only one book on this list in your life, it should be this one. Arguably the most important urban planning book of the twentieth century, Death and Life critiques the theory and practice of planning in a way that’s simultaneously engaging and exhaustive. Of particular interest to those curious about the intersection of zoning and urban design.
Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser. Why do people keep flocking to cities in the age of the internet? Why are cities so much more productive than suburbs or small towns? Triumph of the City answers questions like these while easing readers into the field of urban economics. It’s fun, current, and accessible. Of particular interest to those curious about the intersection of zoning and the economy.
Green Metropolis by David Owen. Big, dense cities are good for the environment and environmentalists should fight against rules that keep them from getting bigger and denser. It speaks to Owen’s accomplishment that this once controversial thesis is now common knowledge. Green Metropolis will help you understand how we got here. Of particular interest to those curious about the intersection of zoning and environmentalism.
Zoned In the USA by Sonia A. Hirt. This is normally the first book I recommend to otherwise well-read urbanists who would like to learn more about zoning. Hirt’s Zoned In the USA has a little bit of everything, explaining how zoning works, where it came from, how it interacts with housing, and how it works in other countries. For those interested in going deeper down the rabbit hole, it also serves as a comprehensive literature review for the field.
The Zoning Game by Richard F. Babcock. Understanding zoning isn’t just a matter of understanding what’s in the codes or on the map—it’s also a matter of understanding how it works in practice. For that kind of institutional and procedural knowledge, Babcock’s The Zoning Game is unquestionably the go-to text. This will go a long way toward helping you understand specific zoning fights happening in your community. And for what it’s worth, it’s also pretty funny.
The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Released in 2017, Rothstein’s book is a highly accessible survey of the ways that zoning—alongside policies like federal housing finance—helped to segregate U.S. cities. The Color of Law will introduce you to important zoning concepts like single-family zoning, take you through some early zoning early history, and paint a big picture of housing policy, all in a way that’s immediately relevant to politics today. Of particular interest to those curious about the intersection of zoning and race.
Order without Design by Alain Bertaud. If Death and Life is the first book I suggest to new urbanists, Order without Design is the first book I suggest to professional urbanists. Drawing on over 50 years of experience working as an international planner, Bertaud’s work fludily weaves together the theory and practice of land-use regulation. It’s also packed with charts, maps, and diagrams illustrating most of the key concepts.
Zoned American by Seymour I. Toll. There are a handful of histories of zoning. But for my money, Toll’s Zoned American is the best. Toll manages to capture the social context, political calculations, and legal challenges that gave rise to New York City’s 1916 zoning ordinance, which in turn evolved into a model for the nation as a whole. It helps that Toll’s elegant prose reads like the opposite of a zoning ordinance.
Zoning Rules! by William A. Fischel. This is, to put it bluntly, is the bible when it comes to the economics of land-use regulation. Drawing on his extensive CV, Fischel deals with anything and everything having to do with zoning, including advanced concepts like the homevoter hypothesis, how Coase theorem informs land-use fights, and the institutional reforms that could rein in excessive regulations. As with Zoned in the USA, Zoning Rules! doubles as a world-class literature review.
Land Use Without Zoning by Bernard H. Siegan. Best known for his landmark essay on how land-use regulation works in zoning-free Houston, Land Use Without Zoning is Siegan’s book-length treatment of this and other subjects. To date, it’s the perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique of zoning as an institution, with lots of time spent on alternative systems of land-use regulation.
Snob Zones by Lisa Prevost. A great exploration of exclusionary zoning in New England, told through stories of actual zoning fights.
The Rent Is Too Damn High by Matthew Yglesias. Full disclosure: I still haven’t read this. (I know, I’m sorry!) But it seems to have turned a heck of a lot of people on to the intersection of housing affordability and land-use regulation.
The Zoning of America: Euclid v. Ambler by Michael Allan Wolf. A brisk history of the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized zoning. Of particular interest to those curious about the intersection of zoning and law.