Z is for Zoning (Part 1 of our Citizen’s Guide to Zoning!)


I’m always excited to talk about zoning because at its core it represents a community’s collective agreement about how to share space – something that represents citizens’ desire to work together towards goals that we believe in.

I’ve shared before about how important the creation of shared goals is to community planning, and how planning the types of activities that land in communities can promote strong counties, cities, and towns.

One of the most important things that zoning can do is to put those plans into action.

It’s true there are instances in which zoning isn’t an effective answer to the challenges that community members are facing. On the other hand, there are lots of problems that zoning can solve (if it’s used effectively!).

What is Zoning?

Zoning is a set of local ordinances that define that locality’s plan for how to utilize different pieces of its land. It’s how a city, town, or county organizes different locations for houses, different types of businesses, industries, and farms. Check out this short video which explains more.

Experts may add to this list, but I believe that the three primary functions of zoning should be: 

  1. To keep citizens safe.Imagine how a requirement to put a fence around pools can help to prevent children from drowning.
  2. To improve the lived experiences of people in a community.
  3. Imagine specifications about the kinds of animals that people can own in a neighborhood. My neighbors might be fine if I own laying hens, but probably won’t be happy if I have a rooster that wakes them up in the middle of the night. 
  4. To improve economies.
  5. Imagine clustering shops together to make a shopping trip easier, or making sure that industrial manufacturers are situated in an area with lots of space.


Zoning as a Tool 

Just like you would never use a hammer when you needed a screwdriver, zoning can’t fix every community problem. There are challenges that zoning can’t solve and situations in which it doesn’t work well. Check out this discussion of how zoning has been adapted, or other options have been implemented in rural areas. 

Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that zoning laws, just like any other ordinance, can be changed to meet shifting community needs.  Hang with us, as we discuss how zoning ordinances can be changed in The “Z” Word, Part 2 next week.

Zoning may not be the solution to every challenge, but it shouldn’t be a bad word either. Having a shared plan for how a community will share space can promote economic development and community well being. And, zoning gives us an opportunity to implement that plan.

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