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Posted over 1 year ago

A City Without Zoning

Most municipalities in the United States use zoning ordinances to regulate land development. These regulations designate certain areas for certain uses. The theory behind this is that certain uses are more or less compatible with other uses.

For example, most people don’t want to live next to industrial and manufacturing plants. To avoid this there are areas or zones specifically for residential use and other zones specifically for industrial use. On the other hand, people often want certain businesses within a reasonable distance of where they live. Thus, commercial districts with grocery stores, movie theaters, bookstores, hardware stores, etc. are often adjacent to residential zones. Those same commercial zones can then act as a buffer existing between residential neighborhoods and more industrial areas.

So, what would a city look like without zoning? Well, as it turns out, while there are some anomalies, it’s not that different than the rest of the country. While the nation’s fourth largest city doesn’t employ use-based zoning, it still has ordinances that regulate things such as setbacks, height restrictions, and parking requirements. These ordinances, combined with community efforts, take the place of zoning in managing land use. As a result, Houston still has a downtown business core, strip malls, and other groupings of land uses.

More specifically, Houston uses large scale initiatives led by nonprofit organizations and civic groups to encourage activity in line with social objectives, such as creating more walkable communities or addressing flood risks.

Additionally, deed restrictions are quite common. Deed restrictions are contracts that “run with the land”. Basically, they’re (typically) private agreements between a buyer and seller of land that dictate how the land may be used going forward. The fact that these restrictive covenants run with the land means that the contract passes on to subsequent property owners and not simply the person who originally agreed to the terms. That said, in Houston, the City itself enforces deed restrictions, as opposed to making individuals rely on private actions and lawsuits.

Put another way, in Houston there are no geographic regions where strictly residential, commercial, or industrial uses may take place. The citizens of the city prefer to use alternative methods of regulating land use. Thus, a high-income, suburban, residential area will use restrictive covenant to prevent apartment complexes from being built in the area. Less affluent areas however are more susceptible to deed restriction violations.

While deed restrictions may on the surface sound like they’re eternally binding, there are ways in which they can be terminated. For example, as a neighborhood changes, an outdated deed restriction may be abandoned. If a former farming community is now entirely commercial except for one deed restricted farmhouse, that deed restriction may be lifted in order to allow the owner of the farmhouse to match the rest of the community.

Another tactic to regulate land use without use zoning is to regulate variables that will indirectly affect the land use. For example, there may be a minimum lot size requirement with large setbacks. This would facilitate single family homes as opposed to say townhomes and rowhomes.

The city also has a residential buffering ordinance that requires a 40-foot buffer between high rises and residential streets. This helps to prevent skyscrapers from being next door to single-story buildings that would be hidden in their neighbor’s shadow.

Further, properties may be labeled historic as a way of locking in their current use. It doesn’t prevent other uses from moving in next door, but it can keep a current office building or home from being turned into say, a gas station.

When there are no zones for particular uses, every available piece of land becomes a market driven sale. That is, regardless of the location, if a parcel is put up for sale the prospective owner who can make the most profitable use of the land and thus who can afford to pay the highest price usually gets the property. This makes developing affordable housing and other necessities, that are less profitable, more difficult.

While, for the most part the zoning ordinance substitutes previously discussed keep Houston from feeling like a city thrown together by a tornado, there are areas where a department store and small, boutique restaurant may share a corner, where a small single-family home stands in front of a high-rise office building, or where a factory is next door to a community park.


Houston serves as an example of the fact that as prevalent as zoning ordinances are around the nation, they’re one of several tools that can be used to regulate land development and use. In some instances, the Houston model leads to a greater diversity of land uses in a neighborhood. When the mix of uses is complimentary, people may make the point that Houston is doing something right. On the other hand, when the mix of uses seems odd or is downright conflicting, zoning advocates claim that their approach is superior.

No single land use approach is perfect and by allowing Houston to experiment with the absence of zoning ordinances, we essentially have a real-world research study taking place. By studying how Houston develops over time we can gain a better understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of zoning, as well have the chance to see if perhaps there’s a better way to do things.