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Can Transparency, Open Data Help Fix the Land Zoning Process?

Zoning and land use ordinances can vary by city, county and state, and are often unclear and confusing -- but they have an enormous impact on our daily lives.

Perhaps no other process of government that has such a significant impact on people’s lives is as opaque and less understood as establishing the rules for land use. Maybe the redistricting process. Maybe.

How land is zoned – the setting of specific requirements for how land may be used, and even how buildings and structures on land may be designed – is a complex process because discretion for setting zoning rules is generally delegated to local governments. My home state of New York provides a very comprehensive (though somewhat dated) guide for local communities that want to institute zoning rules. It’s a fascinating read.

Land use rules can fundamentally alter the character of communities, and there is an increasingly robust body of research that suggests that where you live – where you are born, grow up, access educational opportunities and job opportunities – helps determine your lot in life. There is also an abundance of information available that details how land use rules have added to the very serious problem of segregation in many communities in this country.


In a time when our collective attention is focused on higher offices at the state and federal level, it’s easy to forget about local government officials – particularly at the town and village level – and the work that they do. County legislatures, city councils, town councils and village boards all have a part to play in deciding how land gets used – and, by extension, where people get to live.

Local government officials and appointed zoning commissions – by determining rules for lot size, housing density and an array of other factors – impact the price for housing, and indirectly dictate who can afford to buy housing. This impacts people’s choice of neighborhood, the job opportunities available to them and where their children can go to school. For far too long, in far too many places, these decisions have helped to concentrate people of limited incomes in areas where job and educational opportunities are scare and where crime and other social ills are more common.

Two excellent recent studies help us understand the depth of this problem and lay out some policy options for starting to address them.

The Architecture of Segregation, an exhaustive study by Paul Jargowsky, details how over the last 15 years poverty has become concentrated in many urban areas in our country:

In the 1990s…the number of persons living in high-poverty neighborhoods—defined as census tracts where the federal poverty rate was 40 percent or more—dropped by 25 percent [from the 1960s], from 9.6 million to 7.2 million. Since 2000, however, that progress has been squandered as there has been a rapid re-concentration of poverty.
Jargowsky specifically points to one of the factors contributing to this re-concentration of poverty – exclusionary zoning rules adopted by local governments.

Another recent study by the Urban Institute details policy options that are available to address the issue of poverty concentration and help promote economic mobility.

People disagree on what level of income inequality is “good” for society, but most agree that large numbers of people living in poverty is bad, particularly if those people have little opportunity to improve their condition. For this reason, economic mobility may be a more effective lens through which to frame and assess policies: whether or not the US economic meritocracy provides a fair opportunity for those at the bottom of the income ladder to advance.
How land is zoned can be a critical factor in reducing income inequality and reducing the number of people living in high poverty areas by providing good options to the poor for secure, safe, affordable, and stable housing.


My friend Andrew Rasiej recently called on the civic technology community to look at the political process as the next great frontier that needs fixing. Andrew says that working to do good in civic tech and not focusing on fixing our broken political process is like “putting sand back on the beach after a storm. It will sadly erode again.”

He’s right – as a community, those in the world of civic technology and government reform need to direct more of their attention to the election and appointment of government officials. These are the people who make the rules that dictate how government works – and for whom.

As we do this (and I sure hope that we do) I think it is important that we not forget that focusing on the political process is more than just something we need to care about once every four years when there is a presidential election looming. We need to care about local officials at the county, city, town and village level, and those they appoint to local bodies like zoning commissions.

We need more transparency around the zoning process, more data and the creation of uniform standards so that we can systematically evaluate how land use decisions get made and how they might impact people that live in our communities.

Zoning rules can seem arcane, and the process for adopting them confusing (even boring). But in a way, the process for establishing how land use rules gets made is tied to the destiny of the people that live in our communities. I can’t think of a more important challenge for the civic technology community to take on than making this process more open, more inclusive and more likely to produce better outcomes for everyone.

[Pictures courtesy of Flickr users Mark Hogan and Green Valley Center]

Mark Headd is the former Chief Data Officer of Philadelphia. He is now Technical Evangelist for Accela. This story was originally published on Mark Headd's personal blog, reprinted with permission.