Zoning is the primary legislative tool through which land use is locally governed in the United States. Outlined by the city's state-mandated General Plan and detailed in the Department of City Planning, the zoning code dictates the nature, division, and density of allowable land uses, such as “commercial”, “residential”, and “manufacturing,” as well as the height and bulk of those uses. The first US zoning ordinances emerged surrounding the turn of the 20th century in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City. Constitutionally upheld by the US Supreme Court in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 1926, zoning gives local governments a means by which to regulate land use as an extension of the police power in the service of the general welfare.
Through the separation of allowable uses and other measures, zoning has sought to protect and stabilize land and property values by “mitigating the negative externalities endemic to private use of land,” and to “preclude social, market and environmental turmoil despite growth by maintaining the accessibility and quality of natural and man made resources, by preventing harm done by competing interests in the marketplace, and by guaranteeing access to decent and affordable housing and public services” (Whittemore, Andrew, 2010).
The state of California requires each city and county to produce, maintain, and implement a General Plan for the long-term physical development of its territory. In Los Angeles, the Department of City Planning (LADCP) is responsible for this task, which is described through the Framework Elements of the General Plan and implemented through various zoning practices, including: traditional zoning, specific plans, overlay districts, and quasi-judicial permits such as conditional uses, variances, Q’s and D’s. In Article 2, SPECIFIC PLANNING- ZONING COMPREHENSIVE ZONING PLAN, of SEC. 12.02, PURPOSE, of the Los Angeles Municipal Code, the article’s purpose is described in the following way:
The purpose of this article is to consolidate and coordinate all existing zoning regulations and provisions into one comprehensive zoning plan in order to designate, regulate and restrict the location and use of buildings, structures and land, for agriculture, residence, commerce, trade, industry or other purposes; to regulate and limit the height, number of stories, and size of buildings and other structures hereafter erected or altered to regulate and determine the size of yards and other open spaces and to regulate and limit the density of population; and for said purposes to divide the City into zones of such number, shape and area as may be deemed best suited to carry out these regulations and provide for their enforcement. Further, such regulations are deemed necessary in order to encourage the most appropriate use of land; to conserve and stabilize the value of property; to provide adequate open spaces for light and air, and to prevent and fight fires; to prevent undue concentration of population; to lessen congestion on streets; to facilitate adequate provisions for community utilities and facilities such as transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks and other public requirements; and to promote health, safety, and the general welfare all in accordance with the comprehensive plan.
While zoning was enacted and upheld to protect the general welfare, a century of implementation has produced a mixed record and it now seen by many as having fallen prey to the same market inequalities that are so clearly expressed across the political and economic demography and geography of this country. Many argue that zoning functions primarily in the service of a socially, economically, and politically elite class at the expense of the general welfare, protecting narrow private economic interest through means of legislative land-based exclusion and debasement. Many more would argue that, as a tool, zoning is too blunt and too 20th century to be of service in our current socio-political and climate context, yet it remains a powerful instrument of state and local governance.