Zoning regulation and land use policy reforms

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  

Zoning regulations for land use include zoning and building codes and other governmental policies and efforts to shape building practices which change the physical environment of cities, towns, and counties. Efforts to replace or reform zoning regulations for land use aim to change comprehensive zoning plans that were designed after race-specific zoning regulations were banned. Although the language in comprehensive zoning regulations is race neutral, such regulations were at least partially intended and designed to be exclusionary and maintain segregation. They are also still in effect in many communities across the country1, 2. Zoning regulation reforms remove requirements, limitations, or prohibitions associated with exclusionary zoning codes and implement zoning codes which include a focus on building forms and types in the context of the neighborhood2, 3. Such zoning regulations often address environmental design elements such as aesthetic and safety aspects of the physical environment, street continuity and connectivity, residential density, mixed-use development, and the proximity of residential areas to stores, jobs, schools, and recreation in existing neighborhood developments. Efforts to update or revise zoning regulations are often precursors to mixed-use development and Smart Growth initiatives4.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased physical activity

  • Increased active transportation

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced vehicle miles traveled

  • Increased use of public transit

  • Reduced crime

  • Reduced stress

  • Improved sense of community

  • Increased neighborhood socio-economic diversity

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated scientifically supported.

There is strong evidence that reforming zoning regulations and land use policies supports physical activity and increases walking and bicycling5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

As part of larger scale interventions, zoning regulation reforms have been associated with increased active transportation for commuting and recreation, and more frequent, longer distance walking trips5, 7, 12. Zoning reforms can promote compact development that creates higher-density, mixed-use areas with strong employment opportunities, that can be connected by diverse modes of public and active transit (as in transit-oriented development)13. Experts also recommend planners consider adding four-way intersections and transit stops as part of compact development13. Compact development is associated with multiple benefits, including increased walking, physical activity, and active transit; improved pedestrian safety, social capital, sense of community, and life expectancy; and reduced social isolation, household energy use, and transportation costs14. As part of broad land use policy and infrastructure improvement efforts, zoning regulation reforms can increase bicycle trips and the percentage of the population that rides bicycles9, 10. Mixed-use development and zoning, along with pedestrian-oriented zoning provisions such as support for active recreation, bike parking, street furniture, and bicycle or pedestrian trails and paths are most strongly associated with increases in adult physical activity11, 12, 15. Several features appear to increase neighborhoods’ walkability, including flexible and mixed zoning and land use, smaller land parcels, narrower streets, sidewalks, trees, and lower speed limits16. Areas with more pedestrian-oriented zoning elements are associated with greater increases in active transportation and physical activity12, 15.

Making neighborhoods more walkable can support municipalities’ sustainability efforts, in part by reducing dependency on cars. Replacing car trips with biking and walking can reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change17, 18. Zoning reforms can include codes which specify criteria for sustainable design or account for population density3. Zoning reforms can end incentives for low-density, single-use developments with minimum lot sizes and instead encourage mixed-use development to meet the growing demand for compact neighborhoods14, 16, 19. Experts recommend that governments partner with progressive developers, reform land use policy and zoning, and increase the cost of auto use to reduce VMT and to increase public transit use19. Costs associated with sprawl and long commuting distances are often undervalued. For example, the negative health and environmental effects of daily air emissions are estimated to cost millions of dollars per day14.

Zoning regulation reforms for land use may also lead to green space improvements, reductions in crime and stress levels, an enhanced sense of community6, greater protection of natural resources17, and increased forest conservation20. A Los Angeles-based study indicates lower levels of crime in neighborhoods with both residential and commercial zones than neighborhoods zoned only residential21.

Areas with a transit-oriented development (TOD) zoning approach are associated with significantly higher rates of public transit use and active commuting than areas without TOD zoning22, 23. A TOD approach typically focuses on a regional public transit network, aiming to increase desirability, convenience, and efficiency of using existing public transit, bicycling, and walking—compared with transit-adjacent development, which may not be designed to increase connectivity or physical activity23. TOD that increases housing density may help states meet climate-related goals for reduced greenhouse gas emissions and VMT, as in California. Experts suggest changing exclusionary zoning regulations to ensure that density is increased equitably, and not only in neighborhoods historically zoned for higher density24. In some areas, especially the Southern United States, reforms to existing zoning codes are also associated with increases in public transit use12. Public transit users have higher daily physical activity levels than non-transit users25.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Zoning regulation and land use policy reforms have the potential to decrease disparities in public transit use and active transportation between communities with low and high socio-economic status33, especially if reforms address pre-existing exclusionary zoning regulations that contribute to displacement and gentrification23, 24. Zoning reforms may also reduce disparities experienced by people of color and individuals with lower incomes, by reducing residential segregation and disparities in homeownership and health outcomes34, 35, 36.

Reforms that include pedestrian-oriented zoning provisions such as crosswalks, street and sidewalk connectivity, bike lanes, and bike parking have been associated with reduced disparities in rates of public transit use and active transportation to work between communities with low and high socio-economic status33. Transit-oriented development (TOD) adds desirable features to neighborhoods near public transit, which can increase public transit use but also increases property prices, potentially contributing to gentrification of neighborhoods over the long-term; more research is needed on long-term effects and whether increased public transit use is sustained by residents with higher incomes23. Experts recommend several strategies to promote equitable development, for example, removing exclusionary zoning regulations and permitting higher density development in more neighborhoods, not only in neighborhoods historically zoned for higher density that are experiencing historic disinvestment. Experts suggest increasing subsidies for affordable housing, expanding high quality transit options, expanding tenant protections, and prioritizing approval for projects that meet a city’s equity and climate-related criteria24. Equitable development efforts may also include zoning and policy reforms to support increased homeownership, housing security, job opportunities, food security and sovereignty, community engagement with the zoning and land use process, as well as active and safe transit options2.

Zoning reforms that address exclusionary zoning codes can help reduce residential segregation and concentrated poverty, create inclusive community spaces, reduce the racial homeownership gap, and improve health outcomes, especially for children of color34, 35, 36. Exclusionary zoning regulations enforce residential segregation and create neighborhoods with deficient housing, under-funded, lower quality schools, fewer job opportunities, limited services, inadequate food supplies, and neglected public infrastructure35, 36, 37. Residential segregation has several negative health effects and is one of the driving factors behind high mortality rates among Black Americans34, 38, 39. Residential segregation increases racial disparities in housing stability, homeownership, and property values37. A significant part of the racial wealth divide at all income levels is related to lower rates of homeownership and the lower value of homes for people of color37, 40, 41. Schools in these neighborhoods receive billions of dollars less than schools in predominantly white neighborhoods, since school funding is substantially based on local property taxes42. By restricting educational and employment opportunities, residential segregation prevents socio-economic mobility, maintains wage gaps, upholds the racial wealth divide, and keeps generation after generation of Black Americans in poverty38.

What is the relevant historical background?

Communities in the US have formally regulated land use and siting of industries hazardous to health since at least the 1600s. As population density increased in urban areas, decision makers at the local, state, and federal level encouraged zoning to distinguish land uses and to encode racial segregation. Homeowners historically opposed construction of apartment buildings, including overt opposition to individuals of color, religious minorities, and other groups moving into what were perceived as white neighborhoods1. Explicitly racial zoning ordinances, such as Black- and white-designated city blocks, were banned by the Supreme Court in 19171.

Communities then adopted a comprehensive zoning approach, which used race-neutral language but was developed while segregation remained in demand. By 1930, at least 1,100 municipalities had implemented comprehensive zoning, in processes run by white homeowners and their representatives. The laws were frequently implemented in a discriminatory way, creating exclusive residential areas and banning specific types of commercial businesses, such as laundries in Los Angeles, which were often run by Chinese individuals and families1. In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established with the premise that racial segregation protected property values for white neighborhoods. The FHA’s redlining policies entrenched racial residential segregation by denying people of color access to government-insured mortgages and labeling homes in neighborhoods where people of color lived as uninsurable, thereby guaranteeing that property values in those neighborhoods would be less than those in white neighborhoods41. When Black families did buy homes in majority-white neighborhoods, they experienced diminished home values when white families relocated1. Municipalities that maintained discriminatory housing markets and segregated neighborhoods in the North prevented Black families from realizing any significant financial gains after leaving the South1, 43.

Comprehensive zoning categories included industrial, which permitted all other uses; commercial; multi-family housing; and single-family housing, which was most restrictive. Studies suggest comprehensive zoning maps mostly aligned with existing land use patterns, although some districts’ density increased. Housing was historically most dense near transit stops and around ports, railroads, and other industries with workers who could not easily afford public transit. In Chicago and Seattle, zoning became more permissive and industrial zoning more likely to be mapped onto neighborhoods home to first-generation immigrants, Black, and Chinese-American individuals and families. Immigrant neighborhoods considered ethnically white were more likely to be zoned as single-family or residential. Over time, cheaper buses and personal cars meant more people and businesses could locate further from city centers, where land was more affordable. However, suburban housing developments, which expanded in the 1970s, continued to have the most restrictive zoning1.

Recent studies of zoning aim to understand how historic patterns have shaped communities today. Zoning appears to have significantly contributed to current inequities, including racial residential segregation, regional inequality, disparities in public resources and services, and unaffordable housing1. Commercial and industrial uses have become rarer outside areas not zoned for them; a Chicago-based study suggests zoning for single-use residential neighborhoods made homes in those areas more valuable because zoning kept industrial activity farther away44. A Massachusetts-based study of zoning and school funding finds that neighborhoods which restrict multi-family and smaller dwellings have fewer tax-paying adults compared to students, and so require a higher property tax rate to maintain their desired per-student spending45. Experts note that more historical data is needed for planners to understand how zoning impacted demographic shifts in neighborhoods and regions over time1. Advocates for zoning and land use regulation reforms suggest states do cost-benefit analyses of development and take steps to prevent overly restrictive zoning at the local level, for example, to increase population and housing density in desirable areas30.

Equity Considerations
  • How can zoning reforms, such as removing exclusionary zoning or implementing mixed-use development incentives, support your city’s efforts toward inclusive and sustainable development?
  • How have historic zoning patterns and uses in your municipality contributed to current community conditions, such as neighborhood segregation, inequitable school funding, or disparities in economic and community development?
Implementation Examples

Some cities are adopting zoning reforms supporting sustainable development, such as changing the types of zoning codes they use from exclusionary zoning codes separating land uses to form-based zoning codes which include a focus on building forms and types in the context of the neighborhood3. Denver, CO has implemented form-based codes and its city land use and transportation plan also emphasizes connecting neighborhoods via public transportation and tracks progress on goals for equitable development26.

Zoning regulations are often implemented as a part of Smart Growth initiatives. Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley region27 and Arlington, VA28 are two examples of communities with Smart Growth initiatives that include zoning regulations. Massachusetts has legislation that provides financial incentives to local communities that use zoning regulations to support Smart Growth projects29. States have power to promote development if local zoning and land use policies are too restrictive. Massachusetts’ legislation allows builders to bypass local rules to increase affordable housing, or communities which restrict development can pay a transfer to the state that is then paid to communities willing to build30.

Washington state’s Active Community Environments also incorporate zoning regulations to encourage mixed-use development and connected streets31.

As of 2021, Arizona, Kansas, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Tennessee have preemption laws prohibiting municipalities from passing mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinances32.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

HPBD - Healthy Places by Design (HPBD). Advances community-led action and proven, place-based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all.

LHC-Toolkit 2009 - Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC). Action strategies toolkit: A guide for local and state leaders working to create healthy communities and prevent childhood obesity. Princeton: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2009.

US EPA-Smart Growth - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Smart Growth: Program, resources, topics, partnerships, and the 2015 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement.

US EPA-Smart Growth tools - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Smart Growth tools: Planning, zoning, and building codes.

ICMA-Mishkovsky 2010 - Mishkovsky N, Dalbey M, Bertaina S, Read A, McGalliard T. Putting Smart Growth to work in rural communities. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association (ICMA); 2010.

ChangeLab-Move this way - ChangeLab Solutions. Move this way: Making neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable.

HealthPartners-CHA - HealthPartners Institute for Education and Research. Community health advisor (CHA): Resource for information on the benefits of evidence-based policies and programs: Helping communities understand, analyze, and model costs.

WA DOH-ACE toolkit 2012 - Washington State Department of Health (WA DOH), Healthy Communities Washington. Active community environment (ACE) toolkit: Creating environments that encourage walking, biking, and public transit in Washington State. 2012.

US EPA-SG codes - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Smart Growth (SG): Codes that support Smart Growth development.

CDC-Active America - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Creating an active America together.

PAS-Zoning 2016 - Planning Advisory Service (PAS). Planning & zoning for health in the built environment. American Planning Association (APA); 2016.

SRTSNP-Safe routes to healthy foods - Safe Routes to School National Partnership (SRTSNP). Healthy communities: Safe routes to healthy foods.

LHS - Local Housing Solutions (LHS). To enhance local affordability and foster inclusive communities. New York University, Furman Center and Abt Associates, Inc.

FBCI - Form-Based Codes Institute at Smart Growth America. About. 2022.


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1 Shertzer 2022 - Shertzer A, Twinam T, Walsh RP. Zoning and segregation in urban economic history. Regional Science and Urban Economics. 2022;94:103652.

2 Rosenbloom 2020 - Rosenbloom J. Reducing racial bias embedded in land use codes. CityLaw. New York Law School, Center for New York City Law. 2020;26(3):57-64.

3 Garde 2017 - Garde A, Hoff A. Zoning reform for advancing sustainability: insights from Denver’s form-based code. Journal of Urban Design. 2017;22(6):845-865.

4 US EPA-SG codes - US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Smart Growth (SG): Codes that support Smart Growth development.

5 CG-Physical activity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity.

6 CG-PA land use 2004 - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity: Community-scale urban design and land use policies (2004 archived review).

7 Brownson 2006 - Brownson RC, Haire-Joshu D, Luke DA. Shaping the context of health: A review of environmental and policy approaches in the prevention of chronic diseases. Annual Review of Public Health. 2006;27:341-70.

8 CDC MMWR-Khan 2009 - Khan LK, Sobush K, Keener D, et al. Recommended community strategies and measurements to prevent obesity in the United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). 2009;58(RR-07):1-26.

9 Yang 2010 - Yang L, Sahlqvist S, McMinn A, Griffin SJ, Ogilvie D. Interventions to promote cycling: Systematic review. BMJ. 2010;341:c5293.

10 Pucher 2010 - Pucher J, Dill J, Handy S. Infrastructure, programs, and policies to increase bicycling: An international review. Preventive Medicine. 2010;50(Suppl 1):S106-25.

11 Chriqui 2016 - Chriqui JF, Nicholson LM, Thrun E, Leider J, Slater SJ. More active-living oriented county and municipal zoning is associated with increased adult leisure time physical activity - United States, 2011. Environment and Behavior. 2016;48(1):111-130.

12 Chriqui 2016a - Chriqui JF, Leider J, Thrun E, Nicholson LM, Slater S. Communities on the move: Pedestrian-oriented zoning as a facilitator of adult active travel to work in the United States. Frontiers in Public Health. 2016;4:71.

13 Park 2020 - Park K, Ewing R, Sabouri S, et al. Guidelines for a polycentric region to reduce vehicle use and increase walking and transit use. Journal of the American Planning Association. 2020;86(2):236-249.

14 Ewing 2015 - Ewing R, Hamidi S. Compactness versus sprawl: A review of recent evidence from the United States. Journal of Planning Literature. 2015;30(4):413-432.

15 Leider 2017 - Leider J, Chriqui JF, Thrun E. Associations between active living-oriented zoning and no adult leisure-time physical activity in the US. Preventive Medicine. 2017;95(Suppl):S120-S125.

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17 US EPA-Kramer 2013 - Kramer MG. Our built and natural environments: A technical review of the interactions among land use, transportation, and environmental quality. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA); 2013.

18 Salon 2012 - Salon D, Boarnet MG, Handy S, Spears S, Tal G. How do local actions affect VMT? A critical review of the empirical evidence. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment. 2012;17(7):495-508.

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20 Haines 2019 - Haines AL, Thompson AW, McFarlane D, Sharp AK. Local policy and landowner attitudes: A case study of forest fragmentation. Landscape and Urban Planning. 2019;188:97-109.

21 Anderson 2013 - Anderson JM, MacDonald JM, Bluthenthal R, Ashwood JS. Reducing crime by shaping the built environment with zoning: An empirical study of Los Angeles. University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 2013;161(3):699-756.

22 Thrun 2016 - Thrun E, Leider J, Chriqui JF. Exploring the cross-sectional association between transit-oriented development zoning and active travel and transit usage in the United States, 2010-2014. Frontiers in Public Health. 2016;4:113.

23 Ibraeva 2020 - Ibraeva A, Almeida Correia GH, Silva C, Antunes AP. Transit-oriented development: A review of research achievements and challenges. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2020;132:110-130.

24 ONeill 2020 - O’Neill M, Gualco-Nelson G, Biber E. Sustainable communities or the next urban renewal? Ecology Law Quarterly. 2020;47(4):1061-1112.

25 Saelens 2014 - Saelens BE, Vernez Moudon A, Kang B, Hurvitz PM, Zhou C. Relation between higher physical activity and public transit use. American Journal of Public Health. 2014;104(5):854-859.

26 Blueprint Denver - Blueprint Denver. Citywide land use and transportation plan.

27 DVRPC-Smart growth - Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). Land use resources: Smart growth development in the region.

28 Arlington-Smart growth - Arlington County Government, VA. Smart growth: Arlington is recognized as a leader in smart growth development.

29 CSPD-MA smart growth zoning - Concord Square Planning & Development Inc (CSPD). Smart growth zoning: Massachusetts general laws chapter 40R.

30 Brookings-Glaeser 2017 - Glaeser E. Reforming land use regulations. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; 2017.

31 WA DOH-ACE toolkit 2012 - Washington State Department of Health (WA DOH), Healthy Communities Washington. Active community environment (ACE) toolkit: Creating environments that encourage walking, biking, and public transit in Washington State. 2012.

32 LawAtlas-State preemption - LawAtlas. State preemption laws in 12 domains.

33 Chriqui 2017 - Chriqui JF, Leider J, Thrun E, Nicholson LM, Slater SJ. Pedestrian-oriented zoning is associated with reduced income and poverty disparities in adult active travel to work, United States. Preventive Medicine. 2017;95(Suppl):S126-S133.

34 TCF-Quick 2019 - Quick K, Kahlenberg RD. Attacking the Black-white opportunity gap that comes from residential segregation. Washington, DC: The Century Foundation; 2019.

35 Brennan 2019 - Brennan M, Peiffer E, Burrowes K. How zoning shapes our lives. Housing Matters: An Urban Institute Initiative. June 12, 2019.

36 Brookings-Freeman 2021 - Freeman L. How we rise: Build race equity into rezoning decisions. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; July 13, 2021.

37 PRRAC-Haberle 2021 - Haberle M, House S, eds. Racial justice in housing finance: A series on new directions. Washington, DC: Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC); 2021.

38 Williams 2004a - Williams DR, Collins C. Reparations: A viable strategy to address the enigma of African American health. American Behavioral Scientist. 2004;47(7):977-1000.

39 Lens 2021 - Lens M. Low-density zoning, health, and health equity. Washington, DC: Health Affairs; 2021.

40 Urban-McCargo 2020 - McCargo A, Choi JH. Closing the gaps: Building black wealth through homeownership. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2020.

41 Kaplan 2007 - Kaplan J, Valls A. Housing discrimination as a basis for Black reparations. Public Affairs Quarterly. 2007;21(3):255-273.

42 Brookings-Ray 2021 - Ray R, Perry AM, Harshbarger D, Elizondo S, Gibbons A. Homeownership, racial segregation, and policy solutions to racial wealth equity. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; 2021.

43 Akbar 2019 - Akbar PA, Li S, Shertzer A, Walsh RP. Racial segregation in housing markets and the erosion of Black wealth. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2019: Working Paper 25805.

44 Shertzer 2018 - Shertzer A, Twinam T, Walsh RP. Zoning and the economic geography of cities. Journal of Urban Economics. 2018;105:20-39.

45 Gallagher 2019 - Gallagher RM. Restrictive zoning’s deleterious impact on the local education property tax base: Evidence from zoning district boundaries and municipal finances. National Tax Journal. 2019;72(1):11-44.

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