Zoning regulations for land use policy

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 policy 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. Such 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 initiatives1

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased physical activity

  • Increased active transportation

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced vehicle miles traveled

  • Reduced crime

  • Reduced stress

  • Improved sense of community

  • Increased neighborhood socio-economic diversity

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that reforming land use policies and zoning regulations supports physical activity and increases walking and bicycling2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

As part of macro-level or community-scale interventions, zoning regulations have been associated with increased active transportation for commuting and recreation, and more frequent, longer distance walking trips2, 4, 9. As part of broad land use policy and infrastructure improvement efforts, zoning regulations can increase bicycle trips and the percentage of the population that rides bicycles6, 7. 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 activity8, 9, 10. Areas with more pedestrian-oriented zoning elements are associated with greater increases in active transportation and physical activity9, 10.

Replacing automotive trips with biking and walking can reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change11, 12. Zoning regulations for land use may also lead to green space improvements, reductions in crime and stress levels, an enhanced sense of community3, and greater protection of natural resources11. A Los Angeles-based study indicates lower levels of crime in neighborhoods with both residential and commercial zones than neighborhoods zoned only residential13.

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 zoning14. In some areas, especially the Southern United States, reforms to existing zoning codes are also associated with increases in public transit use9. Public transit users have higher daily physical activity levels than non-transit users15.

Specific 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 status16.

Exclusionary zoning policies enforce residential segregation and create undervalued, marginalized neighborhoods with deficient housing, under-resourced, lower-quality schools, fewer job opportunities, limited services, inadequate food supplies, and neglected public infrastructure17, 18, 19. Residential segregation has several negative health effects and is one of the driving factors behind high mortality rates among Black Americans20, 21, 22. Residential segregation increases racial disparities in housing stability, homeownership, and property values17. 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 color17, 23, 24. Schools in these neighborhoods receive billions of dollars less than schools in predominantly White neighborhoods, since school funding is substantially based on local property taxes25. By restricting educational and employment opportunities, residential segregation prevents socioeconomic mobility, maintains wage gaps, upholds the racial wealth divide, and keeps generation after generation of Black Americans in poverty21. Experts suggest that zoning reforms 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 color18, 19, 20.

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Zoning regulations are often implemented as a part of Smart Growth initiatives. Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley region26 and Arlington, VA27 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 projects28.

Washington state’s Active Community Environments also incorporate zoning regulations to encourage mixed-use development and connected streets29.

Implementation Resources

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.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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

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

3 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).

4 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.

5 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.

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

7 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.

8 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.

9 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.

10 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.

11 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 (EPA); 2013.

12 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.

13 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.

14 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.

15 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.

16 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.

17 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.

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

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

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

21 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.

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

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

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

25 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.

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

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

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

29 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.

Date Last Updated