ULI Releases Report 'Reshaping the City: Zoning for a More Equitable, Resilient, and Sustainable Future'

A recent report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) details how updating zoning regulations can create more livable and equitable places by increasing housing attainability, reducing carbon emissions, promoting social equity, and improving community health.  When done right, these updates also hold potential to streamline the development process and expand opportunity for small-scale developers.

Reshaping the City: Zoning for a More Equitable, Resilient, and Sustainable Future outlines how communities are updating zoning to address many of the issues and opportunities that American cities face today—including the need to increase the housing supply, incentivize low-carbon development, create more walkable places, and prepare for the effects of climate change. The report features a section on form-based codes—land development regulations centered on physical form rather than separation of uses—drafted by Smart Growth America.

“Three-quarters of the land in major U.S. cities today is zoned exclusively for single-family homes,” said report author Matthew Norris, Senior Director with the ULI Building Healthy Places Initiative. “This contributes to community segregation, exacerbates the housing attainability crisis, and deepens our dependency on cars—leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions. We hope to share valuable insights in this report that can help municipalities update their zoning to support equitable development objectives, encourage a variety of housing types, and advance the types of walkable, mixed-use projects the market demands.”

Categorized into five distinct zoning approaches, the report offers case studies to highlight how cities and towns across the United States are using zoning tools already familiar to many cities to align policies around key livability and equity goals. Approaches discussed in the report rely on successful coordination among local government leaders, community members, real estate developers, and other stakeholders. They include:

  • Comprehensive overhauls: Creation of new zoning policies to replace previous codes.
    • Buffalo, N.Y.: Promoting walkability and eliminating minimum parking requirements.
    • Baltimore: Promoting healthier development.
    • Stamford, Conn.: Strengthening and encouraging greener buildings.
    • Norfolk, Va.: Comprehensively addressing community vulnerabilities.
  • By-right zoning: Allows projects that comply with certain zoning standards to obtain approvals and building permits through relatively simple administrative processes.
    • Minneapolis: Allowing increased residential density by right by eliminating single-family zoning.
    • Denver: Allowing lower parking ratios by right for affordable housing.
    • Boston: Adopting net-zero carbon standards by right by strengthening low-carbon building requirements.
    • Summit County, Colo.: Minimizing losses from wildfire damage through special requirements for by-right developments, such as mandates for fire-resistant landscaping and outdoor storage in at-risk areas.
  • Overlays: Special districts that include additional standards and criteria to the zoning code, either to protect existing community features or encourage new types of development.
    • Indianapolis:Promoting healthier, more equitable development.
    • Northampton, Mass.: Creating a sustainable growth district.
    • Stonington, Conn.: Achieving scalable flood hazard mitigation.
  • Floating zones: Districts that delineate conditions that must be met before the area is approved for a given set of zoning rules.
    • Cambridge, Mass.: Facilitating green, resilient, and flexible development.
    • James City County, Va.: Creating a planned unit development for conservation and community resilience.
  • Zoning incentives: Tools that encourage developers to provide certain public benefits by offsetting the costs they would normally incur.
    • New York City: Promoting healthy food access.
    • Arlington, Va.: Advancing carbon neutrality through density bonuses.

“We have the power to choose how our neighborhoods look, and communities across the country are advocating to reform their zoning to allow for more attainable housing and mixed-use development to create more places that people want to live,” said Toccarra Nicole Thomas, AICP, Director of Land Use and Development at Smart Growth America. “The Reshaping the City report outlines a menu of zoning reform options, including form-based codes, that restore choice to communities and can move us beyond the inflexibility that has led to the housing crisis caused by traditional zoning.”

The full Reshaping the City: Zoning for a More Equitable, Resilient, and Sustainable Future report can be found on ULI’s Knowledge Finder.