An Economic History of Zoning and a Cure for its Exclusionary Effects

Urban Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, February 2004

Posted: 10 Nov 2003

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Modern zoning arose in the United States and spread rapidly among American cities and suburbs in the period 1910-1930. This article argues that the invention and propagation of motorized buses and trucks in that period best account for this enthusiastic acceptance of zoning. When industrial establishments and apartment development were dependent on rail transportation, developers of single-family homes could avoid these uncongenial neighbors simply by staying away from the rail and trolley lines. Around 1910, Ford's low-cost trucks and buses liberated industry and apartment dwellers from confinement near rail lines, and they sought lower-cost locations in residential areas. As a result of this threat, home developers found that buyers were unwilling to accept the risk of purchasing a home without sufficient protection for its value from neighborhood blight. Developers embraced zoning as an alternative to nonexistent home-value insurance and ineffective private covenants, and homeowners have ever since regarded zoning as their birthright.

Homeowners skittishness about zoning changes, often derided as "NIMBYism" ("not in my back yard") is a rational response to the lack of home-value insurance. The further liberation of industry and low-income residents from central city locations by the interstate highway system of the 1960s may have accounted for the suburban growth-control movement of the 1970s. The article concludes by suggesting that one ingredient in a cure for the exclusionary aspects of suburban zoning would be home-value insurance. The numerous barriers to creating this insurance may warrant some public subsidy.

Note: This is a description of the paper and not the actual abstract.

Keywords: zoning, housing development, homeowner insurance, suburban exclusion, transportation and land use

JEL Classification: R52, N9, H7

Suggested Citation

Fischel, William A., An Economic History of Zoning and a Cure for its Exclusionary Effects. Urban Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, February 2004, Available at SSRN:

William A. Fischel (Contact Author)

Dartmouth College ( email )

Economics Department
Rockefeller Hall
Hanover, NH 03755
United States
603-643-5724 (Phone)
603-646-2122 (Fax)

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