This city’s zoning codes regulating the size, use and location of buildings could sap the life force out of all but the most zealous urban enthusiasts. Their technical language is intelligible only to initiated bureaucrats—probably with pocket protectors—and a handful of canny developers, certainly with a gleam in their eye.
Or so it is believed. But times have changed and so has the New York City Zoning Resolution, which just passed its 50th anniversary last month. Once regarded with frustration and loathing, zoning in middle age is hot, the cougar of urban regulatory devices: more flexible and dynamic than ever. Actually, urban planners are more likely to invoke a thermostat metaphor—noting that zoning can raise or lower the habitability of the city by degrees. The layperson might also think of it as planning’s magic wand—an implementation technique, not an avoid-at-all-costs, manipulate-as-possible rule or regulation.
And in the Bloomberg administration, as wielded by the New York City Planning Commission and its director, Amanda Burden, zoning has assumed a more activist role than ever before. It not only shapes the blocks and writes the skyline, but also aims to curb obesity by offering incentives for fresh-food markets in low-income neighborhoods; buck up the mom-and-pop store; and promote an astonishing range of other quality-of-life benefits.
“Zoning has always concerned itself, for better or worse, with social matters, such as banishing noxious uses,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. “What’s different now is that the planning commission is moving from zoning that’s negative on social issues to being positive, like mandating green markets and bike rooms. It’s reasonable for city government to encourage people to move in a beneficial direction. Whether zoning is the correct device is another matter. A market person might say it’s better to go with incentives than mandates.” As such, zoning is something of which every New Yorker and visitor ought to be aware.
It has all become very cosmopolitan. The city’s selective bus lanes were inspired by the rapid-transit bus system in Bogotá, Colombia; the newly accessible waterfront borrows its sociable seating arrangements from Sydney, Australia; even New York’s controversial bike lanes come by way of close attention to those in Copenhagen. By tweaking the number, type and location of everything from bus lanes to street benches, zoning makes places more welcoming to visit and inviting to use.
Last month, the planning commission submitted a new initiative to public review. Called Zone Green, it will promote energy efficiency by making it easier to add photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, greenhouses and shading devices to the roofs and sides of older buildings. On Jan. 3, Commissioner Burden introduced a zoning amendment that will preserve small shops on avenues with a residential character and force new banks on the Upper West Side to shift most of their services from extended street fronts to second-floor locations. “We want New York to be a walkable city,” Ms. Burden said, “with active, tree-lined streets and active retail frontages. This modest proposal will preserve that small-store character by allowing stores a maximum of 40 feet on the street.” Banks would have a tighter, 25-foot restriction.
Tom Angotti, an urban planner and director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning & Development, questions the significance of the planning-commission director’s emphasis on fine-grain maneuvers. “Amanda Burden brings a very personal touch because of her interest in design,” Mr. Angotti said. “But I would give greater weight to the directives coming from City Hall. Of the more than 100 rezonings in the past 10 years, most have been about creating opportunities for new real-estate development.”
As now practiced in New York, zoning and its achievements have become the envy of other cities, even Paris. For the first time in an almost 10-year run of urban design conferences held around the world, the French Minister of Sustainable Development selected New York and its zoning innovations for study. The event last July was subtitled “New York Reinvented,” and some 150 French and European mayors, urban planners, developers and architects toured such recent local triumphs as the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park and community regeneration projects in the Bronx.
“The resurrection of New York, hit in its very flesh and its pride by the September 11, 2001 attacks, is nothing short of astonishing,” wrote Jean-Louis Cohen in the program’s introduction. Mr. Cohen, a historian and one of the organizers of the event, added in an email that although zoning “was originally a German invention, it has been greatly perfected in New York City since 1916.” The elite European group, he noted, was especially keen on understanding New York’s sharp-cookie culture of negotiation and flexible regulation.
It wasn’t always such a success story. In 1916, New York City wrote into law the country’s first comprehensive Zoning Resolution. Designed to bring light and air down the street even as skyscrapers soared higher, the earliest zoning codes called for setbacks, and left it largely at that. More than 2,000 amendments followed, introducing such notions as superblocks in the 1940s—to limit density by spacing skyscrapers widely apart. In 1961, the Zoning Resolution was overhauled. Architect and historian Robert A.M. Stern recently called it “the pivotal postwar architectural event.”
Eighteen years in the making, the 1961 resolution almost immediately backfired with, among other missteps, its endorsement of the deadening tower-in-a-plaza motif that resulted in wide and windswept public spaces avoided by pedestrians, still in dreadful evidence along the Avenue of the Americas. Zoning in those days focused primarily on the bulk of individual buildings. It was not until the ’70s that it considered the larger context of whole neighborhoods by designating special districts—for theaters around Times Square; for retail on Fifth Avenue—and addressing more subtle issues such as economically diverse housing. At the same time, developers shrewdly learned how to swap public amenities for bigger buildings. Zucotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street protestors gathered, was created in one such swap in 1968 but, unlike most other so-called privately owned public spaces, it was required to remain open 24 hours a day because its creation included absorbing an alley. Zoning became a game for poker sharks.
The current trend in moving zoning away from shaping big buildings toward how buildings and places are used and perform can already be seen at the recently opened East River Esplanade, where a balustrade as wide as a lunch counter and bar stools are mandated. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg is often portrayed as the developers’ friend, Ms. Burden has kept a steady eye on improving the public realm through the tools close to hand. “Zoning is not going to solve world peace,” she said in a recent interview. “But if we can figure out the issues now and address them, we can lay the foundations for the next administration so that what we start now will carry New York City into a better future.”
Ms. Iovine writes about architecture for the Journal.
Corrections & Amplifications: An earlier version of this story indicated that both banks and retail stores on New York’s Upper West Side would have a store-front restriction of 25 feet.
A version of this article appeared Jan. 19, 2012, on page D6 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Zoning Laws Grow Up.