I still remember the first time I looked at a city zoning code, in a planning class at the Humphrey School. I both recommend it and, at the same time, would not wish the experience on anyone. City codes are interminable documents written in technical legalese. They go into painstaking detail about things like how close your fire pit can be to your garage, how high your boulevard flowers can grow, how many people can talk to each other on a sidewalk, how many windows your restaurant can have, and a thousand other burning questions you never really asked.
Although there’s a lot of good stuff in the ordinance section, the most important parts of the code are the rules around zoning. The history of zoning is not a shining example of justice in America, and for decades had deep roots in inequity and exclusion. Beginning in the 1920s, most American cities used zoning to create race and class boundaries and inscribe them into the legal foundation of our private property rights. This was often in the interest of boosting real estate values or perpetuating segregation, catalyzing widespread structural racism in America.
Because many zoning codes, then and now, were simply “copied and pasted” from other cities, these early zoning rules are a prime cause of American inequality. Before there were city planning departments, city managers would simply take zoning code rules from Akron, Ohio or wherever and change out the name of the city before adopting it. If you were lucky, you’d hire a social science consultant who might tweak it based on specific conditions of your city. These days, when almost every city has an official planning department, zoning changes are often still made in this way (planners looking at “best practices” from elsewhere and cutting and pasting the best of the policies).
Historically, this meant that zoning rules spread around the country in a rather unthinking way, with rote language moving from city to city like a viral contagion, for better or for worse. (Saint Paul’s dates to 1922.) It also means that the zoning code as it appears today is truly a mix of ideology and values, a legalistic jumble of language from the 1920s, the 1970s, or the 21st century. Sometimes, reading through the code, I do a double take when I come across a highly anachronistic word or phrase that makes little sense today. (In the worst case scenario, it might even be offensive.)
The point is that there are lots of things in the code that are relics of another era of urban values and concerns. Given the unjust history of US cities, these bits of code are often problematic and, even if they’re not enforced or the focus of conversation, retain a semantic legacy of structural racism and classism.
The good news is that removing things from the code should be far easier than adding in new rules. Here’s a quick list of stuff from the Saint Paul city code that I think the city would be better off without. These are bits of code that played a role in making Saint Paul a unequal and more racist city, and removing them is change we can make right now.
1: the definition of family
Like any good legal document, most of the zoning code is occupied by clear definitions: things like “home” or “street” or “sidewalk” or “setback” are all defined as simply as they can be.
One of those terms, defined in code, is “family.” Here’s how the Saint Paul Zoning Code describes it.
Family. One (1) or two (2) persons or parents, with their direct lineal descendants and adopted or legally cared for children (and including the domestic employees thereof) together with not more than two (2) persons not so related, living together in the whole or part of a dwelling comprising a single housekeeping unit. Every additional group of four (4) or fewer persons living in such housekeeping unit shall be considered a separate family for the purpose of this code.
(Note that this rule carves out an exception for “domestic employees”, i.e. servants / maids / nannies.)
This is a common definition in cities around the country, and carries with it a lot of baggage around what can and should constitute a family. The idea of the “nuclear family” brings with it a long history in European and American society, that became particularly entrenched during the Victorian era. This definition of family was wielded as a moral weapon, in contrast to the social structures of many other cultures. For example, many immigrants often relied much more on extended families — aunts, grandparents, cousins — to play key roles in the “family group”, responsible for providing household and social needs like raising children, cooking food, etc. Living together made a lot of sense.
(I guess under the Saint Paul zoning code, if you want your aunt or cousin to be able to live legally in your home, you could always “hire” them as housekeepers.) The code would be better off not saying anything at all about what kind of family group is good or bad for society. I think there are huge costs borne by nuclear family relationships that come from this kind of definition and restriction on relationships.
2: neighborhood character
When granting or denying a variance to the zoning code, the legal conditions include this language:
“The variance will not alter the essential character of the surrounding area.”
Not to get too philosophical, but this is a problematic concept called essentialism. The idea that neighborhoods have specific and definable character becomes comes from the idea that a places have an unchanging natural essence. In this way, “essential character” is the opposite of change, hybridity, or fluidity. This becomes a problem when you combine zoning rules with the racial history of cities, as too often the character of a place becomes synonymous with a particular way of living or type of people. Basically, “essential character” is code for exclusion, and the concept can be waved around to try and prevent any kind of change. Most often, essential character is a dog-whistle used to oppose new immigrants, working class housing, or racial diversity. At its worst, it can lay the groundwork for ideas of racial supremacy. At its best, it’s simply meaningless.
3: general welfare
Another condition you find in the code, for variances or conditions use permits:
“the use will not … endanger the public health, safety and general welfare.”
This is a similar problem as that of neighborhood character. The language of “public health” and “general welfare” dates back to the era of spatial determinism. Confronted with the extreme poverty of the early 20th century, early planners and social scientists made a lot of assumptions about how housing types and the social patterns of communities connected to public health.
Additionally, zoning codes and public health should not really be in the same conversation. Housing codes should deal with things like fire safety, but when zoning makes references to the general welfare, it hearkens back to anti-immigrant and racist tropes of the early 20th century. White and wealthy neighborhoods were seen as healthy while immigrant and poor neighborhoods were viewed as inherently unhealthy. Because of that legacy, the term “general welfare” carries with it that baggage. Zoning codes should try and use language less loaded with a legacy of racism and anti-immigrant narratives.
4: parking minimums
This is a super complex part of the code; here’s just an example:
Off-street parking spaces shall be provided in all districts, except B4 and B5, at the time of erection, enlargement or expansion of all buildings in accordance with the requirements of this section. Before a certificate of occupancy shall be issued, the number of off-street parking spaces provided shall be as hereinafter prescribed.
Once you look in the “table,” the code lists all kinds of different numbers and requirements for parking depending on the type of business or home or where they might be located.
Parking requirements are pretty well understood by planners these days. If you research it at all, you quickly realize they are harmful to poor people and the environment. Not only are they requirements arbitrarily created based on pseudoscience of parking demand studies, but by forcing homes and businesses to build off-street parking essentially creates a subsidy for car owners on the backs of both property taxpayers and consumers.
Cities would be better off simply scratching out parking minimums from the code. Now more than ever, car ownership is not worthy of large city subsidies or spending. Cities should focus on reducing the need for driving through things like transit subsidies, car sharing, or travel demand management strategies.
5: single-family zoning
Much of Saint Paul and most cities is zoned like this:
A building designed exclusively for and occupied exclusively by one (1) family in one (1) dwelling unit. Standards and conditions in TN1—TN2 traditional neighborhood districts:
A new one-family dwelling shall be on a lot no more than 50 feet in width, with a side yard adjoining residentially zoned property or property occupied with a one-, two-, or multiple-family dwelling, except that any existing one-family dwelling may be reconstructed within two (2) years of the removal of the building.
Single-family zoning needs to go. With an acute housing shortage driving up housing costs and climate action demanding greater density, this kind of zoning policy is simply too restrictive and harmful. Duplexes, triplexes, ADUs, and other small-scale apartment housing is perfectly compatible with the kinds of things that people in single-family neighborhoods seem to value. Allowing more flexible kinds of housing helps alleviate the rising price of housing, and will begin to assist the wide swath of people struggling with housing costs.
6: any mention of neighborhood groups
This varies from city to city, but in Saint Paul the code looks like this:
District council shall mean a city-recognized organization that enters into a contract with and receives funding from the city to represent a specific geographic area and to provide public input on city matters.
The public engagement that district councils represent seems like a good idea, but in practice, district councils rarely reflect their neighborhoods. They almost always, then and now, have amplified the concerns of wealthy home owners in lieu of both people of color and renters. In both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, attempts to force neighborhood groups to do more outreach or to even account for representation or equity have failed under pressure from those same groups.
Having community groups written into the City Code only works if those groups engage with everyone in their communities, an effort that requires funding for things like outreach, language translation, public meetings, and other deep engagement approaches. If you simply keep groups around without any of those practices and protections in place, you almost always end up with a less equitable city than simply doing nothing.
That’s it! Tear out all these sections from the code and you improve it. Let’s cut down on the rules that keep our city exclusive and structurally unequal.