Three Ways Zoning Can Advance Housing and Climate Justice

Zoning reform is not sexy. It’s a complicated process deeply entangled in bureaucratic decisionmaking that often stifles public participation. But zoning profoundly shapes our communities: it is the local regulatory tool that helps dictate where housing, schools, and parks are located; who can access them; and how they’re built.

In the United States, zoning codes played a central role in producing the place-based inequality characteristic of many American cities. Racist and classist zoning decisions locked in patterns of segregation and neighborhood disinvestment that created inequitable access to economic opportunity and disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards for households with low incomes and households of color.

Today, zoning that restricts construction to single-family homes continues to reinforce these patterns, limiting upward mobility, driving up housing costs, and forcing the development of new affordable housing into areas farther from quality jobs and education. Because of the disparate effects of climate change, such housing is also increasingly vulnerable to fires, floods, and other climate-related hazards.

In California, restrictive zoning, which also drives up high construction costs, pushed much of the state’s housing development into wildland-urban interface where land is cheaper and easier to develop—but more vulnerable to wildfire. The confluence of development in fire-prone areas and the increasing intensity of California’s wildfires has resulted in five of the most damaging fire seasons in California history, setting new records in acres burned (PDF) and damages to residential property (PDF).

The state has taken steps to mitigate fire risks, but the state’s authority is limited. City and county governments are ultimately responsible for zoning decisions and face an acute housing shortage, resistance from homeowners, and a desire to grow their tax revenue. Most jurisdictions have not taken steps to restrict development in fire-prone areas, favoring new development in the wildland-urban interface over increasing density in existing single-family neighborhoods.

California’s housing shortage and intensifying wildfires demonstrate how zoning reform is a linchpin of many housing and environmental inequities. Without holistic and meaningful zoning changes, efforts to mitigate housing and place-based environmental inequities will not scale effectively or address the underlying racial injustices embedded in the housing system.

The following three examples demonstrate how cities across the country are leveraging zoning reform to improve the quality and availability of affordable housing in ways that promote more sustainable forms of land use, improve community resilience to the physical and social risks presented by climate change, and mitigate unequal exposure to environmental hazards.

Zoning for sustainable transition: Minneapolis Green Zones

Some cities have turned to Green Zones (or ecodistricts) to equitably transition to environmentally sustainable cities. These designated areas promote clean energy, expand food access, improve air quality, create environmentally safe affordable housing, and support economic growth through land-use policies informed by community voices.

Following the adoption of Minneapolis’ 2017 Climate Action Plan, the city invested significant time and resources into Green Zones. The city selects Green Zones based on an area’s economic and health disparities, climate change vulnerability, and pollution exposure to ensure those most affected by legacies of racist planning benefit from environmental investments. To mitigate green gentrification concerns, Green Zones must include community-led planning, prioritize homegrown development, and ensure community ownership.

One of the six focus areas of Minneapolis’ Green Zone program is “affordable, available, green housing.” It requires Green Zones to invest in removing lead, asthma triggers, radon, and mold and abide by green standards for both new and renovated affordable housing. Minneapolis’ Green Zones are charged with the task of improving the environmental quality of rental properties, as well as preserving housing affordability and availability, promoting homeownership and cooperative housing, and supporting universal design principles.

By coordinating environmental and housing investments, Green Zones have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve resource efficiency while encouraging safe, affordable housing development. Parallel enforcement mechanisms, like zoning overlays, are also important to ensure new developments meet green and affordable housing standards.

However, industrial polluters within Minneapolis’ Green Zone boundaries are grandfathered in. Cities committed to prioritizing environmental justice should explore ways to no longer include grandfather clauses that maintain inequitable, racist, and unhealthy land uses that undermine the likelihood of achieving the stated goals of Green Zones. Minneapolis community organization Community Members for Environmental Justice is pushing for the city to study the possibility of using eminent domain to purchase polluting factories within Green Zone boundaries.

Zoning for climate resilience: Norfolk’s resilience overlays

Zoning is a powerful tool to enhance community resilience in the face of increasing climate-related threats. In Norfolk, Virginia, city leaders conducted a complete overhaul of its zoning code—to prepare for and adapt to the increased frequency and severity of coastal flooding.

Norfolk spent four years developing the most climate resilient zoning code in America (PDF). Its reforms established new zoning overlays across the city that encourage new development on higher ground, mandate elevated foundations and other stringent measures in coastal areas most vulnerable to flooding, and create zoning incentives for developers to relinquish their land rights on flood-prone properties and place them into conservation easements.

Norfolk’s holistic approach to zoning reform—combining zoning restrictions in the most vulnerable areas with zoning incentives to build in safer areas—effectively improves resilience without exacerbating housing pressures or limiting economic development. In the face of a rapidly changing coastline, Norfolk’s proactive zoning changes, coupled with significant investments in flood infrastructure, are helping secure the city’s future.

Zoning for environmental justice: Baltimore’s 2018 Crude Oil Terminal Prohibition Ordinance

Baltimore, Maryland, a majority-Black city where over 20 percent of residents experience poverty, had the highest rate of deaths caused by air pollution of any major US city in 2013, in part because of its high concentration of fossil fuel infrastructure. There is a strong the link between the siting of fossil fuel infrastructure and residential racial segregation, and across the US, the communities most affected by environmental injustices are more likely to be home to majority-Black and Latinx residents, more likely to have depressed land values, and more likely to have existing concentrations of industrial-zoned land nearby.

In 2014, residents of Curtis Bay in south Baltimore, one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in the city, began organizing against a new crude oil terminal. Between 2014 and 2016, Curtis Bay residents successfully protested a proposed crude oil terminal in the Fairfield area of south Baltimore. Organizers then fought to stem the expansion of crude oil infrastructure in Baltimore by using local zoning codes to ban specific fossil fuel infrastructure in an ordinance passed in 2018.

By instituting bans on toxic and dangerous land uses, cities can both improve public health and begin to redress past environmental injustices, as well as improve the quality and safety of existing affordable housing and increase property values for homeowners. However, future efforts should include parallel antidisplacement initiatives to ward against green gentrification and guarantee that existing residents benefit from the environmental health improvements.