Rendering of a possible Queens waterfront.
Rendering of a possible Queens waterfront.

A Century of Zoning

A Closer Look by • 07/27

On July 25, 1916, New York City passed the first comprehensive zoning law, forever changing how cities everywhere would be shaped. Now, on the 100th anniversary of that resolution, the AIA New York Planning & Urban Design Committee commissioned a series of short essays by leading officials and practitioners that explore their personal or professional relationship to the Zoning Resolution, available at zoning100.com.

We invite you to browse through the website and read these insightful texts that illuminate how the zoning resolution has shaped our city.

Below, we’ve included an excerpt from the “100 Years of Zoning” by Carl Weisbrod, Director, NYC Department of City Planning, and Chair, NYC Planning Commission.

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Zoning is to the city what the riverbed is to the river – it doesn’t fill the river or make it flow, but it plays an essential role in shaping and directing it. And the riverbed itself is also reshaped over time as the waters press against its limits, as rain and drought occur, and as the surrounding environment changes. Zoning is dynamic, not permanent nor rigid. It is, in a real sense, a system of priorities that shift to reflect the needs and consciousness of changing times.

Hence, with the 1961 Zoning Resolution, zoning underwent a fundamental change. It went from being a control over what should not happen, to being a positive document. In simplest terms, it was a reflection of its time and channeled what should or could be built in a district. It sought to inject open spaces – and parking spaces – into the body of a city that was expected to redevelop rather than grow.

We have seen change occur again and again. With the 1987 contextual zoning. With 1989 low-density. With the creation of special districts, urban design, resiliency, and sustainability. And, most recently, with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning for Quality and Affordability.

Today, for the first time in a century of zoning, the Resolution proactively channels the city’s desire to build economically diverse and livable neighborhoods by including requirements for affordable housing in growing areas of the city. Good, quality design is also key. In the simplest of terms, it is about smarter zoning. The evidence is persuasive that poor children who grow up in economically diverse neighborhoods tend to do better than those who do not. We owe a path to upward mobility to our kids and our grandkids. And we owe quality, affordable housing to our growing senior population. We cannot expect the market to achieve this alone, even in combination with substantial public expenditures. The zoning code should be versatile enough to broaden the horizons of planning and allow the public to assume more direct control of its destiny.

As we look forward to the next 100 years of zoning, we must recognize the city is always changing and growing – change that is impacting the way we live, the way we work, indeed, our very planet. Zoning must provide the marketplace and the public with a degree of certainty and predictability. It is a major tool to achieve our planning goals of thoughtful development. But, it is not an immutable framework. Just as the market is not perfect, zoning is not perfect. And, zoning is the language of the physical city. Our values as a city of embracing diversity, innovation, and equity are eternal. But, as new challenges, new technology, and new priorities emerge, our Zoning Resolution must be flexible enough to respond and change as well.

​“100 Years of Zoning” by Carl Weisbrod, Director, NYC Department of City Planning; Chair, NYC Planning Commission

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