It’s 11 a.m. You’re at your desk. Your stomach rumbles. You could use a hamburger. You work until 5:30, with enough time to pick up your kid before the daycare starts charging late fees at 6. Soccer practice starts at 7:30. Somewhere in between, you need to pick up the dry cleaning and get cash from an ATM. Your stomach rumbles again, a reminder that you need to feed everyone at some point. It’s going to be another whirlwind evening. You slouch into your chair with a peanut butter sandwich, resigned to the fact that you’ll spend hours in traffic after a long day of work.
Days like this play out all the time in America. Even when commutes are short, the retail establishments we frequent often aren’t close to our jobs, and some types of stores are clustered in far-flung parts of town. That’s by design. For a century, the foundation of American land use policy has been the separation of different land uses from each other under the belief that this minimizes negative spillover effects. But the legal separation of land uses makes life inconvenient, paid for in late nights, long drives, and errands that never get done.
Separating uses does have benefits. Keeping development patterns uniform in small areas is convenient for the public. It helps keep demand for infrastructure predictable and stable, making heated debates over traffic, water, power and such less frequent. Keeping commerce out of neighborhoods tempers complaints about noise and parking—landmine issues for local politicians. But use-based zoning restrictions aren’t the only way to manage local infrastructure debates, and we have alternative options for dealing with negative spillovers from mixing homes and places of commerce and industry.
State and local politicians could make a number of changes in land use regulation to tip the scales toward a mix that favors convenience over minimizing negative spillover effects. The most complete reform would be for states to endorse a form of hierarchical zoning, where zoning is based on the intensity of activity rather than the use itself. High intensity activities generate noxious spillover effects—heavy industry being the highest intensity activity of all—while residential uses generate the least intense activity. In a hierarchical system, developers are allowed to build any type of building up to the maximum intensity category. This allows housing to be built in areas home to more-intense activities like retail and office complexes, and allows retail to be built in areas home to primarily industrial uses.
Japan has long used a hierarchical zoning system, and has largely avoided the high rents people face in most large American cities. Given its success in keeping rents stable in a region as large as Tokyo, states should consider legislation to make hierarchical zoning the predominant mechanism used by municipalities when they undertake substantial zoning reform.
But for shorter, more convenient trips, zoning reform need not be a large, state-led overhaul of municipal zoning laws. In states with home rule powers, municipalities have broad discretion to implement their own land use regulations with limited interference from state governments. In these states, changing existing zones to allow more uses would open the door to more retail near offices and industrial concerns as well as more homes near retail. These changes could happen in two ways. First, towns could expand existing mixed-use zones to include most or all retail areas in an effort to allow more homes within a walk or short drive from neighborhood-serving retail. Second, towns could expand the list of allowed uses in existing zones, granting the right to develop new types of buildings in existing industrial or office areas.
American governments have been overly cautious in organizing land uses to separate our homes from where we work and where we shop. Life is easier when the places you need to go are close to each other, when you can find an ATM and a dry cleaner close to home and have time to run errands and make dinner in the evening. With zoning reform—either a new hierarchical system or an expansion of allowed uses—you could swap the peanut butter sandwich for the burger you really want.