Updated: May 31
One of the main tools local governments have in their toolkit to pursue their policy objectives is zoning, or the use of local laws to regulate how land can and cannot be used depending on location. To understand exactly how local government policymakers view the purposes of zoning, we asked a nationally representative sample of local policymakers the following open-ended question: “What purpose(s) do you generally think zoning and development regulations should serve in your own community?”
Our research team then manually coded all of the responses into six categories:
Quality of Life
Protecting the Environment
Protecting Property Rights
By far the most popular reason for zoning was promoting quality of life. This category included a range of responses that covered walkability, health, safety, and access to amenities. As described by one respondent, zoning should be used for the “safety and health of the community members, whether they live, work or recreate in the community.”
The second most commonly mentioned objective was economic growth, including facilitating the establishment of businesses and maintaining or improving property values. As one respondent answered, “The purpose of zoning requirements, enacted by local government, is [to] maintain or improve the asset value of private, tax paying property and to ensure the continued vitality of all tax paying assets residing within such individual zones.”
The third most commonly cited concern was preserving or improving community character, including a concern for aesthetics, order, or the general “flow” of the community. As described by one respondent, zoning should be used “to help keep development and progress orderly and within the best interest of the community.”
The remaining three reasons mentioned enough to be categorized were improving housing access, protecting the natural environment, and protecting personal property rights. Note that some responses included mentions of reasons that fell into multiple categories.
Given how dependent local governments are on attracting businesses to their communities, it is noteworthy that quality of life was mentioned even more often than economic growth when asked about zoning. Perhaps electoral incentives lead officials to focus on quality of life rather than longer-term goals such as economic growth. That said, economic development clearly is a high priority for local governments as well—they may simply pursue this objective through other vehicles like tax incentives or permitting, rather than through zoning.
The research underlying this blog was built on data from a national random-sample survey of 442 local policymakers. The questionnaire was developed by Renee Parks, Ross Brownson, and colleagues at the Prevention Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis and fielded by CivicPulse between January to March 2022. The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.
Nathan Lee, PhD Managing Director of CivicPulse (618) 319-3404 firstname.lastname@example.org