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Fall 2009

Zoning Made Simple

Land-use policy and zoning codes are driving forces in determining the walkability of our communities and the shape or our local economies.

“For a long time cities and towns have written zoning codes that essentially give us the dominant type of retail that we have today—namely, big-box stores and sprawling shopping centers,” describes Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “If you look at zoning codes of many cities and towns, you will see that they have exactly prescribed this type of development.”

Historically, zoning codes were adopted in the earlier part of the 20th century as a way to regulate haphazard and unregulated land use and to separate residential areas from pollution and noise associated with industry or commercial districts. Much of today’s land use policy is still being driven this approach to growth, where residential and commercial are separate from one another.

This segregated zoning approach has helped lay a framework for auto-oriented growth and developmen. With schools, residences, and businesses all separated under existing zoning codes, opportunities for walking in many communities are limited, increasing the cycle of auto-dependency.

The American dream is really the dream of “automobility,” says Richard Layman, an analyst for Economic Development Visions, a retail revitalization and urban planning firm in Washington, DC. “It’s about de-concentration, using more land, separated uses, and being connected to all those places by driving and owning a car.”

“What we can do is focus on connecting civic assets and other assets of communities,” says Layman. “Have walking and bicycle route networks that connect say your park and libraries to your schools, city halls, and commercial districts. This way, people can begin moving some of their trips from automobiles to other forms.”


Zoning for Walkability

There are many different approaches community members can take to zoning for a better independent retail environment. Stacy Mitchell provides four key steps to getting started.

1) Rethink retail zones, and zone for mixed use. Most cities have zoned the vast majority of land along major roadways and highways for large-scale commercial development. That leaves people in residential areas having to be

“The thinking has been we want to have economic growth, so just zone everything for [all types of] development,” says Mitchell. This approach has helped large retail chains move in and undercut local business, shutting them down and creating unwalkable retail areas made up of big-box stores, giant parking lots, and many vacant shops.

The solution is to zone businesses downtown and in neighborhoods, so development goes in and around those areas rather than somewhere on the periphery.

Plus, zone for mixed use. Rather than creating exclusive commercial districts, mixed-use zoning allows smaller businesses to open up throughout a town or city among residential areas, so people can walk to them.

2) Adopt a store size-cap. Store size-caps are ordinances that prohibit stores over a certain size from locating in a retail area. Buildings themselves could actually be larger, but the actual footprint of a business should not be beyond 40,000-50,000 feet recommends Mitchell. For scale, a typical Wal-Mart supercenter is generally 200,000 square feet, and the average supermarket is 45,000 square feet.

Store size-caps can enhance walkability and create diversity in terms of businesses available. “Scale is really important to walkability,” says Mitchell, noting that if there are ten businesses in a neighborhood, residents are more likely to walk even if there is one big box store that supplies all of those things.

3) Limit the number of “formula businesses.” Many communities have taken steps to limit the number of formula businesses, or chain stores. Some communities have prohibited formula businesses altogether, while others simply cap their numbers.

“You see these caps primarily in neighborhood business districts that have been revitalized and where they have, as a result, become very popular places with a lot of foot traffic,” says Mitchell.

4) Adopt a neighborhood-serving ordinance. Some communities have adopted neighborhood-serving ordinances to promote walkable town centers. These ordinances ensure that businesses that serve basic needs, such as pharmacies, are not getting pushed out by high-end restaurants and luxury shops. Under these ordinances businesses won’t be permitted unless by some measure a significant share of their business serves the needs or residents living close by. Such ordinances have become necessary in some places where historic districts have been revitalized and are becoming tourist-oriented, rather than serving residents.

To learn more about how to go about rezoning in your community, contact the New Rules Project for specific recommendations, and consult the following organizations.

Natasha Abbas




• American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), 406/582-1255,

• Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), 415/255-1108 ,

• National Trust Main Street Program, 202/588-6219,

• The New Rules Project (A program of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance), 612/379-3815,




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