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Zoning Laws Destroy Communities

April 30, 2010

Tags Big GovernmentThe EnvironmentInterventionism

Zoning laws are a violation of property rights. They destroy the sense of community in neighborhoods, increase crime, increase traffic congestion, contribute to urban and suburban air pollution, contribute to poverty, contribute to reliance in government — and, thus, reduce self-reliance — and contribute to the ruin of our schools. Most of our urban and suburban problems arose with zoning and other antiproperty laws, to which welfare programs and public housing projects have contributed. Each of these policies came out of the idea that society could and should be engineered from the top down to give rise to efficiency, community, and prosperity. What in fact resulted was the opposite outcome.

I. Neighborhoods and Communities

With zoning laws, commercial, industrial, and residential areas are separated from each other. The result is blocks of houses, industrial parks, and strips of stores and restaurants. People have to drive miles to go to the store, to work, or even to the park. It is rare to go to the store and see anyone you know.

But imagine a neighborhood without zoning laws. It would then be possible to have, say, a small grocery store on the corner where you could buy fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and meat. That store would likely be within walking distance, be owned by one of your neighbors, and be designed to serve the neighborhood.

I encountered such a store when I lived in Athens, Greece for a month. It was less than a minute's walk away from where I was living. I could get most of what I needed on any given day, and if I was in the mood for some fresh fruit or vegetables, I could walk right over and buy some. I have little doubt that I ate more fruits and vegetables there than I do here in Richardson, Texas. If I'm in the mood for something — say, some strawberries — then I have to get in my car and drive a mile to the store. More likely than not, I'm just going to decide it's not worth the effort. Thus, a sale is not made, and I'm not eating my strawberries, meaning I'm less happy and less healthy.

The large grocery store a few blocks away from where I lived in Athens provided a wider variety of goods, of course, which is why I would do my weekly shopping there to get paper products, canned good, dry goods, etc. For major shopping trips, the large stores servicing the larger community are best — but the small family-owned store on the corner contributes to the local community. If I go to the small store on the corner in my neighborhood to get one or two things every other day or so, and so does everyone else in the community, we are going to be more likely to recognize each other, then to talk to each other, then to befriend each other.

If everyone is going to the large stores, one goes less often, and one only sees one's neighbors on the rare occasion you are both leaving your houses at the same time to get into your respective cars. You may wave, but you may also not even know their names. If you know your neighbors within a block or two, a stronger neighborhood is created because community is created. Crime will go down because people will be more likely to look out for each other — and one is less likely to commit a crime against someone one knows:

"Your money or your life!"

"Bob? Is that you?"

"Sorry, Charlie. I didn't recognize you in the dark."

That's simply not going to happen.

As people get to know each other, there will be more respect for the neighborhood community. It is one thing to spray graffiti on the front of a grocery store, but it's another thing to spray graffiti on Chuck Johnson's store, where you went growing up and where Johnson used to give you a piece of candy when you were little.

Sure, this sounds like a romantic dream of the 1950s, but that era was more that way precisely because neighborhoods were communities. Zoning laws and other anticommunity government policies were not yet in place to atomize people, making them less dependent on each other and, thus, more dependent on more distant government bureaucrats. It's amazing what you can do by simply preventing someone from opening up a store in a "residential area."

II. Zoning Laws Favor Big Business Over Small Businesses

Zoning laws force you to have your business only in certain locations. This drives up the price of property for businesses, making it harder to start a new business. If I wanted to sell cookies (and I do make some good cookies), I would have to either buy some expensive commercial property or rent a place in a shopping center, get the proper permits and licenses (another barrier to entry into the marketplace), buy stoves and mixers, etc.

"But imagine a neighborhood without zoning laws. It would then be possible to have, say, a small grocery store on the corner where you could buy fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and meat."

By the time I did all this, I wouldn't be able to afford the ingredients to make the cookies. I would either have to save up a small fortune or go in debt. But if the local government would leave me alone, I could bake cookies in my home, using the mixer and stove I have, and sell the cookies in front of my house to my neighbors. As I began to make money from selling cookies, I could buy a bigger mixer and a better stove to make more cookies. I could hire a neighbor kid to sell the cookies for me so I could bake more, and I could maybe start selling my cookies to local stores. As I started making more money with higher demand, I could put an addition onto my house for the cookie store, or buy or rent another place and make the cookies there. I could thus start my own business with little initial cost and without going into debt while providing a service to my community and to my neighbors.

And people used to do this. My wife's grandfather sold fruit trees from his yard until the city passed an ordinance prohibiting people from selling anything on residential properties. They made an exception that you could hold two yard sales a year — but only if you got a permit.

The result is that big business is favored over upstarts. Walmart and Home Depot can afford to buy as much commercial land as they need to build a store. And they don't have to worry about a bunch of people selling similar items locally. Most Americans are like me, and we cannot afford to buy property like large corporations can, so we are prohibited from participating in the marketplace as anything other than employees to others.

With as many barriers to starting a new business as there are, it's surprising how many do get started. It's typically done by going into debt. This makes it even more difficult for the poor to get out of their poverty. Barred from starting a business at home by zoning and other prohibitory laws, they also cannot get loans due to their poverty and bad credit. Those who do manage to figure out how to make money spend the money frivolously for fear that if they save or invest the money, the government will punish them with fines and audits. Thus, these laws contribute to poor spending habits among the poor. The government can take away your property, but they can never take away the party you threw and had a good time at.

III. Zoning Laws, Traffic, and Pollution

When our jobs and stores are several miles away, we have to drive. Americans like their independence, so public transportation is an option only if one cannot afford a car. As a result, traffic in most cities and suburbs is a nightmare between 5 and 7 PM. Not only are people trying to get home from work but once they are home, they need to head right out to go to the store. A fifteen-minute drive becomes an hour or more. All that time driving creates large amounts of air pollution, contributing to lung problems and stress. Thus our physical and mental healths are harmed by heavy traffic, making us less happy and less productive workers.

The way my city is zoned, I can walk to a dentist (whose office is across the back alley from my house), but I have to drive to the grocery store. Typically, I need to go shopping more often than I need to see the dentist. I must drive to go to any store, to go to the coffee house, or even to go to the park. I walk less and drive more, contributing to health problems due to less exercise and to my contribution to air pollution. With local stores integrated into neighborhoods, there would be less traffic on the roads, meaning less traffic congestion and less pollution.

IV. Neighborhoods and Schools

American schools have gotten worse and neighborhoods have deteriorated and communities have been dissolved. In places where there is still a strong sense of local community, the schools do a much better job of educating students. These places are typically rural and have few if any zoning laws artificially separating peoples' lives into sections unconnected to each other. People who live in strong communities are aware they have a vested interest in the health of that community.

Schools are one of the main centers of any community, and those concerned with their communities are concerned with their schools. When parents are involved in the schools, the schools do a better job of educating students. The schools in turn become more community oriented and work to contribute more to the community.

A good example of this (and its collapse) was the elementary school I went to in rural Kentucky. This school was always holding festivals and events the town could participate in. Parents would contribute food for the school to sell at the festivals. Between that and people paying for various games, our school actually ran a profit, meaning it could do more things for the students.

"Zoning laws and other anticommunity government policies were not yet in place to atomize people, making them less dependent on each other and, thus, more dependent on more distant government bureaucrats."

Over time, laws destroyed what our school was doing. First, there was a law passed that prohibited the use of anything canned that was not bought at a store. So people stopped contributing as much, because if you are canning your own green beans, you're not going to buy beans in a can — and few if any would go to the store just to buy a can of beans for the school event. Next came prohibitions on home-baked goods, making for even fewer contributions. This made the events less personal — and less profitable.

But in the end, it didn't matter. My elementary school no longer exists because the county school board decided to ignore all the evidence that indicates that smaller schools educate students better than larger schools: they consolidated it with three other local schools to make one large school that is now five miles away from the town I grew up in. White Plains is still a town, but it is no longer a community. There is also far less local interest in the new school.

V. Zoning Laws Violate Property-Rights Protection

So far I have addressed direct psychological, social, and economic aspects of the harm done by zoning laws. But such laws also violate our rights regarding property ownership. Property taxes make local governments see property owners as tenants on property the government is renting to them. If you do not pay your property taxes, the local government will treat you like a renter and throw you out, so the analogy is more than apt: it's precise.

A tenant has to abide by the rules of the property owner, which is why local governments have adopted this attitude toward other people's property. If local government really owns the property, they can tell you what you can and cannot do with it. Without ownership rights, we cannot really express ourselves as we wish, organize with whomever we wish, or prosper as we wish. We always have to get permission first.

Property-rights protection is a necessary element for the creation of prosperity. People need to feel secure to want to take risks. This can be seen in small children: a toddler will giggle if her father throws her in the air, but scream if a stranger does. She has to feel secure to take the risk.

When we live under threat of government taking away our property for failure to pay rent to them, for violating some zoning ordinance, or for not paying off the right government employee, people are less inclined to take the risks necessary to become independent and prosperous. People need to feel like their property is secure and protected from both criminals and government if they are going to take economic risks with it.

VI. Zoning Laws are Unnatural and Disruptive

A community is a complex system. In nature, complex systems self-organize from the bottom up, from less complex elements. Structures develop that affect but do not force the elements that make up the system to do what they are doing naturally. No system in nature is created from the top down.

Let me put it this way. A biological cell is a bottom-up structure; an engine is a top-down structure. Cells are complex, efficient, and generate order; engines are simple, inefficient, and generate disorder. Cells run up; engines run down.

Communities are like cells. They are made up of different elements — people and families — that, working together, create a more complex entity known as a community. Quite large communities can be created by many subcommunities integrating. I can belong to a school community, a church community, a work community, and to various clubs and organizations. We know that humans are most comfortable in groups of 150 people. We can and often do expand the community we live in by being members of many different communities containing 150 members. But that number — 150 — must be maintained if we are to remain psychologically comfortable. Where there is overlap — the same people belonging to the same subcommunities — the larger community is strengthened. Though a Christian, I have become friends with several Muslims because we are all part of the same "Starbucks community."

Communities are not like engines. When we try to engineer communities, the results are disastrous. Forced bussing to integrate schools did nothing to create a community of blacks and whites. Instead, it destroyed the community schools, breaking down the neighborhoods where the schools existed and creating resentment among those who were bussed. It did not improve education for anyone, but instead contributed to the worsening of education for everyone. And the students still self-segregated in the lunchrooms.

The same kind of thing happened when public-housing projects were built. Artificially throwing people together into ugly apartments of bare concrete was dehumanizing and thus destructive for the community as well. This is why all urban-renewal plans have been miserable failures, resulting in increased poverty and worse crime. Community is destroyed by top-down processes precisely because top-down processes are simplifying, unnatural, and create disorder.


Zoning laws and other laws that restrict what people can do with their property do more harm than good. People argue that "I don't want someone building a factory in my neighborhood," but the fact is that nobody wants to build a factory in your neighborhood. They want to build a factory where it is easy to get supplies in and products out, and where there's plenty of room for employees to park. That's not your neighborhood. And in an increasingly post-industrial economy, that argument is mostly irrelevant.

I am arguing for allowing natural organization of communities and neighborhoods. I am arguing for healthier neighborhoods and communities.

The elimination of such anti-property-rights laws will allow this. It will make people more self-reliant and thus less dependent on government, meaning there will be more people contributing to the economy, to society, and to their neighborhoods and communities. People will also be healthier, happier, and less stressed.

Social engineering only works to destroy communities and make people more reliant on government programs.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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