Zoning. The word evokes strong reactions, both positive and negative. On the one hand, a way to manage public safety, and on the other, an over-eager government reducing the profits of private developers. As John M. Levy details in Contemporary Urban Planning, it emerged at the turn of the 20th century as a way to empower the community to provide for the welfare of citizens. New York City paved the way, setting zoning ordinances as buildings began to grow straight up from the sidewalk, darkening the streets below. Legally justified by the idea of “police power,” permitting society members to intervene in private property issues to preserve the public interest, zoning became a common practice tied to planning throughout the United States.
Although zoning found significant use after its initial implementations, the assertion of private property rights, often tied to right-wing rhetoric, emerged as a force against such land use management. Beginning in the 1980s, Levy describes a series of United States Supreme Court cases that sided with private companies, agreeing that such limits constituted “takings” and warranted compensation, thus slowing the zoning efforts of the government.
But what are the present day effects of this reduction of zoning power? One New York Times editorial describes the plan to build skyscrapers on Central Park South with the potential to cast shadows nearly a mile long across the park. In this quintessential New York icon, the only shade had come from trees, but as paths and playgrounds darken, people are growing more concerned with the ambience of such spaces.
A second New York Times piece details the effects of reduced zoning more specifically, honing in on particular buildings and people that have been left in the darkness by rising heights around them. As new buildings surpass these existing apartments, residents find their windows, their light, being lost to private developers. The author, Cara Buckley, notes the mental and emotional side effects of such a loss—residents feeling “isolated,” reflecting the grimness of the darkened apartments.
Zoning is a conflict between developers and the community. Initially favoring the latter, political changes now favor the former, begging the question of which zoning is meant to help. Is access to sunlight part of public welfare? Developers might argue that zoning does in fact account for the public’s needs, because height restrictions reduce the possible number of units, which in turn could increase the price of existing units. But does that purely capitalist rationalization represent all that’s at stake? In a city with rising heights, how much does sunlight cost?