Zoning discussions can easily get bogged down in minutiae. Practitioners conversant in the thousands of pages of the Zoning Resolution refer to specific sections by a string of numbers and letters, speaking a foreign language that is incomprehensible to most. Even for those fluent in the chapter and verse, deciphering the specific meaning of the text itself can at times feel like trying to read the hieroglyphics of a lost civilization: you know it is saying something, but to decipher it takes years of scholarship and practice, and in the end, you still can’t quite be sure if you got it right.
The 100th anniversary of the New York City Zoning Resolution—the progenitor of zoning laws everywhere—offers us a chance to rise above the daily scrum, to reflect more broadly. For the many who toil away in its underdecks, it is a chance to collectively climb up to the crow’s nest, to see just where the good ship Zoning Resolution is taking us, and how far we’ve come.
The good news is that across the many essays collected here, there emerges a broad consensus on at least one point: zoning isn’t perfect. Nearly every contributor to this project sees room for improvement and many have ideas about how to do it, from scrapping the whole thing and starting over, to ways that technology could improve the practice of zoning, to greater community involvement, to enhancing the role of zoning in social equity and environmental sustainability. Furthering this high-level dialogue about the ways that zoning can be improved is central to the not-so-secret agenda of this project.
There is also widespread agreement among the authors about what an achievement the creation of comprehensive zoning was, and what zoning has in turn achieved through the many ways it has shaped our city for the better over the last century. Zoning is a manifestation of our collective will and governance. As the original source for what is now a vast ocean of zoning laws and practices covering cities nationwide and worldwide, New York City’s 1916 Zoning Resolution is a major watershed in the history of how we shape our environment. This centennial milestone is rightly a cause for celebration of our ongoing civic triumph.
I am thrilled at the breadth, the scholarship, and the thoughtfulness of this collection of writing, and offer heartfelt thanks to all who contributed. Please read, reflect, and continue the conversation.