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Zoning: Killer of creativity

Truth is, zoning has created a disaster in the U.S. — unaffordable housing and high-rise columbariums.

  • Sarasota
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Look at the view on Tamiami Trail looking south in the photo. With few exceptions, that’s everything. The same  standardized, gigantic concrete oversized columbarians — with external touches here and there. Architects try to design those features to create something consumers will buy, and, equally important, that the neighborhood NIMBYs and central planning commissars will approve.

This look is everywhere. And you know what? It’s contrary to what used to be the American way. Americans used to embrace creativity and, dare we use this disgustingly overused word — “diversity.”

Look at the variety and creativity in the way people dress — all kinds of kinds and styles. Look at the variety in automobile brands and styles. The variety in foods and restaurant cuisine. Look at the different designs of single-family homes, inside and out. On one block, you can have a midcentury Frank Lloyd Wright gem next to a Mediterranean Revival palace, each painted different colors.

But no matter what in Florida, when anyone proposes to construct a multistory building, the NIMBYs come out from under the rugs, and the planning commissioners pull out their 2,000-page zoning codes. 

“We can’t have that!” the chorus goes. “It will destroy the ambience of our beloved street.”

High-rise columbariums line Tamiami Trail.
Photo by Matt Walsh
Preserve this?
Photo by Matt Walsh

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But here is the truth:

Zoning is anti-property rights. Zoning is discriminatory. Zoning has made housing unaffordable. Zoning has made so much of our landscape ugly. And, well, for the most part, zoning has created a disaster in America.

Zoning is why you see so many high-rise condos in Sarasota and Florida look like their designs all came from the same boring guy.

What’s more, here is the irony: For more than 100 years, Sarasota prided itself on being a haven for artists and the arts — the essence of creativity. Sarasota has one of the most amazing art museums in the world (the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art). And Sarasota is the birthplace of a world-famous style of architecture: the Sarasota School of Architecture.

And yet, time after time after time, NIMBYs, planning commissioners and bureaucrats exert great efforts to squelch anything that falls a centimeter outside of the lines of the code (e.g. Obsidian/1260 N. Palm Avenue Residences).

Rather than squish and snuff creativity, consider embracing it and entrepreneurial capitalism. Look at all the amazing, life-improving innovations that individuals have produced because of their creativity and ownership of private property.  

The results have been far, far superior to what you’ll ever get out of that 2,000-page zoning code.

The zoning theory of everything

The following are excerpts from “The zoning theory of everything,” by Christian Britschgi, a reporter for Reason magazine:

  • Zoning regulations control what kinds of buildings can be constructed where, and then what activity can happen inside them. They effectively socialize private property while controlling even the most mundane features of our physical environment and daily routines. Zoning rules flip property rights on their head, curtailing the owners’ ability to do what they wish on their land. In exchange, they sometimes give people near–veto power over what happens on their neighbors’ property.
  • The immediate costs of zoning are straightforward: By limiting new housing construction, zoning drives home prices up in—and drives people out of—the most in-demand neighborhoods. By micromanaging commercial activity, zoning prevents entrepreneurs from trying new things, making everyone poorer in the process.
  • On a macroeconomic level, zoning slows economywide growth and dynamism by wrapping the most productive urban centers in red tape.
  • Zoning not only gives busybody politicians the ability to affect everything; it gives them power to stop everything, making it the go-to tool for those trying to restrict everything from abortion to chain stores to goat yoga. It’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that American political debates always come back to zoning—and that zoning makes everything worse.
  • In “The Housing Theory of Everything,” a 2021 essay for Works in Progress, Sam Bowman, John Myers and Ben Southwood cobble together the most recent research to estimate that zoning restrictions cost the average American somewhere between $8,800 and $16,000 a year in foregone income.
  • While zoning makes our economy more unstable and our politics more deranged, it keeps everything else much more boring. When people want to try new ideas on their property, whether it’s a startup business or just a fresh look, they are stopped by a litany of rules aimed at separating “incompatible uses” and eliminating “out-of-context” designs.
  • By constraining those property rights through restrictions on use, density, and more, zoning controls the physical substrata on which free markets are built. It is central planning brought down to an almost elemental level. It has made individuals and society poorer, less dynamic, more unstable, less interesting, less welcoming—and a little crazier too.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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