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Cover of the book 'Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America' by Richard Rothstein.

A Very Brief History of Zoning

Modern zoning regulations in the United States begin to emerge in cities in the early twentieth century, and spread throughout the country in earnest with the 1927 publication of A Standard City Planning Enabling Act by the US Department of Commerce. This model legislation served as a guide for municipalities who wished to regulate land use and development.

As Richard Rothstein describes in The Color of Law, from its earliest moments zoning was used to determine not just how land might be used, but by whom. Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans (and other marginalized groups) were explicitly prevented from acquiring land, building homes, purchasing existing real estate, renting, or relocating to areas deemed to be for whites only. Though post-war civil rights law prohibited many forms of discrimination in housing, it did not end many of the formal and informal practices that kept African Americans in segregated neighborhoods; nor did it end discriminatory practices that prevented African Americans from building wealth via property ownership or taking advantage of government-subsidized financing. The legacy of racism and discrimination built into the history of zoning continues to this day, as our own communities in Washtenaw county are deeply segregated by both economics and race.

Zoning Practice at the Local Level

To learn more about zoning in Ann Arbor, consult the Unified Development Code (UDC) currently in effect. You can find zoning for neighborhood areas and individual parcels using the City of Ann Arbor’s Dynamic Zoning Map.

The City of Ann Arbor’s Planning Commission meets on the first and third Tuesday of the month. You can watch meetings of the Planning Commission via CTN or streaming online. Watching a Planning Commission meeting can be a great way to learn about how the development process works at a local level.