A New Emerald City: Banning Exclusionary Zoning, Introducing 'Green Zoning'

image via  The New York Times

In order to right the wrongs of the past,

In order to address the housing crisis of the present,

In order to combat the climate crisis that will end our future,

We must end exclusionary zoning.

Hi! Ace here. Architect and Seattle resident.


Meanwhile, the world is dealing with a climate crisis. There are A LOT of challenges facing cities both in the US and around the world, and it seems like every problem that a city could face is being faced here in Seattle. It’s enough to keep you (read: me) depressed all through summer and just in time for the grey to return come October. Yet through all the challenges, Seattle on the whole seems to be a city that is both growing and thriving. Still, this new change is seen by the old guard as only providing for newcomers, seen by new residents as only benefiting those who ‘got in early,’ and seen by the marginalized as another tactic to remove them from the city entirely.

image via  Monocle

image via Monocle

And for the most part, the world seems to agree: Monocle Magazine recently released the results of their Quality of Life Survey, which culminates in their Top 25 Cities to Live In. Looking at the list you see world-class cities such as Berlin, Oslo, Paris, Madrid, and Tokyo, all well known global places that are taking steps to not only have vibrant urban areas enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike, but are taking significant and measurable steps to address the climate crisis that do not detract from their wonderful qualities.   

Visibly absent from this list is any US city; in fact, the only North American city on the list is Vancouver (15th), our cosmopolitan (and equally expensive) sister to the north. But what separates those cities from us, and how can architecture and urban design aid in improving Seattle’s quality of life and make it a place that is truly sustainable for all residents, and not simply those with lots of money? The answer starts with policy, and that policy would be to end exclusionary zoning.

So today I am going to talk about exclusionary zoning: what it is, why it exists, and how it has no place in cities that are made for all of its citizens. Along with that, I am going to list seven sustainable reasons as to how the end of exclusionary zoning means the beginning of a new chapter in the (death and) life of US cities, using Seattle as the test case.

Let’s begin!

image by Nathan Anderson, via  Unsplash

image by Nathan Anderson, via Unsplash

What is Exclusionary Zoning?

Per Merriam-Webster:

Exclusionary Zoning.JPG

This can be read as single-family zoning, single-unit detached zoning, any rules that limit the number of residences on a piece of land (which is not the same as limits on impervious cover), any rules that limit the number of unrelated people who can live together on a piece of property, et al.

Why does Exclusionary Zoning Exist?

pre-zoning skyscraper in New York via  The New York Times

pre-zoning skyscraper in New York via The New York Times

Zoning, initially, was focused solely on public health: it began as a method to separate industrial (and polluting) uses from residential uses as well as to protect access to light and air for city dwellers. Exclusionary zoning came about when individuals realized that you could use zoning to exclude certain groups from living near you (read: poor people and/or black and brown people). This practice was explicit until the Buchanan v. Warley decision in 1917, implicit until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the effects of both explicit and implicit zoning and housing policy are still felt over 50 years later.

What Problems are associated with Exclusionary Zoning?

Through highlighting a collection of excellent books and relevant articles on these subjects, the problems associated with exclusionary zoning include the following:

  • Segregation (read: racism)

The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein

A Power Disturbing History of Racial Segregation in America” - David Oshinsky, The New York Times

  • Concentrated Poverty (read: racism)

The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, by Alan Malach

America’s Biggest Problem Is Concentrated Poverty, Not Inequality” - Richard Florida, CityLab

  • Disparate Health Impacts 

Toward the Healthy City: People, Places, and the Politics of Urban Planning, by Jason Corburn

‘Death By Zip Code’: Health and Disparities Between Rich and Poor Areas Areas Are Only Getting Worse” - Tara Culp-Ressler, ThinkProgress

Life Expectancy Varies By Up To 18 Years in King County” - The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, The University of Washington

  • Lack of Access to Parks

Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity by Setha Low, Dana Taplin, and Suzanne Scheld

Opening Parks to More Seattleites” - Margaret Morales, Sightline Institute

  • Lack of Access to Well-Funded Schools

When The Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation by Genevieve Siegel-Hawley

The Richer, Whiter School District Next Door” - Adam Harris, The Atlantic

  • Displacement through Gentrification

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

There Goes The ‘Hood by Lance Freeman

Planetary Gentrification by Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin, and Ernesto Lopez-Morales

Growth and Equity, Analyzing Impacts on Displacement and Opportunity Related to Seattle Growth Strategy” - Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (formerly Department of Planning and Development)

What would replace Exclusionary Zoning?

a McMansion from McMansion Hell, image via  Archinect

a McMansion from McMansion Hell, image via Archinect

The first thing I want to be clear about is that the removal of exclusionary zoning does not mean that an individual would not be allowed to build a single-family home. If you have the money and want to build yourself a McMansion, go on ahead. That said, your future neighbors could look like they do now, just with a few more front doors than before. It could look like a brand new duplex, triplex, or fourplex. It could also be four floors and a corner store. But at the end of the day, it would be something that allows for more individuals to live more closely and with a smaller carbon footprint while improving the general quality of both neighborhoods and cities alike. What this would be is what I’ll be referring to as ‘Green Zoning.’

What would seven benefits to ‘Green Zoning’ be?

1. New Homes will be available with Green Zoning

image via  Seattle DCI

image via Seattle DCI

By allowing for more units to be built across a city, there are more places for people to live. With flexibility in ‘Green Zoning,’ this would allow for different types of ‘missing middle’ housing as well as co-ops, community land trusts, co-housing, and other types of affordable housing. In essence, ‘Green Zoning’ would set the table to allow for both supply advocates as well as affordability advocates to have their fill and provide new homes in areas that are both quantitatively desirable as well as have a high access to opportunity.

2. New Homeowners will be created with Green Zoning

image via  Twitter

image via Twitter

More homes does not simply equal more rental homes, but homes that individuals and families alike can buy and invest in. For better or worse, in the United States homeownership is one of the easiest ways to generate wealth and pass it on to your progeny. It’s also explains a good portion of the wealth gap between white households and households of color. By creating more duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and condominiums, the barrier to homeownership is lowered. The image shown is an example of calculations done for the estimated sale price of a home in Milwaukie, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. You can clearly see the difference in sale price between a single-family home all the way down to a single unit in a larger building; more accessible options for more people at more price points.

3. New Customers will be closer with Green Zoning

A new building next to an existing commercial space in Montreal, via  ArchDaily

A new building next to an existing commercial space in Montreal, via ArchDaily

More people living in neighborhoods means more people closer to your respective business. Location is important; the more individuals that are close to where you are or what you do, the more potential business you will receive. Allowing more individuals to live within the city limits would also (hopefully) lead to a reduction in small businesses closing (one can only eat out so many times a week), as it appears the minimum wage here has had no visible effect on closures. This is where someone who will make an argument about parking availability and its impact on customers, however numerous studies for both walking as well as biking show this is not the only way to increase patronage.

4. New Commerce will find room in Green Zoning

image via  Gothamist

image via Gothamist

‘Green Zoning’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean only new housing in neighborhoods. It can allow for existing businesses to grow (or move, if forced); food trucks and pop-ups to create their own brick-and-mortars; and new businesses to be launched. This could result in every neighborhood in Seattle having its own coffee shop (if it doesn’t already), its own corner store (more Kai Markets please!), and its own bodega cat.

5. New Cultural Centers will be created in Green Zoning

‘Green Zoning’ doesn’t just mean space for business, it means space for the arts as well. Seattle has always been known as a music mecca and is home to a plethora of visual artists. With battles over existing cultural spaces and the rising cost of commercial space, ‘Green Zoning’ can help to provide space for the soul of our cities and the bodies that give it its edge. It also means more space for places like Centro de la Raza and Africatown.

6. New Transit Riders will emerge with Green Zoning

image via City of Seattle

image via City of Seattle

Urbanists are always discussing the chicken-egg conundrum of cities: do you build the transit first to serve the new residents or do you build the housing to boost ridership? Luckily in Seattle, we don’t have to make that choice. Per the image shown, you can see the large swath of the city that already has 15-minute-service frequency or better, a metric often used to describe frequent transit lines that citizens will use more often. These images also do not account for the extension to the Link Light Rail that will reach Northgate in 2021 or improvements in service to KingCounty Metro (buses) and Sound Transit (buses and rail) since 2017. ‘Green Zoning’ would not only increase ridership across the city, it could result in an increase in funding to both transit agencies. Increases in fare revenue and property tax revenue could be used for a number of things, including more service hours (new routes and more frequency), improved infrastructure, and potentially even a reduction in fare price. All of these items would, in turn, aid in increasing future ridership.

7. New Green Space will be prioritized with Green Zoning

examples of new green spaces with new buildings, via Code Studio

examples of new green spaces with new buildings, via Code Studio

It seems counter-intuitive to say that building more would result in new green space, but it is possible. Whether through the Green Factor, impervious cover limits on new development, or simply by design, ‘Green Zoning’ can prioritize green space and help to combat both the looming climate crisis as well as the urban heat island effect. Ideally, more walkable and transit-rich neighborhoods equal less use of parking spaces, which could then be converted to parks. Allowing for ‘Green Zoning’ near existing parks would also improve access to open space throughout the city. In addition, increases in urban density mean a reduction in sprawl, a suburban growth pattern linked with deforestation, removal of agriculturally productive lands, and a decrease in life expectancy. In Washington state we are fortunate enough to have the Growth Management Act, however other municipalities are not so lucky.

a 12-unit apartment building in Tallinn, Estonia via  ArchDaily

a 12-unit apartment building in Tallinn, Estonia via ArchDaily

What can you do to end Exclusionary Zoning?

For all cities in the US, ending exclusionary zoning looks like:

  • being actively engaged in discussions around the Green New Deal

  • passing legislation that legalizes multifamily housing like that done in Minneapolis, Oregon and (hopefully soon) California

  • and (for a few dollars more) hiring architects and urban designers like myself to build projects that: 

In Seattle specifically, it means supporting the work of groups like 350 Seattle, AIA Seattle, Futurewise, Housing Development Consortium, Housing Now Seattle, Master Builders Association, Share The Cities, Sierra Club, Sightline, Tech4Housing, the numerous public housing developers and land trusts in and around the Sound; and contacting your district council member (***or runoff candidates***) and voicing your support for changes to the zoning code. Here in the Emerald City we talk a lot about policies that not only create more housing, but specifically more publicly-subsidized housing. When you support the repeal of exclusionary zoning, the ability to create actionable plans around affordable housing and where it can go in the city gets significantly easier. 

TLDR: less restrictions on where homes go = more homes for more people at all income levels.


With the end of exclusionary zoning we can begin a new chapter of Seattle’s history that will steer us in the direction of becoming a more sustainable city: more economically sustainable, more environmentally sustainable, and—most importantly—more socially sustainable. Keeping single-unit-only zoning or any other version of this will preserve the current power structures that disenfranchise Seattleites both new and old and continue the lack of urgent movement to combat climate change.

Piecemealing progress and courteous compromises to make some people more comfortable about zoning changes and any aims to make the changes more palatable to the powerful will not do. We as architects and designers are trained to not simply design beautiful structures but creatively problem solve as well. Rely on us to provide ingenious and audacious solutions; to design a city that will address the needs of a growing populace while staying true to the spirit of the Pacific Northwest. There is a path forward that creates a more beautiful and vibrant city that serves all of its citizens, and to prepare for that journey we must remove the barriers of the past.

We must end exclusionary zoning.