Tall buildings and Urban expansion: Tracing the evolution of zoning in the United States

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Zoning has been a powerful force in shaping the three-dimensional landscape of the urban built environment. Although market forces and private interests have historically controlled the decision-making process, land-use regulations have been used to counter market failures and to collectively guide the growth of the American city. During the second half of the nineteenth century, advancements in construction and building technologies, including the steel structural frame, internal pneumatic and telegraphic communications, efficient mechanical systems, and improved fireproofing materials and techniques, allowed for the construction of structures of increasing height. As tall building construction flourished in major U.S. cities, issues of light, ventilation, and public health, as well as encroachment of incompatible uses, began to capture the public's attention. Where tenement reform laws had addressed residential overcrowding, owners, architects, and public officials viewed building regulations as a means to minimize the negative impacts of increasingly massive structures on surrounding property values and public space. This article discusses the evolution of zoning and its implications for the form of cities and suburbs by tracing the history of New York's first comprehensive zoning law. It first presents the economic, social, and technological forces leading to calls for regulation of the built environment and then examines the passage of the 1916 Zoning Resolution as it related to issues of public health, separation of uses, and real estate economics. Finally, the article explores the effect of zoning on the growth of the New York region, focusing on its impact on urban form and the spatial patterns of development and its relationship to emerging issues of environmental sustainability and urban resilience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)190-198
Number of pages9
JournalLeadership and Management in Engineering
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2013


  • Land use
  • Regulation
  • Tall buildings
  • Technology
  • Zoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management Science and Operations Research


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