(Re)-legalize corner stores? Ja, natürlich

February 01, 2023

American zoning is predicated on the idea that residential, commercial, and industrial uses should all be strictly segregated—indeed, to an unusual degree by international standards. 

Research by Hirt (2010) compares American zoning to German zoning to reveal how much more restrictive residential zones in the U.S. are relative to peer countries. 

Key takeaway: 

  • U.S. zoning is unusually strict in the extent to which it segregates uses. In Germany, even the more restrictive residential zoning districts allow some low-rise multifamily and neighborhood-serving commercial uses.

The strict separation of use imposed by U.S. zoning has recently come under fire for producing communities that are inconvenient, unaffordable, unsustainable, and inequitable. Where many Americans could once walk to daily goods and services like grocers or doctors’ offices, today these uses are often strictly separated from residential areas. 

As a result, contemporary American life—particularly in states like California—is often defined by the need to own and drive a car. 

Interestingly, modern zoning originates in Germany. Early zoning framers in the United States explicitly looked to German land-use planning as a model. As a result, German and American zoning are similar in many respects: both break the city out into districts with discrete use, massing, and density rules. 

Yet the similarities largely end there: where German codes largely focused on massing and density rules, American codes increasingly focused on ensuring strict separation of uses.  This segregation is at its most strict in American zoning districts designated for single-family homes—your typical R1 district—where all forms of multifamily housing and all commercial uses are generally banned.  

While Germany has residential zoning, Hirt observes that even the most restrictive German residential zoning districts in a city like Stuttgart allow low-rise multifamily and neighborhood-serving commercial services. 

Of course, Hirt concedes, such policy differences partly reflect different cultures—Germans may be less concerned about the privacy or visual order afforded by strict use segregation than Americans. But the German experience suggests that allowing for a mixture of uses in zoning can often produce neighborhoods that are more functional, affordable, sustainable, and desirable.

Flickr photo of a corner store in Monterey County by Charlie Day