New York City Zoning Regarding the Impacts on Urban Form, Economic, Social and Environmental Conditions


Zoning is responsible for determining how a city looks and functions since it regulates land-use within a city (Norman, 1992).  New York has always been a rapidly expanding city with a constant need to update and reevaluate their current plans. Beginning with the first Zoning Resolution in 1916, followed by the revised version in 1961, then again in 1990, the zoning plan of New York is always undergoing constant changes. Zoning allows for the division of the different boroughs, air space limitations, and open space requirements (Kennedy, 1982).

The zoning laws have shaped New York into a grid formation, with less green space than typically found in cities and is towered by skyscrapers that do not prevent light exposure. This paper will discuss the urban form and locations that shape New York city, the historical background along with the economic and environmental issues that afflict the city. An analysis of the city zoning will also be discussed to give more insight about the city zoning plans both currently and in the future.

Urban Form and Location

With an overall area of 790 km2 and a total population of 8,009,000 residents, New York City is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in all of America. It is also one of the largest and wealthiest of all United States cities (Lankevich, 2018). Parts of the city’s bedrock dates back over 100 million years, which has allowed for the multiple skyscraper developments.

The current topography of the city was caused by the glacial recession (Lankevich, 2018). Glacial retreat carved out many of the current waterways such as the Hudson and East rivers. The earliest transit routes were Native American trails or trails from following animals during migration to ensure constant access to food, which were difficult due to the terrain (Lankevich, 2018).

A major focus for the city of New York is on the livability of the neighborhoods. The public realm is not only the sidewalks and streets, but also includes the social and public experience that residents experience (City of New York, 2018). All neighborhoods have a unique sense of identity that incorporate history, culture, and natural systems. Vibrant spaces and natural, open areas allow for a welcoming urban environment (City of New York, 2018). New York aims to create an urban design that is open and accessible to all residents.

This plan involves affordable housing, access to good quality food, open spaces, and any essential services (City of New York, 2018). The broad spectrum of health, comfort and enjoyment of the population is considered when making any plans. A good urban design makes the people who are involved feel heard (City of New York, 2018).

The main formation of the city is a grid layout with most streets being numbered. Blocks are clearly distinguished from one another, which makes streets clear and easy to navigate. The city is divided into five boroughs: Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island (Figure 1); each borough has their own design and atmosphere which separates them from one another.

Figure 1. New York City Boroughs Map. This map displays all
five boroughs that make up the city (City of New York, 2017)

The Bronx is in the Northern part of New York City and is typically known as the home of the Yankees. This borough is 106 km2 large with a population of approximately 1,400,000 people (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013). It is separated from Manhattan by the Harlem River.

The Bronx is mainly a residential area, but most of its waterfront is used for shipping, storage warehouses, and industries such as textiles, foods, machinery, and paper products (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013). The Bronx was first settled by farmers and for centuries, it remained rural. After the mid-1960s, the borough faced urban decay caused by increases in crime and violence, renegade landlords, and the strain of new immigrants.

Insurance payouts began to reduce, and vacant lands were filled with single-family and row housing. Many preexisting buildings were rehabilitated or retrofitted (Lankevich, 2018). Travelling Southwest of the Bronx, one of the many bridges connecting to Manhattan can be found. Manhattan is the most well-known borough of New York City, since it is the location of large attractions such as Central Park, the Empire State Building, the High Line,

Times Square, and Broadway (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017). Manhattan is bounded by the Hudson river on the West side, the Harlem River to the Northeast and Upper New York Bay in the south. This borough is considered one of the world’s most commercial, financial, and cultural centres.

Although five boroughs were decided simultaneously, Manhattan is considered the central area (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017). The neighbourhoods within this borough offer peaceful havens, and many are world famous for their ethnic enclaves. The main open space is found in Central Park, which stretches a large 840 acres through the centre of Manhattan (Lankevich, 2018).

Queens is the largest of the five boroughs with a total area of 313 km2 (with a population of approximately 2,250,000). Located to the East of Manhattan, it lies on western Long Island stretching the width of the island all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Queens was primarily rural during the 19th century, but its coastline began attracting more tourists (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017).

Being a diverse and cosmopolitan city, Queens ranks as the most ethnically varied of all the boroughs. More than half the city’s Latin Americans live in Queens. The borough also has no visible slum area, and their residents unanimously agree on rejecting low-income housing and high-rise apartments (Lankevich, 2018).

Located in the western fringe of Long Island lies Brooklyn. Separated from Manhattan and bordered by the East River, Brooklyn is connected by three bridges (one being the Brooklyn bridge). Brooklyn is both a residential and industrial borough while handling a vast amount of oceangoing traffic.

While Queens is the largest borough, Brooklyn is the most populous with a total of over 2,500,000 residents (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015). In the 19th century, Brooklyn became the first modern commuter suburb, which transformed into a wealthy residential community. The borough has its own shopping mecca and is home to Coney Island. Brooklyn is famous for the many houses of worship serving neighbourhoods (Lankevich, 2018).

While there are many private homes, the majority of residents live in apartments, housing projects, or upgraded row housing. The Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville neighbourhoods have some of the worst slums in New York with some blocks consist of burned-out or abandoned buildings (Lankevich, 2018).

Last of the Boroughs is Staten Island, which is a simple ferry ride over from Manhattan (8 km) or Brooklyn (2 km). It is the southern-most point of the city and is known as the most rural, fastest growing part of the city. Although it measures 155 km2 large, it is still the least populated borough in NYC.

This is a very homogenous borough, lacking a variety of cultural ethnicity (Lankevich, 2018). Politicians refer to Staten Island as an under-serviced borough, and its residents feel negatively affected by New Jersey’s pollutants. Unfortunately, Staten Island is home to New York’s largest garbage disposal site, Fresh Kills, which began in 1948. It is estimated to reach a height of 500 feet, which will be the highest point along the east coast (Lankevich, 2018).

The borough is mostly residential, but also has some areas for manufacturing. The main source of employment for residents comes from the services and trade-related sector. Even though Staten Island is the site of such a large landfill, it also has the Green Belt, which is the largest park in the city (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013).

Economic, Social and Environmental Conditions

New York City has typically been an economically sound city. With such a large involvement in the financial industry coming from Wall Street, the tourism industry, and the abundance of job availability, it is no doubt as to why this is the case. Over the past decade, the city has experienced several difficulties within their economy (Figure 2).

Figure 2. New York City Economic Changes. This graph displays the economic changes comparing New York City to United States (Heydarpour & Vasquez, 2018)

The economy reached a peak towards the end of 2000, after a four straight years of job growth. Unfortunately, early 2001 was the start of a job decline. Later in the year, due to the September 11th terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and World Trade Centre, private sector employment dropped 2.5% (Bram & Orr, 2006).

Immediately following the attack, it fell another 2.5% by August 2003, which amounted to a total of more than 225,000 private sector jobs lost. The attack caused a skewed view on safety and security within New York City for living and working along the boundaries. Finally, as of May 2006, the city’s labor market and economy were visibly stronger from the collapse in 2001 (Bram & Orr, 2006).

The city saw another economical drop in 2008 with a decline of nearly 3.5% due to the Financial Crisis throughout the United States. The housing market crashed when mortgages came with terms that were unfavorable to borrowers (Havemann, 2009). Housing prices continued to rise whilst loans were difficult to obtain.

Since this time, the city’s economy has continued to rise and had an economic increase of 2.4% during 2017. While the city’s consumer spending and private investments increased, the economic benefits did so as well. Higher personal income tax revenues, and average hourly earnings also increased during this year (Heydarpour & Vasquez, 2018). The city has a successful economy with plenty of room for growth and development.

In NYC, obesity and type 2 diabetes are growing epidemics with a large concern on the overall health of citizens. Almost all the top five leading causes of death all relate to physical inactivity, which is the fifth most common. Obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood glucose are the top two to four causes respectively, falling behind tobacco which is the top leading cause (Lee, 2012). The urban form found in the city has been shown to have significant association with BMI among residents of New York City.

Individuals living in higher population density areas, such as with more subways, bus stops, and a mix of residential or commercial land use (more pedestrian friendly areas), had a lower BMI compared to other New Yorkers (Rundle, et al., 2007). Pedestrian behavior and activities are influenced by many characteristics of the built environment. Areas that are mixed commercial-residential land use promote more walking and independence from private vehicles.

The city design can help to promote healthy ways of living if done correctly and efficiently. Due to climate change, storm surges and rising sea levels along the waterfront during tropical storms have increased. Tropical storms have always been a threat to New York City’s coastline, as well as storm surges which is the rise of water levels beyond the predicted astronomical tides (Reed, et al., 2015).

Recent studies have compared the impact of tropical storms from the pre-anthropogenic era to the anthropogenic era. These results demonstrate the increasing severity of the storms and the increased damage of the coastline. The developing impact of climate change on coastal areas calls for advanced risk management strategies.

When comparing the storm surges from two different eras, researchers evaluated that flood height distributions have risen approximately 1.24m at the 99% confidence level (Reed, et al., 2015). A storm surge that occurred prior to 1800 had flood heights reaching only 0.06m, but when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012, flooding was recorded at 1.54m. Although the changes have not been drastic, they have still created concern for the residences. Increased flooding occurrences and higher tidal points cause greater destruction to homes and land caught in the storm (Reed, et al., 2015).

Historical Background

As taller residential buildings were being built during the 1870’s in the Manhattan area, there was less air space and sunlight available to locals. The state legislature started implementing a series of height restrictions on residential buildings, which was the start of the Tenement House Act of 1901 (Norman, 1992).

The need for more office space by expanding businesses expressed a made New York City the financial center of the country. As steel construction became more common and elevators developed in capacity, the amount of height restrictions on infrastructure became almost non-existent (City of New York, 2018).

The Equitable Building is a 42-story building and was a clear example of why by-laws are needed within the city. This new construction stands 538 feet with no setbacks, thus casting a 7-acre shadow on the surrounding area thus reducing neighbouring building value (City of New York, 2018). New immigrants to the area created a housing shortage which caused new building to be completed in bulk with low standards.

Warehouses and factories were also expanding closer to residential areas, which created an urgent need for zoning separation (City of New York, 2018). The city needed find a way to regulate the built environment. The Zoning Resolution of 1916 was the city’s first step to regulating height and setback controls.

This new set of laws appointed residential districts while setting up the common scale of three to six story residential buildings that are now frequent throughout the city (City of New York, 2018). New York became a prime example for urban areas throughout the U.S. since their problems were common to many cities.

Continuous immigration growth, expanding transit routes, and emerging technology meant that the Zoning Resolution had to be amended to keep up with the developing areas. As time went on, the city outgrew the laws from the 1916 zoning resolution and the original idea was reconsidered to produce the 1961 Zoning Resolution (Norman, 1992).

The new zoning resolution incorporated parking requirements and emphasized the need for open space. An incentive was also implemented so that developers would incorporate a plaza into their plans to gain extra floor space. While the zoning resolution encouraged growth in some areas it dramatically reduced residential densities in other areas, mainly along the city edges (City of New York, 2018).

These two zoning resolutions were the patchwork concepts to support current zoning plans. While keeping a similar basic framework, the New York zoning laws have been revamped multiple times within the last century as needed to keep up with its ongoing growth and success.

New York City Zoning Analysis

New York City has a very impressive skyline with the massive skyscrapers giving it a unique design. The overall skyline is an appealing sight to many from afar, but from up close, it can feel overwhelming and closed in. Some buildings come naturally from the ground and gradually reduce in size as it gets taller, which is less intimidating (Knight, 1924). The overall skyline shape and design is due to the zoning laws within the city. Many of New York City’s buildings are rectangular to maximize floor area and can safely fit within any desired lot.

Although this building design is an economic success, it is not socially preferred. The rectangular shape creates a lack of light and air in the streets and lower building stories (Knight, 1924). Zoning laws help control the shadows casted on neighbouring buildings and ensure that no land values are reduced due to another structure. The original reason for the 1916 Zoning Resolution was because many residents were dealing with the negative repercussions of the taller buildings being implemented.

Air space is a large consideration of zoning laws. Although much of the air space throughout the city is available, some of these purchases can have some terrible impact if not planned for properly. Central Park is a key part to the economic prosperity of the city. The park is also a main tourist attraction while also being the main source of open space within New York City.

Future development of large high rises near the southern end of Central Park risks casting large shadows onto the green space. This would have negative effects on the plants, temperature of the park, and enjoyment for visitors (Pallares, 2015). While the government is trying to control as much of the light and air available, it is very difficult in such a high-density area with a greater need for skyscrapers.

New York City is known for its skyscrapers and as such, the design transition would need to be gradual. The difference between newer and older buildings will lead to a requirement of new zoning tools to control the development and appearance of differing buildings. As downtown cores develop more and become dense, subway systems as well as sidewalks will then have to be expanded to accommodate the increased flow of people (Kintish & Shapiro, 1993).

While zoning can help prevent many issues that may arise throughout a city, it can have several flaws. For this reason, the zoning laws are a good supportive method, but it must be adapted as needed to keep up with the needs of the city. The city and our views on it are endlessly changing, meaning that zoning laws must be updated regularly due to changing climactic and infrastructure conditions.

The strong, growing economy as well as the unique needs of each borough are important factors to consider when planning for New York City. The Zoning Resolution divides the city in various districts and then regulates the land use and building form within each of the areas. The best way to accommodate future change is to address each district and neighbourhood separately since each area has its own unique standards and requirements for the zoning (Kintish & Shapiro, 1993).

This will help to satisfy the needs of everyone and allows for individuals sections to be altered, since each area may develop at different rates In particular, the waterfront is one district that has different issues to consider as current research proves that flood levels along coastlines are rising and becoming more of a severe threat.

There are many ways that zoning laws can help mitigate this environmental concern. For example, flood zoning policies, flood insurance, and buildings codes are all ways to reduce the vulnerability of a neighbourhood to flood risks. Allowing for more flexibility with buildings in flood-risk areas would allow for added elevation to be implemented.

Dropping the penalty for going above the maximum height would help to ensure that houses are out of reach from storm surges (Aerts & Botzen, 2011). For existing buildings, greater setbacks or relocations would lower the amount of people living and working within high risk coastal areas.

Added measures within buildings such as flood proof telephone and electricity switchboards, and heating units found higher than flood heights would be additional preventative steps in case water does reach the homes. Lowering urban density throughout will keep mortality rates low in case of a terrible storm (Aerts & Botzen, 2011).

Beginning in 2014, New York City established a Waterfront Justice Project. The goal of this project is to reduce potential toxic exposures and cumulative health impacts associated with climate change. This project began following the observations of rising flood risks. After further research, it was decided that higher flood heights were increasing the spread of unsecured chemicals since many industrial and manufacturing districts are found along coastlines to have easier access to water ways (Bautista, Hanhardt, Osorio, & Dwyer, 2014).

The risk of these districts can be reduced by increasing performance standards already in place due to the standards being out of date since 1961. The quality of chemical control, and waste management should be increased so that during a storm surge, there are fewer sources for hazardous chemicals to be added to waterways (Bautista, Hanhardt, Osorio, & Dwyer, 2014).

Overall, the project found that while these new environmental regulations are needed to ensure the safety of residents within nearby areas, it is costly and creates fears for local businesses being put out of business due to the relocation. It is critical to ensure that very few people are negatively affected during the implementation of safety resources. Zoning for future developments should keep these hazards in mind because it is easier to properly plan for these risks in the first place (Bautista, Hanhardt, Osorio, & Dwyer, 2014).

Along with current flood issues, zoning laws can help prevent obesity issues. The obesity within the city is correlated to the layout and dynamics. Areas that are more pedestrian friendly encourage active modes of transportation and the individuals in these areas tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) (Rundle, et al., 2007).

Active design guidelines can be implemented to diminish rising obesity rates. Three areas working to be improved within New York City reflect  policy efforts to integrate the Active Design Guidelines (ADG) into all new building and street designs, the education of  building managers, schools, and community groups regarding promotion of  active lifestyles, and training of architects/planners on the guidelines (Lee, 2012).

Increasing bicycle infrastructure to increase pedestrian usage, incorporating play-streets into more areas, and more stairs instead of elevators are a few of the guidelines that support active designs within a city. Overall, neighbourhood walkability and active designs are one of the largest factors impacting physical inactivity and thereby, city obesity but these factors should also be supported by healthy lifestyle choices such as diet (Neckerman, et al., 2009).


Zoning began in New York city to help prevent the lack of light and air towards ground level, but it has grown to become a critical consideration for many aspects of the city. From supporting the needs of many different boroughs, neighbourhoods, and districts to improving resident’s health and preventing future environmental disasters, there are several benefits to zoning laws.

New York City was the first city to pioneer such laws and continues to improve as years progress. There is always room for improvement and as such, zoning laws should remain adaptable to satisfy the changing needs of different areas. Adaptability is what will allow for continued success, especially along the waterfront areas in disaster prevention. The implementation and encouragement of active designs will help to keep residents healthy.

A method to support this recommendation would be to implement open green space while designing more pedestrian friendly streets. Lastly, zoning has become more of a challenge in current times as the city continues to expand. With Central Park possibly facing intrusive shadows, the zoning laws should become more specific and stricter the closer the area is to open natural areas.

Zoning is an amazing tool utilized in city design and can prevent many problems while improving overall health and safety. Any city that has rapid developments that are gradually changing should implement zoning as a method to control overall growth.


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