Zoning for Democracy, Part 3


As Newark’s Planning Director & Chief Urban Designer, 2007 Loeb Fellow Damon Rich’s most recent success (following establishing the city’s first urban design review, launching its first public art program, completing the city’s first riverfront parks and riverfront rezoning and more) is a complete overhaul of the city’s zoning codes to craft a more livable, equitable and inclusive city. In Part 1 of our 3-part series , he described the historic background of the project from inside the 101-year-old Newark Planning Office and framed the on-the-ground challenges of writing Newark’s first new zoning in 60 years. In Part 2, he detailed the results of the years of meetings, writing, public comments, drafts, revisions, hearings and votes. Here in Part 3, Damon digs into how the NZLUR constituency was assembled.

In the middle of an icy winter day, community members from across Newark converged on the Municipal Council’s final public hearing on zoning reform to urge adoption of the new standards, known as Newark Zoning & Land Use Regulations (NZLUR, pronounced NUZZ-LER). This remarkable display of support was the product of 2 years of systematic effort by the Newark Planning Office, under my direction, to democratize development and zoning.

With the strategy of Making Planning Public, the Newark Planning Office worked to demystify planning and engage community-based organizations as stronger constituents for deliberative development. In conjunction with a new attempt to overhaul Newark’s zoning regulations after decades of failed attempts (described in Part 1 of this article), NPO staff designed the Newark Zoning Workshop to network the power and capacity of the city’s numerous community-based organizations to overcome previously fatal obstacles.

The Newark Zoning Workshop answers the common question “Who makes decisions about how the city is built?” by blending ideas from planning, popular education, and social impact game design to convey the dynamics of urban development. Designed primarily to serve the city’s numerous modestly-sized but persistent, dedicated, and long-standing tenant and block associations, communities of faith, neighborhood associations, and other groups, the workshop uses techniques of popular education as practiced by Septima Clark and Ella Baker. It builds knowledge of zoning and development to support community-based organizations playing active roles around land use, design and development review.

This teaching method explicitly begins with and builds from existing knowledge and agendas of participants and relies on them to propel the conversation. Rather than engage people only once they are upset enough about something to get involved, the workshop first puts people in the position of deliberatively crafting a zoning system to regulate use and design. Rather than an engagement of opposition, this focusses the discussion on tradeoffs, pros and cons, and possibilities of mutual benefit and builds a constituency for accountable planning and development.

In the workshop, participants begin from what they know about how the city is developed and quickly move from basics of land use and zoning into nuanced discussions of how competing interests shape development decision-making and how planning and development can be accountable to the public.

The workshop includes three activities: Zoning for Use, where participants lay out a small city and its land uses with a game board and blocks; Zoning for Design, where participants create “paper doll” buildings to explore zoning and aesthetics and The Planning Process, where participants use a refrigerator-friendly diagram to understand how zoning touches the ground and the ongoing role of the public in keeping the system accountable.

In the Zoning for Use activity, participants build an imaginary Newark using a game board; infrastructure tiles including power plants, bus depots, and hospitals and building blocks color-coded for residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Participants first build without zoning, and then discuss what went right and wrong. The group then creates a Use Table to zone the city and wrestles with what should be permitted, prohibited, and conditional. Shelters, liquor stores, and social service providers often spark heated exchanges that highlight real-world trade-offs of zoning decisions.

In the Zoning for Design activity, participants build houses and businesses using their selection from tape-on building materials and elements like doors, windows, storefronts, security gates, microwave dishes, parking lots, and more. The group then discusses what if any design features should be regulated by zoning such as setbacks, height, windows, fences, and parking.

Throughout the workshop, conversations move between technical regulations and differing opinions on the proper extent of regulations and the definition of the public good. Discussions frequently break out about the pros and cons of uses like shelters or social services. Stories are often shared about particular land use controversies dating back to Urban Renewal, or a local fight to close a dangerous go-go bar.

To date, community-based organizations in more than half of Newark’s neighborhoods have hosted workshops at their meetings. With the support of this constituency for zoning reform created through the Newark Zoning Workshop, the city’s new Newark Zoning & Land Use Regulations were unanimously adopted by the Municipal Council in February 2015.

“The Zoning Workshop was beyond successful. Each and every person walked away feeling informed,” said Tenagne Girma-Jeffries of the Historic Weequahic Neighborhood Association. “We were really given the tools to understand the process of zoning and how it is affecting our community. It highlights the valuable role we can play in shaping this city, especially when we understand how the stages of development work. Our focus tends to be on crime and education, but a major part of what will shape our communities rests in the future model for zoning. It is changing the landscape of our city as we know it.”

“The Zoning Workshop uses games that are both educational and fun to illustrate zoning principles and problems,” said Renita Aughburns of Tri-City Peoples Corporation. “The workshop exceeded our expectations through the hands-on engagement, question and answer session and the knowledge of the presenters. Attendees have requested more workshops, feeling that they gained the information that helps them to make informed decisions.”

While land use regulations differ from city to city, the workshop’s emphasis on savoir-faire and the fundamental social dynamics of land-use decision-making, rather than just the facts of zoning, makes it transferable and supports good planning as it engages people where they are and prepares them for more active civic roles. Going forward, we are excited to partner with other planning offices to export it to other cities.

NZLUR goes into effect March 6, 2015. After an amazing seven years working in Newark City Hall, I will soon step down from my post to return to private practice with design and planning firm Hector Design Service and as an educator and a visual artist. To celebrate the adoption of NZLUR, my bookend achievement, NPO has worked with the NJIT College of Art & Design and over 200 Newarkers to construct the first-ever scale model of the entire city. Constructed by hundreds of hands over three years at after-school sessions, living room brunch workshops and intense studio-bound spring breaks, the model is scheduled for long-term installation at Newark City Hall this summer. I hope it energizes many people to join Newark’s home grown tradition of fierce activism for community control of our living environment.


Newark Zoning Workshop Project Team comprised Damon Rich with Natalia O’Neill Vega, Jae Shin, Perris Straughter, and Michele Alonso.

if you haven't already, read Part 1 and Part 2 of Zoning for Democracy.

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One Response to Zoning for Democracy, Part 3

  1. Angela Ballard says:

    Some time ago one couldn’t access any books by Paulo Freire in Harvard University Libraries. I am guessing this has changed!

    great work! thanks for sharing

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