Zoning for Democracy, Part 1

As planning director and chief urban designer for Newark, New Jersey, 2007 Loeb Fellow Damon Rich’s most recent success (after establishing the city’s first urban design regulations, launching its public art program, overseeing design and construction of its first riverfront parks, leading a riverfront rezonin, and more) is a complete overhaul of the city’s development codes to craft a more livable, equitable and democratic city. This is the first of a 3-part series in which Rich reflects on the why and how of this impressive achievement.


Undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization, Newark hired Harland Bartholomew as the nation’s first full-time municipal planner in 1914. Since then, like many US cities, we have often over-invested a meager planning budget in publishing ambitious documents and under-invested in improving the democratic mechanisms of accountable development.

For example, master plans (legally defined and required by state law since 1976) were prepared in 1915, 1947, 1964, 1980, 1984, 2004, 2009, and 2012, usually by consulting planners. Their contents reflect changing preoccupations of the planning industry, turning from the physical work of straightening streets and slum clearance in the first half of the century to social programs in 1980 and later. For all their multiple and sometimes conflicting visions, no master plan after 1947 was translated into zoning codes and development regulations to govern how and where buildings are built; their greatest potential power was halted like Moses at the River Jordan.

Strangely, it wasn’t for lack of trying. We found files cabinets full of expensive contracts for zoning studies, interim work products and sometimes correspondence about billing disputes or reasons for aborting the project of zoning reform. Community leaders repeatedly told me the story of the showdown beginning in 2002 between the City administration and a coalition of neighborhood-based groups about the number of public meetings the planning office would hold in preparing the “Land Use Element” of its latest master plan, which in turn could become the basis for a new zoning map. In the end, the activists prevailed and 10 meetings, not two as originally proposed, were held. However, the effort to win additional meetings and lack of widespread understanding of the tenuous relationship between master plans and zoning ordinances led to the popular push fizzling with the completion of the master plan. This left the creation of actual zoning rules for a later date, such as defining what exactly the master plan means by the difference between “heavy” and “medium” industry, and what that means for nearby residents.

Since I became Newark’s first municipal urban designer, and later planning director & chief urban designer, three successive mayors have seen sufficient value in the Newark Planning Office to support our particular brand of hands-on public design and assertive development negotiation. While scarce resources have always gone mainly to development review, trouble-shooting and infrequent small area plans, all staff had been clear for years on the shortcomings of the underlying code.

Zoning maps dating from 1933 were covered with beautiful but nearly unreadable hand-written updates and corrections. Loose-fitting zones in some neighborhoods led to undesirable teardowns and exploitative subdivisions. Elsewhere, the code reflected a legacy of so-called cumulative zoning, so that the First Industrial District included not only various industries but also apartment buildings. It promulgated 1950s notions of desirable density and buildings (e.g. not touching other buildings) and voracious hunger for parking space. The basic module of regulation, the Use List, included outdated uses like leather tanneries and pool halls and took no account of community gardens, charter schools, data centers, animal crematoria, solar and wind power installations and desirable types of upcycling industries.

The code offered little guidance about building design besides the required depth of setbacks from property lines, and permitted site plans hostile to streets and public spaces. As many areas of Newark attest, such suburban-type development patterns are dangerous in urban settings, creating pedestrian-unfriendly streets in a place where 40% of residents do not drive. The existing laws set no maximum for impervious surfaces, bringing more storm water into sewers. Its low fees encouraged half-baked applications and fell far short of recovering public expenditures on development review. While the code set the legal standards for minimal public notice about development, the standards were indeed minimal. And by locating development regulations in three separate titles of the overall municipal code, the zoning code dependably confused novices.

The City of Newark is the largest city in New Jersey, home to 278,427 people. Newark is a majority Black and brown city, with 86 percent of residents self-reporting as African-American or Latino in the 2010 Census. Many Newark residents struggle economically, with over one-quarter living below the federal poverty line and a citywide median household income of $34,387, 62 percent of surrounding Essex County’s median of $55,027). While 70 percent of Newark residents hold high school diplomas, only 12 percent hold bachelors degrees or higher. The power relations depicted by these demographics have meant that more planning has been done to Newark’s residents than with them.

Now, after dozens of public meetings and Newark Zoning Workshops in neighborhoods across the city, 24 months of writing, four public drafts, hundreds of public comments, two Planning Board hearings and three Municipal Council votes, the Newark Zoning and Land Use Regulations (affectionately pronounced NUZZ-LER) are law. In the next two installments of this article, I’ll describe some of NZLUR’s contents and how its adoption depended on widespread grassroots support.


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