Zoning refers to a common practice in city planning, wherein a master plan is developed to decide how land should best be utilized. The master plan breaks a region up into various “zones,” dictating what sorts of things can be built in these zones and what kinds of businesses are acceptable. Zoning laws can get extremely complex, and many people who are considering the purchase of land would be well advised to consult a lawyer about prevailing land use laws, to ensure that they will be able to use their land as they wish to.
These laws serve several functions. To begin with, they protect existing businesses and residences. For example, in a region without zoning laws, a company could build a factory in the middle of a residential zone, potentially impacting the quality of life for residents. The laws ensure that land use is consistent within a specific region, and that conflicting uses like heavy industry and residential housing are kept separate from each other for the convenience of all.
Many cities also use zoning laws to protect their look and feel. For example, a law could restrict construction in an area to under a set number of stories, or it could block the construction of apartment complexes within a particular neighborhood. The laws are also used to ensure that neighbors do not infringe on each other with new construction; for example, most require the footprint of a new structure to be significantly smaller than the lot it is built on, ensuring that people don't, for example, build homes which block the views of neighbors.
Cities can also use such laws to promote specific industries. For example, a city might open up a light industrial zone to encourage companies to migrate, or, in a rural area, a distinct agricultural zone might be created to encourage people to continue farming rather than building housing developments or converting their farms to industrial use. Essentially, this process helps to control development, ideally with the goal of making it sustainable, pleasant, and non-controversial, although these goals are not always met.
Historically, zoning laws were also used for the purpose of racial, ethnic, religious, or class discrimination. Many nations have struck such laws from their books because they are no longer legal, and occasionally, one may be challenged in the court on the grounds that it unfairly discriminates. Laws also face legal challenges in places like the United States, where some people argue that they come dangerously close to “appropriation,” a practice banned under the bill of rights.
It is possible to rezone an area. For example, in the early 21st century, the concept of mixed use districts with residential and commercial uses became quite popular. Many cities embarked on rezoning campaigns, labeling the resulting districts “mixed use” or “live/work” areas and promoting them are socially progressive. This process can be very complex, and it often drags on for years while people debate the ultimate impact of the decision.