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About Zoning

Zoning Text | Zoning Maps | Zoning Districts | Zoning Tools | About Zoning | Glossary

Background | The Zoning Process | Zoning Today

1961 Zoning Resolution

Zoning shapes the city. Compared with architecture and planning, zoning has a relatively short history as a means of organizing the way land is used. Yet zoning determines the size and use of buildings, where they are located and, in large measure, the density of the city’s diverse neighborhoods. Along with the city’s power to budget, tax, and condemn property, zoning is a key tool for carrying out planning policy. New York City has been a pioneer in the field of zoning since it enacted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916.

Empire State Building
Empire State Building, 1931
As early as the 1870’s and 1880’s, New Yorkers began to protest the loss of light and air as taller residential buildings began to appear in Manhattan. In response, the state legislature enacted a series of height restrictions on residential buildings, culminating in the Tenement House Act of 1901.

By then, New York City had become the financial center of the country and expanding businesses needed office space. With the introduction of steel frame construction techniques and improved elevators, technical restraints that had limited building height vanished. The Manhattan skyline was beginning to assume its distinctive form.

In 1915, when the 42-story Equitable Building was erected in Lower Manhattan, the need for controls on the height and form of all buildings became clear. Rising without setbacks to its full height of 538 feet, the Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value and setting the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution.

Other forces were also at work during the same period. Housing shortages, caused by an influx of new immigrants, created a market for tenements built to maximum bulk and minimum standards. Warehouses and factories began to encroach upon the fashionable stores along Ladies’ Mile, edging uncomfortably close to Fifth Avenue. Intrusions like these and the impacts of rapid growth added urgency to the calls of reformers for zoning restrictions separating residential, commercial and manufacturing uses and for new and more effective height and setback controls for all uses.

The concept of enacting a set of laws to govern land use and bulk was revolutionary, but the time had come for the city to regulate its surging physical growth. The groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916, though a relatively simple document, established height and setback controls and designated residential districts that excluded what were seen as incompatible uses. It fostered the iconic tall, slender towers that came to epitomize the city’s business districts and established the familiar scale of three- to six-story residential buildings found in much of the city. The new ordinance became a model for urban communities throughout the United States as other growing cities found that New York’s problems were not unique.

But, while other cities were adopting the New York model, the model itself refused to stand still. The Zoning Resolution was frequently amended to be responsive to major shifts in population and land use caused by a variety of factors: continuing waves of immigration that helped to swell the city’s population from five million in 1916 to over eight million in 2010; new mass transit routes and the growth corridors they created; the emergence of technology and consequent economic and lifestyle changes; the introduction of government housing and development programs; and, perhaps more than anything else, the increase in automobile usage, which revolutionized land use patterns and created traffic and parking problems never imagined in 1916.

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1961 Zoning Resolution
Lever House
Lever House, 1952
By mid-century, many of the underlying planning principles of the 1916 document no longer stood the test of time. If, for example, the city had been built out at the density envisioned in 1916, it could have contained over 55 million people, far beyond its realistic capacity. New theories were capturing the imaginations of planners. Le Corbusier’s “tower-in-the-park” model was influencing urban designers of the time and the concept of incentive zoning - trading additional floor area for public amenities - began to take hold. The last, still vacant areas on the city’s edges needed to be developed at densities that recognized the new, automobile-oriented lifestyle. Also, demands to make zoning approvals simpler, swifter and more comprehensible were a constant.

Eventually, it was evident that the original 1916 framework needed to be completely reconsidered. After lengthy study and public debate, the current Zoning Resolution was enacted and took effect in 1961.

The PDF Document 1961 Zoning Resolution (30.6 MB) was a product of its time. It coordinated use and bulk regulations, incorporated parking requirements and emphasized the creation of
open space. It introduced incentive zoning by adding a bonus of extra floor space to encourage developers of office buildings and apartment towers to incorporate plazas into their projects. In the city’s business districts, it accommodated a new type of high-rise office building with large, open floors of a consistent size. Elsewhere in the city, the 1961 Zoning Resolution dramatically reduced residential densities, largely at the edges of the city.

Although based upon the leading planning theories of the day, aspects of those zoning policies have revealed certain shortcomings over the years. The emphasis on open space sometimes resulted in buildings that overwhelm their surroundings, and the open spaces created by incentive zoning provisions have not always been useful or attractive. Urban design theories have changed as well. Today, tower-in-the-park developments, set back far from the city street, are often viewed as isolating and contrary to the goal of creating a vibrant urban streetscape.

Time passes, land uses change, and zoning policy accommodates, anticipates and guides those changes. In a certain sense, zoning is never final; it is renewed constantly in response to new ideas—and to new challenges.

For more detailed information about the 1961 Zoning Resolution, see our 1961 Zoning Resolution Collection.

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Zoning Text | Zoning Maps | Zoning Districts | Zoning Tools | About Zoning | Glossary

Background | The Zoning Process | Zoning Today


PDF Document Items accompanied by this symbol require the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Brief explanations of terms in green italics can be viewed by clicking on the term. Words and phrases followed by an asterisk (*) are defined terms in the Zoning Resolution, primarily in Section 12-10. Consult the Zoning Resolution for the official and legally binding definitions of these words and phrases.
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