Zoning & Land Use Assessment - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Zoning & Land Use Assessment

Creating a Shared Understanding and Recommendations to Promote Equity, Sustainability, and Public Health for Chicago's Land Use and Zoning

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Every neighborhood should provide residents with opportunities to thrive. This requires quality jobs and access to transit, parks, affordable housing, retail, and entertainment that influence the wellbeing of all individuals. Nationwide and across Chicago, not everyone has the same access to opportunity and resources. Zoning and land use are policy and planning tools that can help shape the way that residents interact with their neighborhoods and lead to greater equitable and sustainable development.

Why Do Zoning and Land Use Matter?

Zoning and land use help define how residents experience their neighborhoods. They impact the availability of public services, transportation, employment, and housing for renters and homeowners–and ultimately impact all Chicagoans health, wellness, and quality of life. Because zoning and land use in Chicago can often seem invisible to residents or is a process that people do not routinely interact with, it can be overlooked.  

Zoning and land use impact both big and small quality of life measures, determining whether you can have a park in your neighborhood, if a new small business owner can open a bakery, if there is too much parking or not enough, how you can build your mother-in-law an apartment above your garage, or whether the vacant lot on your block can become a grocery store, a new residential building, a gas station, or a factory. 

These big and small zoning and land use decisions all add up to change the feel and experience of your neighborhood and influence the opportunities available to you locally. Right now, we do not know the overall effect that zoning and land use are having at the city or neighborhood level, but we want to. That’s why MPC and the Urban Institute are developing a collaborative assessment to determine their health, equity, and sustainability impacts.

Assessment & Research

Evidence-Based & Collaborative Policy Recommendations

Zoning and land use are key tools with the ability to produce more equitable, healthy, and resilient communities. This participatory research will lay the groundwork for reform.  

In collaboration with stakeholders, MPC and the Urban Institute are leading a new initiative designed to target changes in Chicago zoning that can advance more equitable, livable communities. Through this project, we will assess the City of Chicago’s zoning and land use practices and process to develop a shared understanding of the equity, sustainability and health impacts on its residents and communities. We will evaluate and identify problems with the current zoning code, test potential changes at the neighborhood level, and recommend revisions that could be applied citywide. The goal is to set a baseline so that we all understand how we can make changes that equitably benefit Chicago’s communities.  

This project is consultative and spans two years across three phases. It includes a Steering Committee to guide the work of creating a methodology for the assessment, along with collaboration with civic and community partners throughout all the phases. This project is currently in Phase I where the project team is designing the study methodology with input from the Steering Committee. 


The Steering Committee includes a mix of different stakeholders including people from government, civic, community, private, and academic sectors. The project team also hosted focus groups with civic and community organizations to learn their perspectives and experiences on development, land use, and zoning. Learn more about the Steering Committee membership and meetings as well as focus group engagement.  

Phase I Activities and Assessment Design

The goal of Phase I was to determine built environment outcomes on which to base the assessment and develop a methodology to test whether those outcomes are impacted by zoning and land use. The Steering Committee developed and agreed on key definitions of equity, sustainability, and public health to guide the creation of a list of prioritized outcomes. MPC and the Urban Institute used those outcomes to devise an analysis approach and identify key data sources. This approach was strengthened through a literature review and discussions with practitioners in other cities that have conducted impact assessments. Additionally, the Steering Committee, along with input from organizations participating in Focus Groups, identified a series of challenges and successes around the zoning and land use process that will be explored further as part of Phase II. An overview of the developed definitions are available here. Find these definitions, the built environment outcomes to assess, identified process challenges and successes, and research questions and assessment approach here.

Zoning Basics

Zoning 101

Zoning has existed in the United States for nearly a century, when the power for municipalities to enact zoning regulations was upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1926 Euclid decision. Zoning today is a regulatory tool that cities use to control the types of land uses allowed in specific areas. It also designates the volume, height, shape, location, and parking requirements of buildings that make up the neighborhoods around us.  

Zoning codes typically divide a city into zoning districts with all properties falling within a specific district. These districts are grouped into broad categories like Residential, Commerical, Manufacturing, and Transportation. Zoning Districts are described in the Zoning Ordinance and shown on the Zoning Map. The Zoning Ordinance is essentially a set of instructions that says what is allowed. The Zoning Map is how the ordinance spatially applies to each city. This diagram represents how multiple types of zoning and land uses can exist next to each other and shows some of the major categories that are part of the neighborhood fabric. 

Chicago Zoning

History of Chicago Zoning

The first zoning code was enacted in Chicago in 1923. Codes are considered ‘race neutral’ in how they are written, but the first Chicago Zoning Code, much like zoning in other cities, was happening during a time when zoning was viewed as a policy mechanism to separate types of buildings, but also create and maintain segregation for types of people by race, immigration status, and income. Research has shown that the racial makeup of existing communities was a key factor in locating future developments of increased density and industrial uses. To learn more about how different groups of residents have been burdened or have benefitted from zoning changes, including the creation of the code, check out these Historical Acknowledgement Case Studies.  

Since the first zoning code was enacted in Chicago, it has been rewritten three times and undergone numerous smaller changes and additions. Some of the changes have included updates to parking requirements, new ‘special districts’ and add on ordinances for Lakefront Protection, Air Quality, and Affordable Housing Requirements. Find out more about the history of zoning in Chicago and these changes in our Detailed Zoning Timeline. 

Current Chicago Zoning

Zoning can be challenging to understand. There are many different types of zoning processes in Chicago, and it influences how development is done in the city. Zoning interacts with the development process when people want to build things and/or change uses in certain areas. Developments can be built based on what the existing code and map say is allowed in an area. These developments are called ‘by right.’ If a development requires a different type of use or wants a different density, then it will need to request a change to its zoning, typically to its map designation, although zoning changes can take other forms like a zoning variance, defined with other relevant zoning terms in our Glossary of Zoning Terms.

Depending on the type of development and zoning change, additional community meetings and city approvals could be required. There are approximately 12 different processes to follow for developments related to zoning, and we illustrated them. Here are some diagrams If you want to get into the weeds on Chicago’s Zoning Process, which includes flow charts for all the processes. If you want to keep it high-level, we also have a Simplified Zoning Process Diagram that combines all the processes into one general chart with offshoots depending on the type of zoning change that is needed.  
There are also a number of other regulations and standards that may influence the zoning and development process for a project. To understand more about the additional requirements, like the Building Code or the Sustainable Development Policy, read through the Zoning Processes and Additional Regulations document. 
To find out more about zoning and what type of zoning you have in your community visit 2nd City Zoning or the Official Chicago Zoning and Land Use Map.

Click here to expand the above diagram.
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