How Can Zoning Help Us Build an Inclusive City? 1

The District of Columbia is many things to many people. It is a national capital; a city of diverse neighborhoods; a tourist attraction; a regional economic center; a place to live, shop, work, and play.

From its founding, the District has been guided by plans to create a diverse, beautiful, thriving city that can balance all of these different factors. In 2006, the District adopted a new Comprehensive Plan that maps out a vision for how the city will grow, change, and preserve what’s best about it over the first few decades of the 21st century.

The District’s Comprehensive Plan calls for the revision and reorganization of the city’s zoning regulations.

The main theme of this new plan is “growing an inclusive city.”

A vision is essential in deciding how we want to manage change, but it is only the first step along the way. The Comprehensive Plan outlines a number of steps that citizens and District officials will need to take to make the vision a reality. One of those steps is to revise and reorganize the city’s zoning regulations.

We’ve discussed previously why we’re undertaking this massive effort now. But how can a new zoning code help us grow the inclusive city we’ve envisioned?


Have you ever picked up the District’s zoning code and tried to read it? If so, the first thing you probably noticed is that it’s pretty heavy (it currently runs more than 800 pages). The second thing you’ll notice is that a lot of the language is difficult to read—unless you’re a lawyer. The third thing (assuming you haven’t already given up) is that it’s hard to figure out how the code is organized. The chapters don’t have clear relationships to one another, and it’s hard to figure out why a set of rules is in one chapter as opposed to another. Some of the more important regulations are buried in a chapter titled “Miscellaneous.” All of this can make it very difficult to figure out what you can do on your property (or what your neighbor can do on hers).

So what are we proposing to make things better? Unfortunately, the overall length of the code won’t change much. But much of that length will now be taken up by features that make it easier to find information and figure out what’s going on. We’ll have more tables that allow you to look up requirements more quickly. We’ll have graphics that depict the rules (as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words). And the code will be reorganized so there’s a clear structure, and a reader will always know which rules are “general” (applying citywide) and which ones are specific to a particular zone.

How does this lead to a more inclusive city? By making it easier for average citizens to figure out the rules, we’re creating a more level playing field. Your ability to invest in your home, or to participate in a public discussion about development in your neighborhood, shouldn’t depend on whether you can afford a high-priced lawyer to make sense of it all.