Planner Speak: What do you mean by zoning?

You’ve probably gotten “in the zone” while doing something you enjoy, be that baking a cake, playing an instrument or going for a long run, but what do planners mean when they talk about zoning?

Zoning (n.) categorizes properties in a city or county into different classifications called zones.  Each zone has a set of rules about features of development such as the land use, height of buildings, amount of parking, and density. In the past, zoning has been more concerned with the land uses allowed in each zone than the form of development. As a result, common zoning categories are often residential, commercial, office, manufacturing, warehousing, and agricultural.

You might have heard about zoning in the news when a property owner needed a change of zoning for a development project. To learn more about the rezoning process, check out the Development Services page on the RPA website.

Why do we use zoning? Originally, zoning was created to prevent conflicts between different types of land uses. For example, zoning can be used to keep a large factory, which might produce loud noises and odors, from being built right next to homes.

A zoning ordinance has two major parts: text and a map, or several maps. The text explains the rules for each zone. The map applies the zones to sections of land. Unincorporated Hamilton County and each town and city in the county have their own zoning ordinance. Here are links to the text sections of the zoning ordinances. Here is a zoning map for Hamilton County. Do you know what the zoning is for the property you live on? To find out, click the house icon in the toolbar in the top center of the screen and type in your address. Then, click on the RPA icon to the right of that and click on your property.


Below is a map of the zoning in the MLK Neighborhood of Chattanooga. Properties are color coded according to their zone, and the letters followed by numbers are abbreviations for different zones. For example, the light yellow properties are in the R-1 Residential Zone, the red properties are in the C-3 Central Business Zone, and the bright purple properties are in the M-2 Light Industrial Zone.


Traditional zoning, or zoning that is more concerned with the land uses allowed in each zone than the form of development, is the type of zoning that we see in Hamilton County and the towns and cities in the county. Traditional zoning usually does a good job of preventing conflicts between land uses. However, because it separates land uses, it often means that jobs, shops, and homes are separated from each other. The distances between different types of land uses mean that most people in our county have to drive to get to the places they want to go on a daily basis.

Through our ‘What do you want to grow?‘ game, we learned that two of the public’s top priorities are “neighborhoods with jobs, shops, and grocers” and “transportation options”. Many cities are turning to more innovative types of zoning, such as form-based codes, for neighborhoods that want to have jobs, shops, and homes close together, where it is possible to walk, bike, or take transit to get to the places you go on a daily basis. Form-based codes focus more on how buildings are designed and how they fit in with their surroundings than on the land use. Form-based codes still have rules about land use, but there is more focus on how buildings fit in with the network of streets, public spaces, and other buildings around them.

In the ‘Growing Forward’ planning framework, we will update our codes and policies in step three, ‘Building the Future’. Creating form-based codes for certain districts and neighborhoods may be a part of the code update. In fact, last Tuesday the Chattanooga City Council discussed a demonstration project that would create form-based codes for five different areas in Chattanooga. One of the reasons for updating our codes is to make sure they help us fulfill the vision that we set in step one, ‘Renewing Our Vision’ and step two, ‘Strategy For Great Places’. Now is the time to get involved to help us build a stronger and more vital place to live, work, and play. Keep an eye on our event calendar for upcoming meetings. At these meetings, you will have the chance to review and make suggestions about our goals, the very goals that we will use to guide changes to our codes and policies.

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