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Am J Prev Med. 2005 Feb;28(2 Suppl 2):96-104.

The public health roots of zoning: in search of active living's legal genealogy.

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  • 1Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA.



Improvements in the built environment and changes in land-use policy are promising approaches to increasing physical activity among a largely sedentary population. Opportunities for walking and cycling as part of daily life are important to increasing physical activity and improving health. Yet, local zoning codes and related land-use regulations have made it difficult to create vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods with well-connected streets and more compact development-the infrastructure necessary to support healthier rates of walking and cycling for transportation.


To better understand the dynamic nature of land-use law and policy, and how policymakers might accomplish zoning reform to encourage more physically active environments, this paper traces the public health roots of zoning through a family tree of land-use legal doctrines.


Zoning and public health laws evolved from the same legal ancestors-the common law of public nuisance and the expansion of state police powers, both premised on protection of the public's health. When the U.S. Supreme Court approved zoning in the 1926 case of Ambler Realty v. Village of Euclid, it nominally recognized the health basis of zoning. But it went on to craft a new legal rationale focused more on protection of property rights and residential neighborhoods. Since Euclid, court decisions have given little consideration to the public health roots of zoning. Given an emerging body of research demonstrating the importance of walking-friendly environments and the deference shown by the courts to the passage of zoning laws, the courts are likely to support policymakers as they move to change zoning systems conceived long ago.


Legal, historical, and policy rationales support the modernization of zoning and land use policies that allow sensible mixes of land uses. Mixed land uses make walking an attractive alternative to driving and support a more physically active and healthy citizenry.

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