Zoning Before Zoning:
Land Use and Density in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York

with Gergely Baics (2013 - 2016)


Not until the beginning of the twentieth century did U.S. city governments turn to comprehensive zoning to gain control of their land use and built environment. Nineteenth-century cities had comparatively unregulated land-use systems, where proprietors and builders found minimal restrictions to their choices to develop urban land. This article exploits newly digitized geographic information systems (GIS) data, at the level of building footprints, made available by the New York Public Library, to study the land-use geography of mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan, the Western world's then third largest city. We ask: What was the spatial order of the nineteenth-century city? Beyond the case, what can we learn about land use in a political economy where market forces operated with much greater freedom? Addressing these issues, we introduce a variety of advanced GIS methods to the original data set. Specifically, we examine the separation and mixing of the three basic land-use types of commerce, industry, and residence, by the spatial units of both blocks and streets. In addition, we measure at a new level of precision the enormous variations in residential density and crowding that defined the growing sociospatial inequalities of nineteenth-century cities. Documenting systematically and in detail these spatial patterns, including their socially undesirable outcomes, helps understand how nineteenth-century cities developed and the conditions they produced to warrant increasing land-use controls, from building codes to government-mandated zoning.


Baics, G and L Meisterlin. "Zoning before Zoning: Land Use and Density in Midnineteenth-Century New York." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 2016, 106(5): 1152-1172.


Oct 2016. "Density and Class in Early Manhattan" (ZBZ reported in The Atlantic's CityLab by Richard Florida)

Nov 2015. "Zoning Before Zoning" [conference paper] presented at 40th Annual Meeting of the Social Sciences History Association, Baltimore MD.

Apr 2014. ZBZ presented at Raising the Bar, 50 talks in 50 bars on 1 night in NYC.