Mixed-Use Zoning: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

McKinleyville’s designated “town center” currently consists mostly of parking lots and strip malls, the result of traditional Euclidean zoning practices which have historically allowed only car-intensive commercial uses in the area. Photo: CRTP.

The modern concept and practice of “zoning” dates back about a century. For almost all of that time, the dominant form practiced by United States cities has been single-use or “Euclidean” zoning (named after the town of Euclid, Ohio, which was involved in a groundbreaking Supreme Court case on the issue). The premise of Euclidean zoning is that different types of land uses—residential, commercial, industrial, and so forth—aren’t compatible with each other and should be physically separated.

The problems with Euclidean zoning are too numerous to fully describe here. However, one of the central problems has to do with the technology that allowed this system to take root in American cities: the car.

These days, we recognize that cars spew health-harming pollutants and greenhouse gasses, they’re dangerous to operate, and they’re unaffordable for many low-income families. But when cities separate housing from areas designated for various types of employers, shops, schools, institutions, and other important destinations, it’s because planners assume residents will be driving by default—not walking, biking, or taking the bus. It’s no surprise that Euclidean zoning codes generally require large
amounts of parking—which means new development takes up a great deal more space than the structures themselves. The result is further separation of land uses from each other and reinforcing car culture.

One relatively modest way to address some of the problems inherent in traditional Euclidean zoning without completely overhauling the zoning system is to simply create a “mixed use” zone. That is, a city or county may keep its traditional system of separating uses by zone, but also add a new zone that allows multiple types of uses to coexist in designated areas. This is exactly the approach that Humboldt County is currently taking in its “town center” areas.

The County recognizes that town centers—most notably in McKinleyville, our largest unincorporated community—work best when they are a dense mix of housing and other uses, allowing people to walk to some of their most-visited destinations rather than using a car. Humboldt is proposing to zone many town center areas “mixed use,” which is a big step forward. However, County staff and the majority of Planning Commissioners have so far not accepted the logical corollary—that in these future dense, mixed-use and walkable areas, providing large areas for vehicle parking will be less necessary and less desirable.
In fact, as CRTP pointed out to the Planning Commission recently, abiding by the County’s existing parking requirements will make it virtually impossible to build the desired dense, pedestrian-oriented town centers in new mixed-use zones.

Unfortunately, Commissioners did not take our suggestion to dramatically reduce parking requirements. However, they did insert language into the mixed-use zoning regulations to allow future town center community plans to reduce parking requirements—a small but significant victory for CRTP and our county’s many unincorporated communities, and a step toward more vibrant town centers in the future.