The Wicked Problem of Zoning
Zoning is the quintessential wicked problem. Professors Rittel and Webber, writing in the 1970s, identified as "wicked" those problems that technocratic expertise cannot necessarily solve.' Wicked problems arise when the very definition of the problem is contested and outcomes are not measured by "right and wrong" but rather by messier contests between winners and losers. This accurately characterizes the state of zoning and land use today. Zoning is under vigorous and sustained attack from all sides. Conservatives have long decried regulatory interference with private development rights. More recently, progressive housing advocates have begun to criticize zoning for making thriving cities unaffordable and for exacerbating racial segregation. Environmentalists argue that zoning is responsible for urban sprawl and for increasing carbon emissions. Economists blame zoning for restricting residential mobility, which limits fluidity in labor markets and thereby reduces the agglomeration surplus that thriving places like New York and San Francisco should be producing. And these are just some of the concerns. The breadth of these criticisms reveals the multiplicity of issues implicated by modern zoning--from the balance of public power and private rights, to distributional concerns, environmental interests, economic efficiency, and externalities along many dimensions. Most do not admit of a single "right" answer. Zoning is a wicked problem, indeed. In true "wicked" fashion, it is difficult even to explore answers because of the predictable and entrenched interests in almost any zoning dispute. Invariably, efforts to loosen zoning restrictions in order to increase density will face fierce opposition from nearby neighbors who oppose change-so-called NIMBYs ("Not in My Back Yard") or Neighborhood Defenders. Such neighbors typically object to changes to the character of their community, increased burdens on local infrastructure, changing demographics, community affordability, and change for its own sake.