In the Zone

Pittsburgh Zoning Districts

How lovely. Vibrant colors, unique shapes, and the urban landscape all coming together to form a beautifully intricate design. But no, the imaginative image seen here is not an artist’s rendition of Pittsburgh from above. Rather, it is a snapshot of Pittsburgh’s Zoning Map: a legal document establishing how land inside the City boundaries can be used. In this masterpiece, each color represents not a feeling or emotion, but a distinct element of urban existence.

Cities are buzzing hubs of activity and commerce. From shops to docks and mills to museums; from schools to homes, stadiums, factories, parks and bee farms (yes, bee farms), the diversities of urban life never cease to amaze. Despite this, there are instances when placing differing land uses together can cause conflicts or negative externalities to emerge. Images of food processing plants next to pre-schools may come to mind when considering this reality. The history of zoning is rooted in the desire of planners past to separate these types of incompatible uses.

Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order. Jane Jacobs

The City of Pittsburgh zoning code was first developed nearly 60 years ago in 1958. The expressed purpose of Pittsburgh’s code is to, “promote neighborhood revitalization, encourage a mix of uses, and support increased density to for transit-oriented development.” Housed online, the zoning code is administered by the Zoning and Development Review Division. This division of the Pittsburgh City Planning Department is responsible for enforcing the zoning code and evaluating any proposed changes.

Diverse Uses in the Market Square District of Pittsburgh

Speaking of zoning changes, it is imperative that cities continue to evolve and make room for new types of land use as reimaginations of technology and lifestyle take root in urban America. Land use diversity is key to keeping communities economically resilient by fending off a reliance on singular industries. Flexibility in land use regulations ensures that entrepreneurs are able to find space to pursue new and pioneering ideas. Simply put, land use diversity is the spice of life in the urban context: it keeps things interesting, exciting and moving forward.



Zoning, however, is a powerful tool. When created and revised using an equitable, iterative community process, zoning codes can be used to protect residents. They can defend against potential threats to the environment, public health, and public safety that may arise from certain types of uses.

Hazelwood, Pittsburgh 1940: When Residential and Industrial Meet

On a darker note, zoning can also be used maliciously. In the past, zoning has been used to physically separate businesses and people unfairly classified as “undesirable”  from communities of affluence. An example of this would be marking parts of a city inhabited by low-income populations as suitable for freeways, heavy industry, and landfills for the purpose of keeping these uses away from wealthier neighborhoods.

It is clear that the dynamics of power and influence are inseparable from issues of zoning and land use. When implemented with minimal community input, zoning decisions can quickly become an issue of environmental justice. Cities can fight against this possibility by organizing metropolitan space in a way that holistically considers the history, culture, economic needs, and daily patterns of urban life as experienced by all who live there.

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