ONE OF THE first coronavirus outbreaks in the United States was in a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington. On the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the country’s first COVID-19 death, it also reported two cases linked to Kirkland’s Life Care Center, where two-thirds of residents and 47 staff members would eventually become infected with the virus. Of those, 35 would die.

COVID-19 deaths in America’s nursing homes are appallingly common. Many of those deaths could have been prevented if families had better options for keeping grandpa closer to home and out of crowded elder care. But building regulations passed—ironically—in the name of public health make that difficult or impossible in many cities.

Kirkland requires that any accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—often known as granny flats or in-law suites—can be no larger than 800 square feet and no higher than 15 feet above the main home. They also must come with an off-street parking space.

Of the people who applied for such permits in Kirkland since 1995, nearly half never ended up starting construction. A survey by the city in 2018 found that design constraints were the biggest difficulty applicants faced.

Kirkland’s granny flat rule is just one of countless examples of ordinances, restrictions, and red tape that have slowly wrapped up America’s cities, regulating how much people can build, where they can build it, and what they can use it for.

While often justified initially as a means of protecting public health, zoning codes have now gone far beyond nuisance laws—which limited themselves to regulating the externalities of the most noxious polluters—and control of infectious disease. They instead incorporated planners’ desires to scientifically manage cities, protect property values, and combat the moral corruption that supposedly came with high-density housing.

New York City adopted the nation’s first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, which placed restrictions on the height and density of new buildings, and classified different types of land use. Within a few years, thousands of communities across the country had adopted similar regulations.

Their proliferation attracted fierce opposition with critics arguing these zoning codes were “worse than prohibition” and represented “an advanced form of communism.” These disagreements, largely between planners who think cities need to be designed from the top down and others who think they should be left to grow organically, have persisted to this day.

In cities themselves, at least, the planners have won. A century later, every major metro area in the country save for Houston has adopted zoning codes that regulate how densely people can build on their land and what kind of activities they are allowed to do there.

The history of America’s cities is, in a very real sense, the history of zoning regulations, which have long shaped real estate development, labor, and living arrangements. So it’s no surprise that COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis in a century, which has occasioned an equally massive public health response, has already begun reshaping how people live in cities and how they are governed—rekindling old debates over urban density vs. suburban sprawl while raising new questions about the value of many land-use regulations.

At the same time, renewed fears of violence and decay, stoked by the sporadic riots and looting that plagued city cores throughout the summer, have changed public perceptions about the safety of urban living. As urbanites flee to the suburbs and municipal governments peel away ancient red tape to ease life under suddenly changed circumstances, the coronavirus has forced us to ask: What are cities for? What will they become? And in the wake of a pandemic and waves of riots that have upended so much of urban life, will they survive at all?


in Neal Stephenson’s historical novel in which the protagonist, Daniel Waterhouse, must leave his home on the outskirts of London,

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