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The Impact of Opening Up Zoning Data

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The content, format, and quality of the zoning information municipalities share varies widely. Posting this information online empowers policymakers to better understand the impact of their decisions and allows people to provide accountability on the process. Access to this information can also help people understand what they are or are not allowed to do -- but zoning data, even in an open format, is not always easy to understand. Thankfully, having this data publicly available has also enabled applications and news stories that contextualize the information and show people just how zoning regulations and processes can impact them.

Take a look, for example, at Second City Zoning created by the folks at Open City Apps in Chicago, Illinois. This app breaks down complex zoning regulations into categories that would make sense to someone who's not at all familiar with Chicago's specific codes. Users can look at the city's zoning by type (residential, commercial, or industrial) and by special purpose districts, such as planned development, transportation, parks, and open space. Hovering a computer mouse over any of these categories also reveals a short pop-up explanation of what that category means. Clicking on the interactive map allows users to see what exists on a certain section of land, ranging from parks and playgrounds to shopping centers and tall buildings. Visualizing zoning data in this way enables people to easily see what zoning regulations mean in practice, and it allows them to research how different zoning might lead to a changed landscape. Second City Zoning's About section also has explanations related to the zoning processes and regulations, further empowering users to understand just what this complex dataset can mean in practice.

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The Landscape of Municipal Zoning Data

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Zoning impacts the most physical elements of communities and impacts people's daily lives. When it comes to being transparent about the zoning process and its outcomes, many local governments are posting information -- one way or another -- on their websites. It's a varied landscape, but it is worth assessing to see where there might be room for improvement.

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ZONING

It's not surprising, in a way, that so many local governments choose to proactively release various kinds of information related to zoning. Zoning regulations can impact everything from what can be built and where it can be built to how it can be built and more. How a lot is zoned doesn't just determine whether that land can be used for commercial or residential purposes (or something else entirely) -- it can also determine the very structure of buildings down to details like height and square footage. Zoning and planning ordinances can even impact how close certain kinds of buildings may be to one another -- schools and liquor stores are one example of a spatial relationship that is sometimes regulated. Zoning has an impact on many of the most concrete aspects of a municipality, and this makes it an issue that's of interest to residents, business owners, developers, and many other groups. This means zoning can also be a prime target for people who want to game the system to obtain influence over this important aspect of cities.

Madison-street-viewThe zoning process generally consists of elected or appointed officials making decisions about how land can be used and the specifications of structures. It has a direct impact on the shape communities take. The zoning process, and what it controls, however, varies from place to place. That means it's important for each municipality to be clear about what its process is so policymakers, residents, and businesses alike can all understand this powerful issue. For this look into the landscape of zoning data, we're including information most directly related to the process and its outcomes. We're not including other data that might be tied to land parcels, like data about tax breaks or special tax zones. Not all zoning data is created equal, of course. Some cities simply release a list of the ordinances related to zoning, others release PDF maps of how land parcels are zoned, and some have interactive maps with layers of information. To have open zoning data, a municipality should have structured data available online that makes it easy for people to analyze and reuse -- in addition to information that enables people to understand the zoning process.

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