top of page

The “Buzzards” that Helped Birth Columbus Zoning

Today, the concept of zoning for land use seems ancient. As a legal concept in the U.S., it is more than 100 years old. Keeping noxious (i.e. industrial, animal processing, waste disposal) land uses out of residential neighborhoods seems logical, but the proponents of zoning in the early years used other justifications to sell the concept to municipal leaders and residents.

Here’s Wikipedia’s helpful primer on zoning:

Zoning in the United States includes various land use laws falling under the police power rights of state governments and local governments to exercise authority over privately owned real property. The earliest zoning laws originated with the Los Angeles zoning ordinances of 1908 and the New York City Zoning resolution of 1916. Starting in the early 1920s, the United States Commerce Department drafted model zoning and planning ordinances to facilitate states in enabling laws. Also in the early 1920s, a lawsuit challenged a local zoning ordinance in a suburb of Cleveland, which was eventually reviewed by the United States Supreme Court (Euclid v. Ambler Realty).


In a 1923 pamphlet called “The Columbus Zone Plan,” authors claimed the number one reason to adopt zoning in Columbus was to protect a homeowner’s property value from falling—not exactly related to public health and safety.

Pamphlet creators were accused of using images of undesirable land uses (like the one above) that were photographed in Cleveland for use in the Columbus publication.

Because the concept of zoning was novel to Columbus residents at the time, there was a campaign to convince city leaders that zoning was necessary—even required—for Columbus to continuing progressing as a major U.S. city. Dozens of newspaper articles in the 1920s touted the benefits of zoning, highlighted the other cities that had adopted it, and pointed out the benefits of the regulations. One commonly-used argument was the ability of zoning to stabilize and preserve property values. Because so much of the average American household’s wealth was tied up in home equity, this was an attractive feature for many people, and especially people of means and political influence.

However, working-class districts wouldn’t receive the same protection as upper-income neighborhoods. Leaders of the labor movement in Columbus pointed this out in newspaper articles and at events where they discussed their skepticism of zoning and claimed that it would only benefit property owners and “the real estate sharks who…control most of the plots outside the city limits.”

________________ In a list of “Five Illustrations of the Need of Zoning,” the first one discusses a hard-working mechanic whose property value falls after a grocery opens next to his home. #1 Reason for Zoning: Preserve the owner’s property value.

“Example: A mechanic buys a home for his family in a newly developed residence subdivision. He and his neighbors plant trees and shrubs and make the section a quiet and attractive home neighborhood. Then the adjoining house changes hand and the new owner thinking only of his own immediate advantage builds a small grocery store projecting to the sidewalk line and surrounds it with a litter of boxes and barrels. Our mechanic who has invested his entire savings, $3500, in his home and given a first mortgage lien for the remainder of the purchase would like to move away and offers his home for sale but finds that it will now bring but half the amount he paid for it and his entire savings, $3,500, have been lost. He is forced to remain where he is. Not only his home but all the homes in the block are depreciated in value; as a result the owners are discouraged; the yards are neglected and the property allowed to run down. This nice, quiet home section has been ruined and the savings of the home owners wiped out. This is an example of what is happening in one block after another all over the city. Is this the way to encourage thrift or promote home ownership?” (pg. 14)

Other aspects of the 1923 pamphlet demonstrate that protecting private property values was a chief concern of zoning enthusiasts, as well as keeping land uses deemed undesirable away from home owners.

“Zoning is just as essential for the protection of the apartment house owner as it is for the protection of the home owner.”
  1. The focus here is the owner of the apartment house, not the tenant. Again, the goal is keeping the return on investment high for real estate purposes, not quality of life for renters.

“Zoning will keep the apartments out of the private house sections. The coming of the apartment drives out the private home. Only by setting definite limits to the spread of the apartment can the city be preserved as a city of homes.”
  1. This sentiment creates a competitive dichotomy between single-family homes (called “private homes”) and apartments. The goal of the author is to privilege single-family homes as the superior form of land use and lifestyle.

“Zoning protects the home. Quiet and freedom from the distraction incident to trade, industry and attendant street traffic are essential to a wholesome home environment.”
  1. This sentiment insinuates that living near trade, industry, and street traffic would not be a wholesome existence, and may even be detrimental to one’s moral character.

  2. Today, demographic and real estate trends show that people are increasingly moving into neighborhoods where commerce and employment are within walking distance.

Graffiti on a wall

Description automatically generated

The Building Buzzards and the Vacant Lot. “Are There Vacant or Idle Properties in Your Neighborhood?” Buzzards: Stable, Laundry, Slaughterhouse, Public Garage, Tenement

In the illustration above, undesirable land uses are shown as “buzzards,” circling around a New England-style town square, the proverbial City on a Hill. According to the pamphlet, they threaten to disrupt the order of the town by bringing uses like garages, tenements, laundries, and slaughterhouses into respectable areas.

A close up of text on a white background

Description automatically generated

What our Homes would be like if built like our Cities

The illustration of a home built like a city (above) seems to point out that cars—inside garages—and laundries are of a high priority. But the implication is that that shouldn’t be the case. The artist, rather, is advocating that cars, laundries, and other non-residential land uses should not be mixed with residential sections, and that zoning is an appropriate means to that end.

Ultimately, zoning became one of the most fundamental tools that shaped American cities in the 20th century. The maps dictated the future development—and character—of all Columbus neighborhoods. For some areas that meant continued residential homogeneity. For others that meant multi-family, commercial, and industrial uses close to home.

Tentative Zoning Map 1923 City Planning Commission

A portion of the 1923 Tentative Columbus Zoning map showing a section of Downtown, the South Side, and the Near East Side. Note that areas around Franklin Park, which were the wealthiest in the city in 1918, are zoned for apartment houses and businesses.


bottom of page