Zoning laws, governing how we use our land, are often thought of as mundane drudgery, or as opportunities for civic-minded people to help “Keep Our Neighborhood Beautiful.” In fact, they can also be a powerful driver of inequality.

Unsurprisingly, since land use determines patterns of housing, and housing is one of prime determinants of whether we live in a society that is economically and racially segregated and unequal or not. Policies that promote access to affordable housing and integrated neighborhoods will combat inequality; policies that do the opposite will tend to promote inequality. Even when it’s not intended.

A recent study out of UCLA looks at land use regulations in cities across the country to determine precisely which kinds of zoning laws drive economic segregation. From Noah Smith: “Somewhat surprisingly, ‘open space’ restrictions, which set aside land that can’t be built on, turn out not to be that important. Instead, the most effective way of restricting housing supply is to simply require more levels of approval for new development. The authors generally conclude that local governments are of critical importance in determining housing segregation: when governments try to restrict overall population, it’s the working class and poor who get pushed out, but when they work to increase housing supply and boost growth, income segregation is lower.”

Additionally, Richard Florida points out that restrictions on density actually work to isolate not the poor, but the rich, by allowing them to “wall themselves off from other groups.” The study finds that zoning laws that pull less affluent people into richer neighborhoods are more effective at achieving integration than attempts to spread wealthier residents out into poorer neighborhoods.

In other words: density in desirable neighborhoods is generally a social good. Too often, people who already own property in a popular neighborhood or city hide under the cover of “concerned civic involvement” to lobby for restrictions that have the effect of keeping everyone else out (hello, San Francisco!). Beautiful neighborhoods are a good thing—but only if we make them accessible to as many people as we can.

Nobody gives a shit about a pretty walled-off palace except the royal family.

[Photo: Flickr]