Community Development

Mapping the Way to Fairness: How GIS is Revolutionizing Equity in Zoning

The topic of zoning reform has gained momentum exponentially over the last few years.  As more communities find that their ability to deal with the housing shortage is hindered (or all but blocked) by their existing policies and dated zoning ordinance, demands from the public, developers, and elected and appointed officials to change this situation continue to grow. Reforming a zoning ordinance is neither quick nor inexpensive.  To address this, HUD has received $85 million in funding for the YIMBY Incentive Grant Program, which will likely begin by April of this year.

At its core, zoning reform is about modernizing an organization’s development strategy (particularly housing) to meet the modern needs of its residents and to correct previous failed policies. Many people want more choices than half-acre single-family lots or very high-density apartments. A lack of housing supply only serves to hinder the availability of affordable housing, which in turn limits the economic mobility of its residents, particularly those of disadvantaged communities, young professionals, and more.

There will be inherent pushback from this because…well, it’s change. That’s not a political statement. People on the left and the right (and the middle) are resistant to change. But this isn’t a political issue. It’s about enabling a community to create the housing and other developments their residents want and need that a legacy ordinance simply cannot provide. Yes, some residents will still want a traditional SFR home. Some will be happy living in loft apartments downtown. I do not think it’s wise to outlaw either of those types of development for a myriad of reasons I won’t go into here. But opening the door to more diverse types of housing (e.g. cottage courts, townhomes, duplexes, flex houses, etc.) is what zoning reform can help make happen.

The American Planning Association recently released their Equity in Zoning Policy Guide for planners and government leaders to identify ways zoning regulations can be changed to meet the needs of historically disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.  One of the sections deals specifically with the zoning map, to which I’m naturally drawn.  We’ve spoken many times in this space about the necessity of a geographic approach to planning, and creating equity in zoning policy is no exception to this.  Let’s look at how GIS is a mission-critical tool for these recommended zoning map policies.

Zoning Map Policy 1 states “Those recommending neighborhood-wide or area-wide changes to the zoning map should reflect the demographic composition of the community and should include representatives of historically disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.” This reflects the first step in the geographic approach to planning: Understanding Neighborhood Characteristics.  Understanding precedes action, and planners must have access to updated demographic, socio-economic, and business data before they can start making changes to zoning policy.  Within the ArcGIS Platform, this is done through ArcGIS Community Analyst (or the Business Analyst Web App).  This web-based application provides access to over 2,000 variables to help optimize zoning and resource allocation decisions.  Community Analyst provides an essential and strong start to a data-driven approach to zoning policy.

Zoning Map Policies 2 & 3 focus on the necessity of civic inclusion. Simply put, zoning policy changes do not exist in a vacuum and cannot be successfully amended behind closed doors.  They require input from all residents…regardless of their ability to be at an in-person meeting.  Today’s public requires multiple ways to engage with their government.  In GIS, this is done through ArcGIS Hub, which provides access to planning initiatives in a modern and easily-accessible, so that planners aren’t just communicating proposed changes, but getting regular feedback from residents in a way they can effectively map and analyze.  Civic inclusion is a must if a planning department wants to create a genuine partnership between itself and the residents it serves.

Zoning Map Policies 4 through 9 deal with addressing redlining, health risks, and access to services in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Again, GIS is provides a level of analysis and understanding that is required in a data-driven and geographic approach. A free resource available to planners and government leaders to address this is the Esri Maps for Public Policy that provides curated content that can be viewed separately or added to an existing zoning map. Planners can view maps showing historical redlining policies, exposure to urban heat islands, Justice40 tracts, air quality and minorities, access to broadband, and much more. In addition, the Social Equity Analysis app from the ArcGIS Solutions team provides a tool to understand community characteristics, analyze community conditions and actions, and generate an equity analysis index.  Like the other ArcGIS Solutions, this app is free, open-source, configurable, and covered by Esri technical support.

Zoning Map Policies 10 & 11 deal with revising maps to remove barriers to equity.  GIS provides the tools to be able to conduct scenario planning that can make that happen.  Specifically, ArcGIS Urban delivers a web-based app that allows planners to play out different zoning reforms and measure the impacts of these changes.  How would increasing housing density improve access to housing, and consequently, improve affordability?  What impact would reducing minimum lot sizes in a neighborhood make? Where could we focus allowing ADUs and what would that do to the housing supply? What will the impact be on housing, jobs, tax revenue and overall economic mobility if we altered zones to accommodate transit-oriented development? What if we eliminate parking requirements for certain types of zoning? GIS can answer all these questions in a matter of minutes and hours, as opposed to weeks and months, and do so in a more cost-effective way. 

This geographic approach to planning is a proven process that can provide the framework for your organization’s zoning reform efforts.  If you have further questions, please feel free to reach out to your Esri Account Team, e-mail us at, or visit us at

About the author

Keith Cooke is the Director of Planning & Community Development Markets at Esri. A graduate of Auburn University, he has been a GIS professional since 1994 and has worked for planning and community development agencies at the regional and municipal level. Prior to this role, he was an account executive at Esri for 15 years working with over 100 local governments. He is a frequent speaker at GIS, community planning, and economic development events and is an active member in the American Planning Association, where he has conducted nearly 100 hands-on GIS workshops for planners since 2004 at the National Planning Conference and state chapter conferences.


Next Article

Harmony with Nature: Samish 13 Moons

Read this article