Document Type


Publication Title

Vanderbilt Law Review

Publication Date




Page Number



wicked problem, justifications of zoning, urban sprawl


Environmental Law | Law


Zoning is the quintessential wicked problem. Professors Rittel and Webber, writing in the 1970s, identified as “wicked” those problems that technocratic expertise cannot necessarily solve. Wicked problems arise when the very definition of the problem is contested and outcomes are not measured by “right and wrong” but rather by messier contests between winners and losers. This accurately characterizes the state of zoning and land use today.

Zoning is under vigorous and sustained attack from all sides. Conservatives have long decried regulatory interference with private development rights. More recently, progressive housing advocates have begun to criticize zoning for making thriving cities unaffordable and for exacerbating racial segregation. Environmentalists argue that zoning is responsible for urban sprawl and for increasing carbon emissions. Economists blame zoning for restricting residential mobility, which limits fluidity in labor markets and thereby reduces the agglomeration surplus that thriving places like New York and San Francisco should be producing. And these are just some of the concerns. The breadth of these criticisms reveals the multiplicity of issues implicated by modern zoning—from the balance of public power and private rights, to distributional concerns, environmental interests, economic efficiency, and externalities along many dimensions. Most do not admit of a single “right” answer. Zoning is a wicked problem, indeed.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.