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Building Codes and Zoning Regulations: A Historical Perspective

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Early in United States history, building codes and zoning regulations did not exist. Property owners were free to use the land as they saw fit.

As cities became more populated and the number of complaints between neighbors rose, however, city governments were pressured to begin regulating land use. New York City passed its first zoning ordinance in 1916. Then, in 1922, the U.S. Department of Commerce created and distributed its Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. This document encouraged many city governments to enact zoning regulations.

Zoning regulations, however, quickly moved from being a tool for managing urban development and planning into a tool for suburban homeowners to protect property values. These practices came under attack in the civil rights era, and suburban zoning regulations then became focused on managing the growth that resulted from the population exodus from the inner cities. High tax rates in urban areas pushed more residents and businesses into the suburbs, and the suburban towns struggled to handle the growth.

Building codes also originated from the problems that resulted from early urban development. In particular, building codes were a response to the devastating destruction from inner city fires such as the Chicago fire of 1871. City governments began to develop building codes to protect the health of their citizens. Early building codes addressed the dangers of wooden chimneys and the need for safety features such as ventilation, fire escapes, railings, and proper sanitation.


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