Does Zoning Prevent Progressive Urbanism?

By Morgan Landers

Happy New Year All! I look forward to the New Year and hope you do to! Talk about New Year’s resolutions, here is one for city agencies across the country, starting with Denver.

Create integrated flexible codes and process to enhance urban environments!

You may think that I am just talking about zoning codes, but a successful urban environment is about the experience. Personally, I appreciate the little quirks and surprises that you can find in a city. One of which is the unique cuisine offered by various street vendors and the activity that they generate. Food Carts have become all the rage in many cities, including Denver, which is home to the recently formed Justice League of Street Food (can be found on Facebook). This tight band of gourmet travelers roam the streets of Denver and provide employees, residents, and visitors with the tastes of cupcake treats, BBQ, comfort foods, and much more! Sad to say, the great people of Denver won’t be getting their cupcake fix in the near future.

Now normally I am proud of the progressive efforts Denver makes toward creating a successful urban city. Let’s not forget the new form-based zoning code, Greenprint, and Blueprint Denver; B-Cycle; FasTracks; the Mayor’s Energy Office; and hundreds of other non-profits focused on sustainable urban living. Kudos to those efforts for sure!

However, I would like to focus away from the big picture items and lean in toward implementation. I am very pleased as I drive westbound on Highway 6 and see the new light rail tracks and get equally excited when I see tens of bike commuters on a cold winter day. But I am sad to say that they won’t be getting their sweet treat on their way in because the permitting process for food cart vendors is not only confusing to operators, but confusing to the city as well. One of the most well-known food cart vendors, the Cupcake Truck, has been forced to close their doors pending directions from the City and County of Denver.

This fantastic Denver asset thought they had complied with all permitting requirements from guidance by the City. However, months later with permit in hand, they were informed they were in violation and told to shut down operations.

I ask Denver, and cities across the country (as I am sure this is not the only city where this comes up) that Departments like Planning and Zoning, Health Department, and Business Licensing check and integrate the process by which these types of urban assets are permitted. If we are to keep the hustle and bustle of a successful urban environment growing in Denver, these processes need to be simple and easy to understand the first time around. I am hard pressed to believe that food cart vendors are the only urban component that has run into confusion when it comes to permitting and licensing!

Please see the Denver Cupcake Truck Blog for their posting on this issue:

I don’t know about you all, but working in the real estate industry, I need a good cupcake every once in a while! Cheers to the New Year and may it be off to a great start for everyone!


Morgan Landers has a Bachelor of Environmental Design from CU Boulder and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from CU Denver. She currently works as the staff planner for a brownfield redevelopment company in Denver. Her interests include infill development, community outreach/involvement, and environmental planning. As a member of the DenverUrbanism Team, she will discuss a variety of topics about living and working in urban environments.

By | 2011-01-06T19:27:46+00:00 January 6, 2011|Categories: General Urbanism, Zoning|5 Comments


  1. CEJ January 7, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Thanks for the post! We need some flexibility in zoning codes to be able to adapt to a City’s evolving needs and to help create a vibrant urban core. I think I’ll go write to City about how much I miss those cupcakes.

  2. Alex January 7, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    By all accounts, Boulder is experiencing a simliar issue involving the Comida Taco Truck, which has apparently been pressured by the city to stay out of the urban core, and instead only patrol the office parks in the suburbs. Here’s the Comida blog, which is a bit out of date, but which has a bit more info:

  3. Morgan Landers January 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Glad you two enjoyed the post! I am really not having great days without my cupcake fix downtown! Here is a petition being put together and also the Denver Post article that ran today.

    Keep reading and have a great weekend!

  4. ohwilleke January 12, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    “Does Zoning Prevent Progressive Urbanism?”


    Most people think of property rights as conservative, but the flip side of property rights is tolerance. Cities thrive on allowing innovation. Putting a majoritarian veto on any significant change from the status quo or an imagined utopian one (which is essentially what zoning does) favors the mediocre over the excellent. Every major positive element of urbanism developed without zoning.

    What major positive urban design features has zoning invented? The strip mall? The “single family” cereal box house? The big box store? Levittown? It has stripped the very soul out of cities and continues to do so despite good intentions.

    How many zoning codes cope meaningfully well with the complex modern family where many people may not be legally related? Single family is muncipal regulation of who can be in your family at a very concrete level.

    What horrors would we face if we didn’t have zoning codes? We have a system where neighborhood opposition to having neighbors live in half million dollar duplexes rather than quarter million dollar single family homes has the force of law. In what progressive vision does that make sense? God forbid that chaos that would break out if some suburbanite could legally open a coffee shop (in compliance with health regulations) out of their garage. Perish the thought that someone might keep chickens in their yard.

    Zoning is mostly a highly conservative effort to discourage socio-economic change in neighborhoods. Usually, although not always, it is calculated to keep the less affluent out. There is nothing progressive about that.

    Yes, land use requires some regulation. But, rather than being “form based,” which when implemented has resulted in more zones than we started with an greater legally imposed design conformity, we ought to be moving to “impact based” land use regulation that regulates land use only to the extent that it directly impacts neighbors (e.g. via baseline noise, street parking use, drainage).

    There is also a place for urban planning, but that should mostly involve planning how to use the many resources that the city actually owns (streets, parks, water and sewer systems, public buildings, etc.).

  5. Kevin Dickson January 31, 2011 at 1:25 am

    OhWilleke pretty much hits all the shortcomings of modern planning. It’s almost as though in 1925 we suddenly lost confidence in our ability to build our city without bureaucratic supervision. So we imposed these elitist rules that nearly ruined the city center.

    But now zoning is just a fact of life, so let’s be optimistic and point out a small victory in the new code for the city and its homeowners:

    In the old R2 rules, homeowners and redevelopers were economically forced to tear down decent homes in order to maximize the value of improvements. The code required the allowable 2 units to be in the form of attached duplexes. In addition to duplexes, the new code also allows a good sized carriage house to be built to the rear (or side) of existing homes in the new TU zones. That could open up second tier neighborhoods to redevelopment while retaining their maturity and charm. The incremental increases in density will encourage more amenities, and thus a new improvement cycle will begin in these neighborhoods.

    For more:

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