Zoning History

Zoning is a mechanism through which we align our neighborhoods with our values. Cambridge's zoning Cambridge's zoning institutionalizes racial and socioeconomic exclusion, and Cambridge deserves zoning designed with inclusivity and affordability in mind.

When Cambridge passed its first zoning laws in the 1920s, proponents framed zoning as a scientifically motivated policy to protect the living conditions of all Cambridge residents. They dismissed concerns that zoning would bring about segregation on the basis of race or income or that it would contribute to a housing shortage. Within a couple of decades, though, the justification for tighter zoning restrictions shifted from protecting access to open spaces and preventing fires to ensuring that some neighborhoods would remain exclusive and wealthy. Courts have long held that explicit segregation by race through zoning is unconstitutional, but do not apply the same standard to zoning rules that made housing more expensive in certain neighborhoods. Over the decades, Cambridge residents enacted increasingly restrictive zoning rules in the city, and particularly in neighborhoods where most residents were white and wealthy.

Importantly, many homes in Cambridge were built before this first zoning ordinance, and it has been amended several times since to add additional restrictions on new homes in residential neighborhoods. The result is a zoning ordinance that does not reflect our city’s values or its built environment; it would be illegal to build a large majority of Cambridge’s homes today.

We're now reaping the consequences of those restrictions: more traffic, higher rents, and widespread housing instability. Many car trips on Cambridge streets stem from non-Cambridge residents driving to or from their jobs in or beyond the city because they cannot afford any of our limited supply of housing. Combined with high demand for housing of all kinds and at all price levels, tight zoning restrictions have created housing instability not just for low-income families, but even for workers with much education and well-paying jobs.

New-apartment bans in Cambridge

Top: new multifamily housing is allowed in blue areas; not allowed in red areas.

Residents of color in Cambridge

Bottom: blue areas have more residents of color than the city average; red areas have fewer.

Cambridge’s zoning system — and similar systems around the country — reflect policy choices designed to ban dense housing, and were often geared explicitly toward racial and socioeconomic exclusion. Zoning laws began with a goal of protecting the “health, safety, morals, and general welfare,” but the zones established under these goals have become more restrictive without substantial justification of the health or safety benefits of lower density. Across Cambridge’s history, zoning has placed the tightest restrictions on new housing in the whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.

In a 1969 letter to the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle, resident Roy Hammer argued that zoning is the mechanism through which we “implement judgments with respect to the kind of city which is desirable and obtainable.” Our current zoning enshrines judgments from decades ago, many of which were based in racist and classist views of the desirable city, but we have the same ability to amend zoning that early generations of Cambridge residents used. Through this proposal, we hope to shift zoning closer toward the city we see as desirable and attainable: a city that confronts the legacy of systemic racism and creates housing to meet the needs of everyone in our community.

For more information on the history of zoning in Cambridge, please see the 2019 report prepared for the Office of Mayor Marc McGovern.