Zoning 101: A crash course on one of the most overlooked issues in politics

Branch Politics
6 min readOct 1, 2021


Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins. The ozone. Britney Spears’ In the Zone album.

These are the “zones” you’ve learned about or jammed out to while riding down Buford Highway with the windows down.

But there’s another type of zone that you probably don’t know much about: city zoning. And while we love Britney as much as the next person, city zoning probably has a bigger impact on your daily life than “In the Zone” does.

In this post, we’re going to give you an introduction to what zoning is, why it matters and (most importantly) what you can do to help shape the zones that shape your city.

What is zoning?

One of the biggest jobs of city government is city planning, in which city officials design and develop how land in the city will be used. One of the biggest components to city planning is zoning.

Essentially, zoning maps out which types of buildings can be built in different areas in a city. Ever wondered why grocery stores and restaurants are clustered together in strip malls? Or why there (usually) aren’t chemical plants or warehouses in the middle of residential neighborhoods? It’s because of zoning.

Generally speaking, an area of land is usually “zoned” as one of 4 types.

Industrial zones

Industrial zones are where you find land dedicated to industry, including warehouses, power plans, factories, chemical plants and shipping docks.

Industrial zones are usually separated from residential zones, since industrial activities can pose safety or health risks.

Commercial zones

Commercial zones are where you find grocery stores, retail storefronts, restaurants and your favorite coffee shops.

A strip mall in a commercial zone in Marietta, GA.

Residential zones

Residential zones are for houses, condos and apartments. Not all residential zones are created equally, though. Zoning can also regulate what types of homes can be built in an area, limiting it to single family homes or high rises, plus the overall size, height and placement of buildings on a lot. This is why you don’t see many high rises in Inman Park.

A single-family home in a residential zone.

Mixed-use zones

Mixed-use zoning allows multiple types of buildings in one area, like an apartment building where the ground floor is a restaurant or coffee shop (think: the BeltLine).

A mixed-use zone off the BeltLine, where the bottom floor hosts commercial spaces, and the upper floors host residential units.

Who makes the rules?

In most cities, zoning is regulated by two authorities: a city council, which can pass zoning ordinances, and a board appointed by the city council to specifically work on zoning.

Sounds cool… but why does it matter?

While its impact may not be as obvious as education or public health, zoning has a significant effect on peoples’ lives.

For starters, zoning determines what a city looks and feels like. Can you walk across the street to go grocery shopping, or do you have to drive 20 minutes to get to the nearest grocery store? Zoning controls the type/number of businesses, restaurants and public facilities located near where you live. This in turn shapes whether your city is “car” city or a “walkable” city.

Zoning also affects property values and housing affordability. If a popular area is limited to single-family homes (as opposed to allowing multi-family homes or apartment buildings), the homes will be more expensive because there is a limited amount of them. To counteract this, some cities in Georgia are introducing new zoning policies, such as allowing multiple tiny homes to be put on lots in areas that only allow single-family houses.

Zoning can also influence the health and safety and inequality of a city’s population by putting industrial districts too close to residential districts, leading to negative health consequences for residents, or by reinforcing racial segregation in cities.

What are the major zoning debates in Atlanta?

A set of zoning proposals are currently up for debate in Atlanta, all of which were introduced by District 2’s Atlanta City Council member Amir Farokhi. They would allow a wider variety of housing to be built in single-family residential areas, especially around public transportation. Supporters of these changes say it would make more housing accessible to Atlanta’s growing population. Opponents argue that the changes are too broad and could negatively impact the identity of historical neighborhoods and have other unintended consequences, like increasing traffic levels and reducing the city’s tree canopy.

The first proposal would allow “accessory dwelling units,” such as in-law and basement apartments or carriage houses to be built behind or attached to single family homes. They would not be allowed in much of Buckhead or southwest Atlanta.

The second proposal would rezone some properties from single-family residential to “multi-family residential, multi unit,” allowing up to four units on a property instead of one with buildings up to three stories tall. The properties that could be rezoned are all within a half-mile of a MARTA station. This proposal is particularly controversial in Ansley Park and Candler Park. Supporters say that it would increase the diversity of housing in the city and that small apartment buildings would fit the character of single-family neighborhoods. Opponents point out that it could change the character of historic neighborhoods.

A multi-family house, currently prohibited in some areas only zoned for single-family residential units.

The third proposal would get rid of city-imposed parking requirements in most residential areas, meaning that Atlanta would no longer require houses or apartment complexes to provide off-street parking. Supporters argue that market demands would lead to enough parking being built so the city does not have to require it. Opponents say that it would make streets more crowded and dangerous.

How can you get involved?

On November 2nd, Atlanta and surrounding cities will elect new local leaders, including a new Mayor and a new City Council. These elected officials will hold office for 4 years, during which they’ll be making decisions about zoning laws and regulations.

It’s important to stay up-to-date on where candidates stand on major upcoming zoning debates, so that you can vote with candidates that align with your values. Branch is a free, nonpartisan website that summarizes where candidates stand on zoning and other key issues. We also compare what these candidates have done in the past against what they say they’ll do in the future.

You can get started by looking up who is going to be on your ballot by entering your address at www.branch.vote.



Branch Politics

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