Visualizing zoning futures

Today’s research is tomorrow’s design. We’re asking researchers within Arup and beyond to describe their work and its potential applications. Jordan Woodson, a structural engineer in Arup’s Washington DC office, told us about his interest in the relationship between regulation and urban design.


What are you studying?

We are studying the impact of zoning and planning decisions on a city’s overall form.

Cities typically create zoning regulations with relatively narrow aims in mind — concentrating population density in specific areas, protecting historic districts, or limiting building forms to preserve a neighborhood’s character, for example. But these regulations often have much broader-reaching implications. We want to understand how common types of zoning regulations can lead one form of construction to dominate in certain cities.

Why is this important?

Zoning laws can drive a number of design decisions — e.g., which structural and mechanical systems can be used or how much daylight reaches building occupants — even if their original intent had nothing to do with these issues. In some cases, restrictive zoning can result in overly homogenous streets, neighborhoods, and cities.

Ideally, these regulations could be written in such a way that they achieve their specific aims while offering architects and engineers enough flexibility to create truly wonderful buildings and streetscapes.

Restrictive zoning can result in overly homogenous streets, neighborhoods, and cities.

What are the potential implications for the future?

With a greater understanding of how the macro affects the micro, designers would be better equipped to respond to particular building sites, quickly identifying the most feasible massing and building systems.

Conversely, with better comprehension of these effects, policy makers could tailor regulations to achieve their goals while keeping unwanted side effects to a minimum.

What are the next steps for the research?

We aim to produce a layperson-friendly visualization tool demonstrating how certain zoning restrictions influence building forms. This will likely revolve around a case study of Washington DC, whose uniform building heights render strict zoning laws visible to the naked eye.


Questions or comments for Jordan Woodson? Email him at

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