Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It

What if scrapping one flawed policy could bring U.S. cities closer to addressing debilitating housing shortages, stunted growth and innovation, persistent racial and economic segregation, and car-dependent development?
It’s time for America to destroy the arbitrary lines of zoning maps across the country, argues city planner and Mercatus Center Affiliated Scholar M. Nolan Gray in Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. With lively explanations and stories, Gray shows why zoning abolition is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for building more affordable, vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.
These rules control many aspects of American life and work patterns, which in turn has forced cities into segregated and sprawling design. But, it doesn’t have to be this way, writes Gray. Many cities and states are embracing reforms, like Minneapolis, Fayetteville, Ark., and San Diego.

In Arbitrary Lines, Gray outlines why the thriving city is so essential for economic growth and advancement, how zoning has stymied us from the pursuit of such growth, and why such a regime should be overthrown. He lays out a blueprint for city planners on how to build the American cities of the future—without these arbitrary restrictions that so cripple us from maximizing our potential. 

About the Author

M. Nolan Gray is a PhD student in urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles and an Affiliated Scholar with the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Gray earned a Master of City and Regional Planning degree at Rutgers University and received BAs in philosophy and political science from the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on land-use regulation, housing affordability, and urban design. Gray was a Mercatus Center Frédéric Bastiat Fellow during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Advanced Praise

"A welcome manifesto for rethought urban spaces and their outliers, bringing social justice into the discussion."
—Kirkus Reviews

"Nolan Gray has the insights of Jane Jacobs and the prose style of Mark Twain. In his aptly-titled new book, Arbitrary Lines, Gray argues that zoning in America is a disease masquerading as a cure. He also proposes a post-zoning style of planning for fair, sustainable, and livable cities."
—Donald Shoup, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Urban Planning, University of California, Los Angeles; author of "The High Cost of Free Parking"

"In Arbitrary Lines, Nolan Gray wrote a compelling argument for urgently reforming the ‘stodgy rulebook’ that distorts the shape and decreases the welfare of American cities. In addition to his devastating critique of the status quo, Nolan suggests a practical path that would allow urban communities to get out of their current zoning straightjacket. This book is a must-read for all of us who are interested in more innovative and affordable cities."
—Alain Bertaud, senior fellow at the Marron Institute of Urban Management and former principal urban planner at the World Bank

"In Arbitrary Lines, Gray provides a compelling case against the parochial zoning rules that have shaped Americans' lives, from our homes to our budgets to the work opportunities available to us. While the costs of zoning become clearer each year, few have questioned the paradigm of local policymakers determining the quantity and type of building that will be permitted on the private land in their jurisdictions. Gray steps in with a new way of thinking about urban land use and a road map for a future unconstrained by zoning."
—Emily Hamilton, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University