Opinion: Mobilize CT toward racially equitable zoning

A CT Fastrak bus waits for passengers at the New Britain station on one end of a busway connecting New Britain and Hartford.

A CT Fastrak bus waits for passengers at the New Britain station on one end of a busway connecting New Britain and Hartford.

File photo

As a young adult in New Haven, I enjoy walking, biking and taking the bus around the city, but many places I want to go are hard to reach because I don’t have a car. This kind of car-dependent landscape is inconvenient for me. But for many marginalized people in Connecticut, it is much more than just inconvenient: it’s a real barrier to social and economic mobility, public and environmental health, and affordable housing.

Our state can begin to address issues of race, class, transit and housing by rezoning to promote transit-oriented development and combat sprawl. Zoning is the key to understanding these challenges in our present urban landscape, and thus also fundamental for building something better.

Cars pose well-known health, safety and environmental threats and impose burdensome transportation costs that disproportionately impact minority communities. People of color are more likely to be exposed to car pollutants that cause high rates of asthma, are vulnerable to climate change impacts to which car emissions contribute, and suffer more from the heat island effects caused by extensive paving. Plus, buying a car is a huge investment that’s more likely to be out of reach for people of color as compared to white people.

Zoning laws have laid the groundwork for these discriminatory impacts of cars. Redlining cut off minority neighborhoods from investment in the mid-20th century, marking them as devalued slums that could be torn down and cordoned off by highway construction. Urban renewal-era car infrastructure, like New Haven’s infamous Oak Street Connector, displaced marginalized people in these neighborhoods, increased segregation, and drove white flight to the suburbs. At the same time, the government subsidized sprawling single-family home developments that people of color were often barred from. This helped create the sprawling and segregated landscape we have today that is hard to navigate without the privilege of car ownership.

Transit-oriented development is one obvious arena in which zoning reform can address this history of car dependence and its discriminatory impacts. Most Connecticut towns limit multifamily housing and mandate large lot sizes near their train and CTFastTrak stations, either through public hearing requirements or outright bans on denser development. This makes the areas around stations less physically and financially inaccessible. What good are investments in robust public transit if stations are only accessible by car, and thus out of reach for those who need them most?

Massachusetts has already passed simple reforms to enable smaller lots and denser housing near transit stations. Similar reforms in Connecticut would allow us to better utilize our transit infrastructure and give marginalized people more autonomy and resource access without relying on cars. Zoning reform around transit stations directly benefits people of color by creating more affordable and integrated housing, extending transit access beyond the wealthy and white communities that currently benefit from it the most.

Restrictions on minimum lot sizes and multi-family housing also dominate our entire state beyond transit stations, with 91 percent of Connecticut’s area zoned for single-family homes and 81 percent for 1-acre minimum lots, according to a first-of-its-kind zoning atlas created by Desegregate CT. Enabled by car infrastructure, these restrictions lead to sprawling and car-centric development, which in turn perniciously reinforces dependence on cars.

Reforming these policies would promote walkability and increase the supply of cheaper housing for marginalized communities by making it possible to build on smaller lots, create more flexible housing configurations, and best utilize all the land within our cities and towns. These reforms foster greener transit and higher urban density that would also reduce carbon emissions and leave more natural areas undisturbed by sprawling development, mitigating environmental and health impacts that disproportionately harm marginalized communities.

These state-level reforms would establish more equitable basic zoning standards across the board while still giving towns significant local discretion. Without additional statewide zoning reform, Connecticut’s housing, development, and transit patterns will remain dictated by racialized 20th-century paradigms, preventing us from evolving to meet the needs of changing demographics.

With less sprawl, better access to transit, more walkable communities, and more affordable homes, Connecticut can start to overcome its inequitably car-driven past and begin to provide for the needs of all residents. I, for one, would be proud to call such a state home.

Nash Keyes (they/he) is a postgraduate climate researcher at Yale University and a volunteer with Desegregate CT.