Author: Georgette Chapman

“Zombie” is a Haitian Creole term used to denote an animated corpse that is brought back to life by mystical means such as witchcraft. Zombie cities, as I use the term here, are decimated urban areas that are brought back to life by mystical means such as public policy. The success of reviving and reanimating these zombie cities relies on the alchemy of initiatives — economic, social, and legal — that create the conditions that facilitate reanimation. This article focuses on the legal piece of the puzzle and turns on land use law and zoning codes that allow a city to reimagine itself in a rehabilitated form that is possibly quite different than its current dilapidated state. Land use law (and the planning policies that underpin such law) is deeply rooted in the concept of managing growth. The emphasis on growth is clearly misplaced for cities with huge population losses. The growth emphasis borders on perverse when one considers the link between the impact of single-use Euclidean zoning and the segregation of the poor into the urban core (where high-density and low-cost housing is available), which in many cases exacerbated losses in population. At best, traditional zoning law treats the city as a static concept; at worst, it imposes antiquated and unforgiving strictures that fail to provide enough flexibility for organic and dynamic change. For example, as cities lose population and increasingly contain hollow caverns of land as a result of the population shrinkage, local governments struggle to align the land use codes premised upon population growth with their new topographic reality.

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