Planning and Zoning

The legacy of class and race segregation found throughout US cities and suburbs can in part be attributed to the misuse of zoning.

Joe T. Darden, 1991

Was Lexington Deliberately Zoned for Segregation?

The short answer is, we don't know. The long answer is below, in quite a few sections.

Lexington Did Not Adopt an Explicitly Race-Based Zoning Ordinance

In 1910 Baltimore adopted an ordinance providing that Blacks could not move into residential blocks that were majority White, and vice-versa. Within less than a decade at least 11 southern or border cities, including Louisville, had passed similar ordinances. But in 1917 the U.S. Supreme Court declared Louisville's racial zoning ordinance unconstitutional in Buchanan v. Warley, a case initiated by the NAACP legal team. Legal scholars seem to disagree about the importance of the Buchanan decision, and about the grounds on which it was decided—property rights vs. civil rights (D. Taylor, 2014).

At the time of the Buchanan decision, Kentucky's legislature had not granted Lexington or other second-class cities the authority to adopt zoning ordinances. That authority did not come until 1928. Lexington adopted its first zoning ordinance, called the Building Zone Ordinance, in 1930. (For details about that ordinance, see Lexington's First Zoning Ordinance.)

By the time Lexington had adopted our first zoning ordinance, racial zoning "had run its course" at the national level, according to Virginia Commonwealth University professor Christopher Silver:

The substitute for racial zoning was a race-based planning process that marshaled a wide array of planning interventions in the service of creating separate communities. Street and highway planning served as a means to erect racial barriers as early as the 1920s. The siting of public housing projects explicitly (and legally) for Black occupancy proved particularly effective in furthering residential segregation. Slum clearance, neighborhood planning, private deed restrictions, and racially charged real estate practices all served the cause of segregation as effectively as racial zoning. (Silver 1997)

As we discuss in several other sections of this site, Lexington did adopt and implement nearly all the "substitutes" for explicit racial zoning that Silver describes.

Lexington Has Adopted Exclusionary Zoning Ordinances

Exclusionary zoning makes it possible to exclude certain groups of people from a specific area by regulating the type of residential development that can take place there. For example, an exclusionary zoning pattern could establish separate areas for small modest homes vs large substantial homes, or small lots vs large lots, or single-family vs multi-family residences. Specific examples of exclusionary patterns may also include requiring low-density development, moratoria on new housing construction, huge extraction fees for new development, bans on mobile or manufactured homes, architectural design specifications, and mandatory deep setbacks (D. Taylor 2014, 185).

A main effect of exclusionary zoning is to exclude lower-income people from the neighborhoods where higher-income people live. Given the wage gap and the wealth gap between White and African American families, such zoning has had the impact of excluding most African Americans from predominantly White neighborhoods, both in Lexington and nationally.

From the 1930 Building Zone Ordinance to the present, Lexington's zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans have always maintained aspects of exclusivity. This exclusivity—separating residential areas on the basis of size and density—has been such a significant feature of our community's zoning that most of us tend to think it is essential to the "character" of our neighborhoods, and the only way communities can be organized.

The map that accompanied the 1930 Building Zone Ordinance, and discussion of its exclusive and inclusive features, can be found on this page: Lexington's First Zoning Ordinance.

The 1930 Building Zone Ordinance named only three residential zones. Over time the city has fine-tuned the distinctions among its various residential zones. Our present zoning ordinance provides for 10 residential zones of varying densities and allowed uses, plus four agricultural zones in which limited single family dwellings are allowed (Zoning Ordinance of Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky 2022).

Did Lexington Decision-Makers Intend
for Exclusionary Zoning to Maintain Segregated Housing?

In The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein charges that many cities use exclusionary zoning, sometimes called density zoning, as an intentional means of excluding African Americans from White neighborhoods. We found no precise evidence that this took place in Lexington; read on to see what we learned that is related.

After the 1917 Buchanan decision, Rothstein tells us, "...segregationist officials faced two distinct problems: how to keep lower-income African Americans from living near middle-class whites and how to keep middle-class African Americans from buying into white middle-class neighborhoods." These officials found the solution to the second "problem" in restrictive covenants and redlining. They addressed the first by implementing exclusionary zoning (Rothstein 2017, 47 48).

Rothstein is not alone in maintaining that racial motives gave rise to exclusionary zoning or in pointing to cities where professional planners, planning commission members, or other public officials made their racial motives explicit. Some other authors who provide such evidence include Dorceta E. Taylor (2014), Johnathan Rothwell and Douglas S. Massey (2009), Kimberly Quick (2017), Christopher Silver (2017), Richard Kahlenberg (2020) (especially regarding single-family zoning), and Sheryll Cashin (2021).

In the twenty years after the Buchanan decision, the number of U.S. cities that had zoning ordinances grew from 8 to 1,246 (Quick 2017, 1). Lexington was among them. It can be argued, of course, that many factors besides the Buchanan decision could have led cities to adopt zoning ordinances. Some of those factors may have included the desire to create separation between businesses and residences, protect residents from unhealthy or unsightly industries, conserve recreational and open space, or guarantee that homes have enough light and air.

Early Zoning Did Not Protect the Health
of African American and Low-Income Residents

Zoning ordinances can protect residents' health, for example, by separating residential areas from industrial and other incompatible uses. Conversely, zoning can promote health disparities. The authors of "Not Even Past" point out that "Where people live impacts their exposure to health-promoting resources and opportunities (i.e., access to quality food, recreation, healthcare, etc.) as well as exposure to health-damaging threats (i.e., environmental pollutants, poor housing quality, etc.)" (Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition n.d.).

The US Commission on Civil Rights has found that "Zoning practices and decisions that, on their face are race neutral, routinely allow communities of color and poor communities to be zoned industrial and significantly contribute to the disproportionate placement of hazardous and toxic industries in these neighborhoods" (US Commission on Civil Rights 2003, 15).

Lexington's 1930 Building Zone Ordinance seemed intended in part to protect residents' health by designating three business and two industrial zones, separating them from most residential zones. But residences were allowed in all zones except Industrial B, and non-conforming uses already in existence were grandfathered in (Building Zone Ordinance 1930). Many of the areas where African American people lived had grown from the early Black settlements, and were already in or close to industrial areas (or for various other reasons had "poor residential site qualities.") (Kellogg 1982, 28).

But beyond that, the 1930 Building Zone Ordinance actually designated industrial zones in or adjacent to several residential areas that were predominantly African American. For example, much of Davis Bottom, as it was known then, was zoned Industrial A ("Any use except nuisance industries"), and an adjacent area was zoned Industrial B ("Any use except residential"). As a result, many homes were demolished over the years to make way for factories and tobacco warehouses, leaving the remaining homes in a less salubrious environment.

A street in Davistown. In the midground are five or six small frame homes. Looming over their back yards is a tower of crushed, junked cars.

Junked cars tower over Davistown homes in 1980. Photo by Ron Garrison, Lexington Herald-Leader. Used with permission.

In 1980 Lexington Leader reporter John Woestendiek produced a special report on Davistown, "Valley of Neglect." One of the photos in the report, reproduced above, shows a veritable mountain of junk cars looming over neighbors' homes.

A 1967 Planning Commission report called Neighborhood Analysis for Thirteen Low-Standard Planning Units describes other neighborhoods that received similar treatment. In that report the Planning Commission acknowledged the negative impact of some past zoning decisions; a sampling may be found here. Zoning practices that undermined the livability of the "low-standard" neighborhoods, and the health of their residents, were especially injurious to African Americans in those neighborhoods, who had very few other residential options. The Planning Commission acknowledged this in its 1970 report, A Low Income Housing Study for Lexington and Fayette County, Kentucky.

Many health effects of racial residential segregation persist today. The image below is a screenshot of a "Social Vulnerability" graphic and map of Lexington, created at the University of Richmond. The interactive map demonstrates the current relationship between HOLC-redlined neighborhoods and poor health outcomes. To use the interactive aspects of the map, visit the website at

(That site is easiest to use and understand if you click on and read the "Introduction/About" section at the top of the site page.)

Screenshot of a color-coded map of Lexington.

(Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition)

We Will Need New Approaches To Address Persistent Inequities

For at least the first half of the 20th century the formal processes of planning and zoning in Lexington-Fayette County worked to sustain a status quo in terms of housing segregation even though they were not explicitly discriminatory and racist. The inequities had begun centuries earlier and intensified due to racist and White-favoring policies of federal, state and local governments. To a large extent that status quo, built on the head start White home owners gained during the 20th century, continues to this day,

We believe that, starting in the last three decades of the 20th century, many of Lexington's planners and public officials have become more aware of the race-based inequities and disparities created by past planning practices. For example, planners have made greater efforts to include African American neighborhood residents and advocates in the planning process, and to work with them to develop neighborhood plans that meet the needs of residents rather than industry. In our presentation and on this site we focus primarily on past wrongs rather than recent success because we believe that the present situation grows directly out of past policies and practices.

At this point we do not believe that even the most progressive and thoughtful planning policies can, by themselves, end segregation and eradicate the housing-related wealth gap in Lexington. Segregation is too entrenched, and rooting it out would require thousands of families to relocate. While planning practices can help to some extent, especially in making neighborhoods more livable and affordable, we believe that as a community we must seek other remedies if we are to make Lexington a genuinely diverse and equitable community.

In Segregated by Design, author and narrator Richard Rothstein suggests all cities have work to do to remedy unconstitutional practices from the past that are still shaping present housing patterns:

If, however, we understand the accurate history, the history that was once well known but we've all now forgotten, that racially segregated patterns in every metropolitan area like St. Louis were created by de jure segregation—racially explicit policies on the part of federal, state and local governments designed to segregate metropolitan areas—then we can understand that we have an unconstitutional residential landscape, and if it's unconstitutional, then we have an obligation to remedy it.

If you would like to a timeline of planning and zoning in Lexington through the 1970's, see Milestones.