Beyond Greenwich’s borders, these debates have attracted attention from the national media, from the Wall Street Journal to PBS NewsHour to The New York Times. An issue that inspires such controversy and strong feelings warrant not just debate, but a rigorous exploration of history. This history reveals that Greenwich’s residential development was not merely the accident of individuals’ choices in the aggregate, but the product of conscious public policy decisions.
In Part I of this three-part series, I provide context for why we should care about zoning reform in Greenwich.
Why Zoning Matters
Zoning plays a primary role in shaping residential segregation within and between Greenwich and other towns. Zoning rules prescribe what type of housing—apartments, townhouses, or single-family homes, to name a few—may be built and where. They dictate how large plots of land must be in any given zone, with the predictable result that eight homes built on a half-acre each will be each be more affordable than one home built on a four-acre lot.
Other rules—permitting procedures, minimum parking requirements, sewer regulations, and more—also play a large role in determining whether and where housing is built and how much the resulting housing costs to buy or rent. Understanding zoning requires us to grapple not only with its impact on the built and natural environments but on those who are able to live within a given community.
My interest in zoning in Greenwich stems from my experience in the Greenwich school system. I attended elementary school at Parkway School, where the student body was not only overwhelmingly white but also—perhaps more so than any other elementary school nationwide—extraordinarily affluent.
I received a great education at Parkway, thanks in no small part to the fundraising juggernaut that was the Parkway School PTA. But that education was inevitably limited by the homogeneity of my peers. Parkway did teach us that the world was not as white as our classrooms—civil rights icon Ruby Bridges came to speak at one assembly, and my first time appearing in the Greenwich Time was for a presentation my class gave for Black history month. And yet, especially at a time when most of my learning came from the interactions with classmates, my early childhood fostered little understanding of the lives of kids who didn’t look like me or who didn’t live in big houses on large plots of land—even those who lived just a few short miles away.
By the time I was in the fourth grade, Parkway had been equipped with a new air conditioning system thanks to a fundraising campaign by the PTA. Meanwhile, the largely Hispanic and Black student population at Hamilton Avenue school had relocated to modular trailer units after years of attending school in a building with long-standing structural and mold issues. Later, severe mold was discovered in the modular trailers too, causing or exacerbating a slew of health issues among the student body. Since then, Greenwich has invested large sums to build a new Hamilton Avenue and made curricular improvements. Still, Hamilton Avenue parents indicate much lower satisfaction with their school relative to others in the district: 33% less than Parkway, and 53% less than Riverside, according to the last comprehensive survey of parents in the district.
This inequity is just one of many manifestations of Greenwich’s pattern of residential segregation. Indeed, this story only depicts the inequity within Greenwich. Much starker is the disparity in experience between Greenwich residents and those in neighboring Port Chester or nearby Bridgeport. And to the Town’s credit, at least it does have some diversity in its midst—Greenwich is leaps and bounds ahead of the relatively more exclusionary Darien and New Canaan. But rather than pat ourselves on the back, we must strive to do much better than this meager baseline. To accomplish that goal, we must understand how we achieved that diversity in the first place and how we’ve erected walls to limit it—a history covered in great depth in Part II.
Nicholas Abbott is a Greenwich resident, a Harvard Law School student, and the American Planning Association’s Daniel J. Curtin fellow.