Making Sustainability Legal: 9 Zombie Laws That Keep Cities From Going Green

You’ve done your part, you good greenie, you. You’ve changed out the light bulbs, bought energy-saving appliances, learned to recycle, tuned up your bike, joined a co-op, and bought a transit pass and/or a fuel-efficient car. Now you’re looking around, wondering what to do next. With spring around the corner, maybe you’d like to hang out the wash on a sunny day. Or perhaps you could build an apartment in your basement to increase both your income and your neighborhood’s density….

Not so fast. Because this is the point at which your city government is very likely to swoop down in a flurry of paperwork and citations, telling you in no uncertain terms: No. You can’t do that. We don’t care how green it is, it’s also against the law.

The Sightline Institute in Seattle is compiling a list of zombie laws — outdated city ordinances and homeowners’ association policies that may once have served a purpose, but now mostly just get in the way of people’s desire to live more sustainably. Sightline's Making Sustainability Legal Web site offers a couple of dozen examples — some obvious, some off-the-wall — and they’re looking to add to the list. Sightline executive director Alan Durning hopes this project will give inspiration to activists looking for easy battles that will result in big sustainability wins.

Here are nine examples of local laws that stand in the way of change, and need to be pulled off the books:

1. Clotheslines. Consider the facts. The clothes dryer is one of the biggest energy hogs in the average American home. There’s nothing like the sweet smell of sheets and towels that have been freshly dried out in the air and sunshine. Nineteen states have already put in place laws that allow home solar installations of all kinds. So why do over half the homeowners’ associations in the US — including some in those 19 states — explicitly ban clotheslines in their neighborhoods? 

A gathering “right-to-dry” movement is rising up to challenge these rules, asserting that laws permitting solar hot water heaters and PV electrical cells must also permit solar-powered clothes drying technologies (that is, clotheslines). Model legislation is being proposed, and legal challenges are being launched. Take up your clothespins, America! You have nothing to lose but your big electricity bills.

2. Granny flats in suburban houses. The first step in making suburbs more sustainable is to increase their density. Those big lots usually have plenty of room to tuck a small apartment into the basement or over the garage; and allowing people to build them has all kinds of salutary effects. The extra rental income can help families afford their homes. The units increase the share of low-cost housing, thus expanding the economic and age diversity of the neighborhood. They allow families more flexibility in terms of elder care and launching young-adult kids; and also provide a new option to public employees like teachers or cops who may not be able to afford to live in the affluent neighborhoods they serve. They also enhance property values, increasing the tax base. And as the density goes up, so does the argument for building new amenities closer by, and increasing transit service to the area.

But most homeowners know how hard it is to get a legal permit to build such suites. City and county governments are still clinging to the same 1950s ordinances that created suburban sprawl in the first place. If we want to update our suburban infrastructure, simply letting people build infill housing that raises density is the first and most obvious step to take.

3. White Pages. When was the last time you used the White Pages? I know -- me neither. In an era of online 411, that big paper brick that arrives at your door once a year is mostly useful as an emergency booster-seat for visiting toddlers. Yet most states have laws mandating that this volume must be delivered to every residence, every year. Most of these laws also allow people to opt out, but almost nobody knows about this, so few people do. 

Some states are beginning to reconsider this, though. In a warming world, we need those millions of trees a lot more than we need the White Pages. it makes more sense to change the laws so people will only get these volumes if they specifically ask for them. An opt-in policy will allow people who like and use their White Pages to have them — and the rest of us can do something else with the drawer or shelf we used to keep it on.

4. Strollers on buses. It sounds ridiculous. But it’s far from silly if you’re a mom who’s struggling to get around on transit with a stroller. In many cities, parents are required to unpack their kid and all their purchases out of the stroller, then fold up the stroller and pick it all up — stroller, bags and squirming baby — in two hands, then somehow get it all up onto the bus, then pay the fare, and then find a seat and not fall over while everybody else stands there, getting increasingly annoyed. 

It’s no surprise that this routine is forcing the nation’s transit-loving urban parents off the buses and into minivans. They don’t really have any other choice if they want to get the shopping done. Some cities are starting to allow babies to stay in the strollers, and letting strollers park in the same seat-free open areas reserved for wheelchairs. Others, like Portland, OR, are raising curbs and buying buses with extra-low floors, creating a level path for anybody on wheels to drive right onto the bus.

5. Couchsurfing. In these more constrained times, a lot of intrepid travelers are discovering the joys of sites like and Rather than pay for an expensive hotel room, you crash in someone’s spare bedroom. The traveler saves money and gets a local guide, and the homeowner makes money and maybe a new friend. And best of all, the ecological footprint of travel is dramatically reduced.

This is legal in much of the country. But in some big cities where hotel competition is already intense, hotel owners are goading cities into cracking down. New York, for example, is notoriously rigid about telling people who they can and can’t let stay in their houses, for how long, and under what terms. This is an emerging new travel option (or, more accurately, the modern revival of a cherished old custom of taking in lodgers and boarders), and Sightline warns that it needs to be aggressively guarded from a rising wave of ill-considered and protectionist regulation.

6. Toxic couches. While we’re on the subject of couches, don’t look now, but is yours toxic? Sightline’s Web site explains why you might have reason to worry:

California’s 12-second rule, a state flammability standard for foam-containing furniture, induces manufacturers to load their products with chemical flame retardants. It’s a stupid rule: it contaminates tens of millions of homes across North America with toxic substances — compounds that spread, harming people and animals. Of all the toxic industrial compounds in your body right now, a substantial share are flame retardants that came from foam furnishings — probably a larger share than any other category of industrial compounds....But the rule has no compensating benefit for fire safety. The 12-second rule does not save lives in fires. It is useless. That’s what the scientific evidence says. This rule is all pain, no gain.

This is one of those places where California’s outsized population footprint effectively imposes that state’s standards on the whole nation. Usually, that’s a good thing from a progressive standpoint; but on this issue, it’s putting us all in serious danger. In this case, it’s a big national problem that will entirely go away if just one state legislature decides to end it. 

7. Food cart regulations. One of the most savory benefits of increasing density in a city is the rise of street food. Food carts and trucks are a cardinal sign of healthy urbanism, providing expanded food options on the fly wherever crowds are gathering right now. And they’re important new business incubators for upwardly mobile families as well.

However, wherever you see a thriving new street food scene, you’ll almost certainly hear the grumbling of nearby restaurant owners complaining about smell, crowds, mess, and hygiene. All of this, of course, is code for “our profits.” And critics naturally take their concerns to City Hall, where they get ordinances passed that stop the food trucks and carts in their tracks. 

But these low-impact, small-footprint, flexible businesses deserve a place in our cities, and need to be protected. If the restaurant owners are smart, they’ll join the movement instead of fighting it, and start launching trucks of their own. There’s plenty of room for everybody — but only if we insist that there should be. 

8. Person-to-person car-sharing. “The Pacific Northwest’s rolling stock of cars and trucks constitutes a mind-boggling amount of underutilized capital,” writes Sightline's Alan Durning. “The region has substantially more motor vehicles than licensed drivers. Everyone in the region could climb into a vehicle and no one would have to sit in the backseat. What’s more, the typical car is parked 23 hours a day. Most of us have more money tied up in our cars than in any other physical assets aside from our homes, and all that wealth is just sitting there in the driveway depreciating.”

The answer to this? Car-sharing. “Imagine leaving town for a week and coming back to learn that your vehicle had earned you $300 on the rental market. Or imagine that your car-sharing membership gave you access, on a moment’s notice, to thousands of private cars and trucks sprinkled around your city. Why endure the expense and hassle of car ownership when you can drive any make or model you choose and only pay for what you use?” Car-sharing not only makes far more effective use of the cars we have; paying for driving by the trip also incentivizes us to drive much, much less (up to 44 percent less, according to a UC Berkeley study) than we do.

Once again, the only thing standing in the way of implementing this idea is a thick wall of state laws. Some make it impossible to assign insurance liability to the person actually driving, leaving it all on the owner. Others try to apply stiff car rental taxes to car-sharing companies. Fortunately, California has led the way: in 2011, the state legislature cleared away the legal obstacles, and now car-sharing is thriving in the state. Other states are watching and following suit. 

9. Pay-as-you-drive insurance. Auto insurers and sustainability experts agree: The most sensible way to buy auto insurance is by the mile. The less you drive, the more you save. Recent advances in technology make tracking car mileage easy; and consumers like it, because you don’t have to buy an expensive policy for a car you don’t drive very often. You pay for exactly what you use — no more, no less.  

But most states still have insurance laws on the books that assume that people buy insurance by the year, not by the mile. There are old laws covering cancellation notifications and oversight regimes that simply aren’t compatible with the idea of buying and using insurance in blocks of 100 or 1,000 miles at time. A few states are starting to revise these laws, but there’s still a very long way to go before this will be legal.

Sightline’s Making Sustainability Legal project is actively on the lookout for more zombie laws that are ready to be changed. You're invited to email yours to

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