There’s been a great back and forth across the blogosphere in the past few days on sprawl, zoning, land use regulation, and market forces. A brief synopsis and chronology:
3/18, 8:47 am – Randal O’Toole – complete with terms like ‘poppycock’ that completely fit the mental image I have of him:
This is all balderdash and poppycock. People who believe it should get their noses out of Kunstler’s biased diatribes and look at some real data and see how zoning actually worked before it was hijacked by authoritarian urban planners. It doesn’t take much to show that areas without any zoning or regulation will — if developed today — end up as what planners call “sprawl.” Until recently, all that zoning has done has been to affirm the kind of development that people want.
3/18, 12:58 pm – Matt Yglesias -Yglesias argues that our sprawling environment isn’t a manifestation of market demand:
I’m not personally interested in debating the “smart growth” slogan. My point is that from a policy point of view excessive regulation of land use in already developed areas is bad for the economy and for the environment. And to be specific and clear about this, I don’t think the problem is “libertarian” hypocrites per se, the problem is specifically John Stossel and Randall O’Toole who are stridently opposed to anti-sprawl regulations but seem totally uninterested in sprawl-promoting ones.
3/18, 7:28 pm – Kevin Drum – we have exclusionary zoning regulations because people really, really want them.
I need to be clear here: I’m neither praising nor condemning this, just describing how things are. To get an idea of how strongly people feel about this, you really need to come live in a suburb for a while. But failing that, consider the balance of power here. Corporations would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. Wealthy land developers would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. And local governments hate single-family neighborhoods because they’re a net tax loss: they cost more in services than they return in property tax remittances. And yet, even with corporations, wealthy developers, and local governments all on one side, suburban zoning is ubiquitous. This is a triumvirate that, under normal circumstances, could get practically anything they wanted, but in this case it’s not even a close fight. Suburban residents have them completely overwhelmed.
3/19, 11:18 am – Ryan Avent – zoning is about exclusion and control – it is a manifestation of NIMBY attitudes and not one of popularity:
So people build where it’s easiest and cheapest to build, which is on the urban fringe. And walkability is difficult to build on the urban fringe because transportation will be overwhelmingly auto-oriented (the fringe being distant from employment and retail centers and unserved by transit). So you get acres of tract housing, which subsequently become filled with people, who then do what homeowners everywhere in the country do, which is try to exclude new people from moving in to their neighborhood. And development then moves further outward.
But the notion that suburban sprawl wins out simply because it is so popular is belied by housing cost data. People live where they can afford to live, and if they can’t afford to live in a walkable area, then they’ll opt to live in sprawl rather than go homeless. And once there they’ll act to defend their investment by fighting development projects that may have unpredictable impacts on the value of nearby single-family homes.
3/19, 2:28 pm – Matt Yglesias – exclusion is a general phenomenon (see NIMBYism), not just suited for suburbia and sprawling places.
It’s true that the problem of overly restrictive land-use rules is in large part a problem of voter-preference. But it’s not a problem of voter-preference for sprawl per se. It’s a general problem of homeowner eagerness to exclude outsiders. It’s politically difficult to build dense infill development in Washington, DC and that’s not because DC residents want to live in sprawling areas or because DC residents approve of sprawl as a phenomenon. It’s a mixture of selfishness, misunderstanding, and poor institutional design. As Ben Adler reminds us, surveys indicate that about a third of Americans would like to live in walkable urban areas but less than 10 percent of the country’s dwelling units are in areas that fit the bill. That’s why houses in walkable central cities (Manhattan) and walkable suburbs (near Metro in Arlington Country, VA for example) are so expensive.
3/19, 2:45 pm – Kevin Drum – No, people like sprawl. Honestly.
Sure, exclusion is part of the dynamic here, but by far the bigger part of it is that lots and lots of people actively like living in non-dense developments. Seriously: they really do. It’s not a trick. So they vote with their feet and move to the suburbs and then vote with their ballots to keep big-city living at bay. Given an ideal world, of course, they’d love to have a nice 3,000 square foot house with a big yard right in the middle of Manhattan, but one way or another, they want that house.
3/19, 7:07 pm – Ryan Avent – Price data shows a clear preference to walkable, urban places. Moreover, the density that creates that value also raises productivity – urban walkability is expensive for a reason, the positive externalities of urban lifestyles compound on one another. Suburban residents, however, fight added density and walkability because they never see the benefits of those positive feedback loops:
Say New York started selectively zoning parts of Manhattan for single-family home only use. The first few folks to buy would have a glorious time of things. But as additional people moved in, density would fall. Declining density would ultimately reduce the walkability of Manhattan, but perhaps more importantly, it would lead to a deterioration of the positive externalities associated with the high level of density. Density raises productivity and wages (see this, or this). And because of this benefit and positive spillovers associated with density, we find increasing returns to scale in cities. In many cases, the addition of another person to a dense area increases the return to others of locating in that area. And things work in the opposite direction as populations decline. The fact that residents of dense cities don’t internalize these benefits is one of the reasons they fight new development.
Low density suburban development eats up a lot of land while contributing relatively little to the positive urban externalities associated with density. And meanwhile, the combination of auto-centricity of suburbs with the inability of governments to correctly price congestion externalities means that suburbanites end up limiting urban growth in an economically unfortunate manner by reducing potential wages and raising the real cost of commuting into (and therefore within) the city. One reason sprawl is attractive is that the people living in it aren’t facing the true cost of their decision to live in sprawl (and this is without ever bringing carbon into the mix).
All in all, some very interesting points on sprawl, economics, design, land use, and so on. I wanted to aggregate these posts here as a baseline for more discussion – because this post is already long enough. I didn’t even get a chance to touch on the discussions of High Speed Rail and sprawl – with posts from the CA HSR blog, as well as the Transport Politic.