Density - the limitations of zoning

San Francisco. CC image from C1ssou

A few days ago, Charles Marohn posted “It’s so much more than density” on his Strong Towns blog.  In it, Charles pushes back against the idea that density is good, arguing that the reality of great places is more complex. Marohn’s conclusion is spot on, but throughout his post he creates several strawmen arguments, some of which rubbed me the wrong way:

Equating planners with zoners: Charles styles this as “planners zoners.” In this world, all planners love zoning, and love the available tools that zoning offers. In my professional experience, this is rarely the case.

I’m not sure why planners zoners are generally so keen on density, but they are, to the point where it often comes across as an obsession. I have a theory. I think a lot of planners zoners yearn to be spatial planners. They go to school to build great places. They get out into the real world and are given this ridiculously blunt instrument — zoning — and are frustrated that they can’t wield it to create Paris. Few stop to ask what zoning regulations were used to create Paris (hint: there weren’t any). Density, especially when given as a bonus for attainment of certain performance objectives, is the closest thing a modern planner zoner gets to their professional roots. We all suffer the consequences.

Perhaps it’s the personalization of this that bugs me, because the analysis of the systems is spot-on. Zoning is a blunt instrument at best, but many of my fellow planners (not merely zoners) do indeed ask about Paris. They understand the limitations of zoning. They are also constrained within the system. They make use of the tools available.

The most realisitic path to change is from within, usually via a zoning re-write like currently underway in DC, or recently completed in Philadelphia. Wholesale repeal of zoning codes seems unrealistic. Even Houston, without Euclidian use zoning still bears many of zoning’s ills through other regulations, such as parking requirements. Change in the regulatory environment is likely to be incremental.

Still, these professionals must contend with pressures on them from various stakeholders. In Philly, the city council is trying to un-do many of the recent changes. In DC, many of the bad practices Marohn decries (using the mindset of zoning as incentive rather than allowance)  are urged by residents, not by planners.

Location matters: Regarding the desirability of density, there needs to be a distinction between using bonus density as an incentive and merely allowing greater density and letting the market supply it organically. Part of this confusion might stem from your frame of reference. During the rise of the housing bubble, Paul Krugman made note of America’s two distinct housing markets:

When it comes to housing, however, the United States is really two countries, Flatland and the Zoned Zone.

In Flatland, which occupies the middle of the country, it’s easy to build houses. When the demand for houses rises, Flatland metropolitan areas, which don’t really have traditional downtowns, just sprawl some more. As a result, housing prices are basically determined by the cost of construction. In Flatland, a housing bubble can’t even get started.

But in the Zoned Zone, which lies along the coasts, a combination of high population density and land-use restrictions – hence “zoned” – makes it hard to build new houses. So when people become willing to spend more on houses, say because of a fall in mortgage rates, some houses get built, but the prices of existing houses also go up.

For those of us in the Zoned Zone, simply allowing for more growth (and density) will produce different results than a similar regulatort adjustment in Flatland.  Anecdotes of these constraints in expensive cities abound: consider recent articles from Brooklyn and San Francisco, among others.

Marohn  notes that density does not cause productivity in places; density is a byproduct of productive (and valuable) places:

A strong town — a productive place — is generally of a higher density than an unproductive place. That financial productivity, however, is not caused by the density. There is a correlation — as productivity goes up, so does density — but one does not cause the other.

Leaving aside the question of correlation vs. causation, nothing in Marohn’s post takes the context of the place and pent-up market demand into account. Two planners talking about the desirability of density could use the same argument, but the location of the planner (Flatland or the Zoned Zone) dramatically changes the impact of that argument. In Flatland, where supply is not constrained, density not supported by the market must be shaped via some sort of regulation. However, urbanists advocating for density in the Zoned Zone are often just asking to remove the constraints that make density illegal.

With that in mind, attacking planners for pushing density without considering their context and market conditions (and the nature of the intervention) can confuse the issue. There’s no doubt that incentives can backfire – zoning is a blunt tool, after all. But that’s not always the motivation when arguing in favor of more density.

Perceptions of density often miss the mark: Marohn also cites the example of urban renewal as a failure of the fetishizing of density. I’m not sure that this narrative holds up to the history, however – at least as it applies to the density of urban renewal projects. As I’ve written before, perceptions of density are often well off from the reality.

This isn’t to endorse either the process or product of urban renewal, but the goals of those projects were often aimed at reducing density and overcrowding.

Beware unintendend consequences: As I noted at the top of this post, I don’t disagree with Marohn’s conclusion at all:

Ultimately, the notion that we can solve the problems that we face in our cities by simply increasing the density requirement in our zoning codes is not just naive, it is dead wrong. Density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one. Building a Strong Towns is a complex undertaking, one that defies a professional silo or a simple solution.

More on Marohn’s follow-up, Density Redux, to follow…

2 comments to Density – the limitations of zoning

  • It’s so annoying that writers on this issue talk about “forcing density on people.” Upzoning doesn’t force anyone to do anything. Neither does eliminating parking minimums, setbacks, and minimum lot size.

    I’m torn between two ways of viewing zoning. One is essentially public choice theory: the purpose of zoning is to create a shortage of housing and raise the housing values of existing owners, who are a large majority of voters and power brokers in the relevant cities, at the expense of renters and people who would like to move in in the future, who are politically much weaker. In that view, rhetoric is based on whatever will get the neutral public to support more zoning, and a narrative of “they’re coming for your backyards” serves that purpose.

    The other is that it’s about conformity. A certain elite, descending from the anti-urban patricians of the late 1800s, declared that good life means single-family detached residential on large lots, and uses its power to mandate this on everyone else. It’s common for people who push conformity to believe that permitting diversity is an imposition: they already know what everyone wants (where “everyone” means “normative people,” defined by an intersection of several norms of which each is held by a majority but all simultaneously are held by a minority), so allowing variation means being forced to accept people who they view as deviant. In this view, the rhetoric is no different from rhetoric about “forcing homosexuality on our children.”

  • [...] than any one jurisdiction, but the macro signs are quite clear. Given the constraints to supply in the Zoned Zone, removing these regulatory constraints on the market’s ability to add supply seems like an [...]

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