A challenge to the market-oriented urbanists


Josh Barro, over at City Journal, makes some good points about the real contribution of subsidies to the auto/transit war.  However, I’m disappointed that this is yet another example of “market-oriented urbanists” (MOUs) admiring the problem without proposing a solution.  Barro, like others before, posits that local political decisions about planning and zoning laws are standing in the way of market operations which would achieve beneficial results for us all.  If only we would just change the dang zoning, dense housing would rise, rents would fall and transit would become a more attractive travel mode (in this world there are few, if any, externalities of dense development, a position we’ll take as given for the rest of this post).

Understanding the impacts of restrictive zoning on rents is important. But every time I read one of these change-the-zoning posts, I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the discovery of a concept (densifying urban areas) that smart growth advocates and planning students have known and been advocating for a very long time.  Clarence Perry dreamed up the “Neighborhood Unit” in 1929 in an attempt to address the nation’s rising automobility and associated externalities (the Neighborhood Unit called for at least ten units per acre). There may be more market demand now for dense, transit- (or stuff)-oriented development, but the issues are the same.

More calls for density based on market forces, fine.  But what almost every single one of these articles seems to lack is any robust exploration of how zoning rules are adopted, enforced, and changed and what exactly the author proposes as an alternative.  Barro, after spending eight paragraphs detailing auto vs. transit subsidies, says “Cities should allow dense development…but locals tend to oppose greater housing density.”  Solution? None given.  Barro states, “A much smarter approach…allow looser urban zoning”.  Got your fairy wand ready for waving?  Me neither.  I haven’t yet read Matt Yglesias’s “The Rent is Too Damn High”, probably the pinnacle of pundit-driven, change-the-zoning rallying cries, but every reference to it I read talks about “regulatory framework” not public process or neighborhood preferences.  Do away with parking minimums, unrestrict maximum heights, reduce setbacks.  All fine. What’s the roadmap? How will Yglesias, Barro or Lee move these changes through the court of local landowner public opinion?  The public process piece is mostly overlooked.

Zoning laws are made by men and women and enforced by same, often times by existing landowners who are risk- and change-averse.  How often has this scene played out across America: 1) Developer buys property 2) Developer decides that in order to make profit, he/she must build something that is larger than zoning allows 3) He/she goes to neighborhood board/zoning board to ask for rezoning or variance 4) Neighbors howl that the building is too tall/will generate too much traffic 5) Zoning board caves or developer backs out 6) Project doesn’t get built or is downsized.  The other process to change local zoning happens like this: 1) City decides to update their comprehensive plan (and zoning to implement) 2) A public process occurs and 3) density is usually restricted in some or many places to less than the market might bear (especially in existing single-family neighborhoods). This is how zoning law gets made in America.  There is no single authority, no dusty bureaucrat simply refusing to pull the magic zoning lever that will unleash the benevolent market forces.  Its individual homeowners and developers showing up at public meetings, testifying, and sitting on advisory boards.  Its elected city councils voting based on the feelings of their (loudest) constituents.  Future residents don’t typically have much of a voice.  This is local democracy in action.

Do the MOUs suggest making land use authority more regional and less local as Yglesias hints at in his NYT interview?  They will encounter some strong resistance from some other “libertarians”.  Do they suggest some changes to the local public process used to adopt/change zoning rules?  If so, I haven’t read any detailed proposals yet.  Andres Duany, famous architect and urban planner (and not someone I would classify as a MOU), has proposed citizen juries, but I’m not aware of many other proposals.  Do they propose abolishing some or all local land use authority and process?  They will likely meet strong resistance from all sides, conservative and liberal alike.

So my challenge to the MOUs is this: stop writing about rent-spiraling zoning.  We get it, in some places developers can’t build as tall as they want/rents are too high.  This is the easy part.  Start writing about public process.  What changes do you propose to local government decision-making processes that would speed development and/or make the costs and benefits of planning and zoning decisions (especially the long-term ones) more plain?  This is the hard part.  Public sector planners have been working on it for quite some time, and haven’t really come up with a great solution yet.  We could use your help.

Update: Josh Barro has in fact proposed some solutions, to which he pointed me.  I don’t find any of these particularly realistic, except perhaps moving towards more rental (which is still a long shot).  None of these are process solutions either, more like total structural shifts.  He actually mentions abolishing local land use authority which I mention above, but ultimately talks himself out of it.

8 thoughts on “A challenge to the market-oriented urbanists

  1. I think Yglesias is right that understanding the issue is important, but aligning incentives has to go hand in hand with that. To that end, something like TIFs would help, though I’m not a huge fan of how those work. If residents were more able to see the benefits as well as the costs, it would certainly help. But I don’t know exactly how to do that.

  2. Pingback: The Bellows » Just Admiring the Problem?

  3. Pingback: Yglesias discovers the comprehensive plan | Net Density

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  6. It’s a great question. We’re a non-partisan group and we’ve been looking for reforms that could build a winning coalition of voters to get enacted.

    The best idea we’ve seen so far in the UK is to let individual streets vote to upzone themselves and pick a design code to guarantee that the result looks better than the existing street.

    There’s a short summary here: https://www.londonyimby.org/blog/2017/2/11/why-not-let-streets-vote-to-give-themselves-permission-to-extend

    You also need to think about corners and other houses on the same block. We have more details to come on that.

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