Several bloggers have already provided reviews of The Gated City by Ryan Avent, including Aaron Renn at The Urbanophile, Rob Pitingol at Greater Greater Washington, and Lloyd Alter at Tree Hugger. I’ve finally had a chance to read it and would thoroughly recommend it.
I often support increased density on the grounds that this is what the market wants. To me, that’s still reason enough to support the repeal of many land use regulations, but Avent offers a vision of density that is perhaps more compelling to more people. Because the division of labor is limited by the size of the market, cities offer many amenities that are not supported in less dense places. The diversity of food, art, shopping, sports, and movies is all much greater in cities than in small towns because larger markets allow for more specialization. Of course taste is subjective; many people prefer the quiet of the suburbs to the chaos of the city. However we can see that currently, many people want to move to cities but are unable to by looking at vacancy and rental rates.
Avent also points out that cities provide a sort of employment “insurance.” He uses the example of a Vietnamese chef losing his job. If the restaurant where he worked is in a large metropolitan area, he will be able to find another job in a Vietnamese restaurant. On the other hand, if he lives in a small town, he will likely have to seek employment in a more generic restaurant where he won’t be able to charge a premium for his specialized skills. This is true for jobs in many industries. If I were to lose my job in economics research, I’d much rather be searching for a new job here in DC than in a state with one think tank, for example.
Avent goes on to discuss the empirical evidence that people are more productive in cities, citing many and varied studies that demonstrate this fact along with the theoretical reasons that cities act as “economic processors.” By artificially restricting the potential supply of housing and office space, land use regulations prevent people from moving to cities, thereby limiting their earning potential. More clearly than any other work I’ve read, The Gated City brings together the research demonstrating that people are more innovative and productive in dense population centers with the harmful impact of zoning laws. Avent acknowledges that density has decreasing returns; at some level of density average worker productivity will begin falling. There is no reason that the market wouldn’t recognize this though, and shift to building out rather than up in a world of free land use.
It’s easy and tempting to blame the inefficient land use regime under which we live on urban planners, but Avent points out that often planners want to do the right thing. Using the example of the Brookland neighborhood in Washington, DC, he discusses a case in which the city planning commission wanted to allow for taller buildings and infill development around the Metro station to facilitate transit oriented development. The neighborhood vehemently opposed the change, though, and successfully lobbied to prevent the upzoning. In this case, Avent explains that NIMBYs were able to work together even when they had completely opposite complaints. Some said the new development would allow low-income residents to move into the neighborhood, while others feared that allowing fancy new condos would drive up housing costs and make the neighborhood unaffordable. These NIMBYs with opposing viewpoints managed to overcome their differences and worked together to block the change in any case.
As much as I appreciated Avent’s perspective in The Gated City, the book left me feeling pessimistic. Avent provides several policy recommendations that would make it easier for increased development where it is most needed, but none of them seem politically viable to me. He suggests giving neighborhoods property rights to their land and the land surrounding them so that developers could purchase it to build new projects where they will be valuable. He also suggests taxing density and using the revenue to compensate neighbors or creating a zoning budget so that urban planners faced a hard limit on how much density they could restrict. It just seems that if any of these were possible in the current political landscape, the market pressure for increased density would have led them to be adopted already.
He didn’t quite get to this in the book, but on Econtalk two weeks ago, Avent suggested that perhaps the best way to improve land use policy would be for people to become more tolerant of what other people do on their own land. I would concur and add that a live and let live tolerance could improve all sorts of American policies on issues from gay marriage to drug laws. Unfortunately, I don’t know what tools are available to speed up the societal progression toward tolerance.