The Key Word In Conservative Urban Reform: “Openness”

1. I published two articles this week. The first was a Governing Magazine piece about how Miami’s pro-development policies have delayed downtown gentrification. The second was an update, published by Forbes, on Philadelphia’s mass eminent domain scheme for a blighted neighborhood. That issue first became public for this audience when reader Adam Lang posted in the Market Urbanism Facebook group that he was one of many residents whose property would be seized. Emily followed with a description of the plan on this site, and my Forbes piece provides an update following the June 18th approval by city council. Far as I can tell, my article was the first mainstream national press coverage of the issue, and we can only hope from here that the floodgates open…

2. For America’s urban conservatives, it has been frustrating to see the indifference shown towards cities by the Republican Party. Even as the nation continues urbanizing, and election results are increasingly tied to the city vote, the GOP continues to identify with suburban and rural constituencies. This causes them to take positions which offend city voters, like opposing immigration reform and gay rights, while flat ignoring other principally urban issues like public transit and homelessness. And while there have been some conservative urban reforms, like charter schools and data-driven policing, there has not been a unified agenda. So it was exciting to see a recent article—reposted, naturally, on the MU Facebook group—advocating for this.

National Affairs, a quarterly journal that is associated with “reform conservatism,” published “An Urban Agenda for the Right.” The article was written by Michael Hendrix of the Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with NA editor Andrew Evans. While it did not list every possible reform, it mentioned many of the macro-level ones long discussed on this site. What I liked even more, though, was that it suggested a change in messaging, wherein the Democrat establishments that have long controlled cities are described as “closed,” while conservative reformers are portrayed as “open.” This, wrote the authors, would create a more accurate perception of modern U.S. cities.

As a result of decades of Democratic governance and misplaced priorities…American cities do not offer the opportunities for success and growth that they should, especially for those looking to climb the socio-economic ladder. In many cases, city governments are utterly dysfunctional. And the reason for this dysfunction is that our cities are too often closed—closed to businesses and closed to outsiders. For the middle class and those striving to make it up the ladder, the taxes, housing, and other costs leave cities simply too expensive to afford—especially with a family. Excessive regulation makes it difficult, if not downright impossible, to get the permits necessary to start a business. Cronyism and a lack of transparency make it difficult to know whether anyone is trying to fix the situation.

In response to this restrictiveness within cities, “conservatives should seek to make them open.”

What I found interesting about their wording was that it inverted how most Americans view the political parties. At the national level, Democrats are portrayed as the open and tolerant ones, and Republicans as the reactionary ones trying to uphold the status quo. These distinctions have been established largely because of the parties’ differing approach to social issues.

But this is hardly applicable to cities, where issues are rooted more in economics and quality-of-life. A large number of urbanites—whether they want to call themselves liberals, progressives, or Democrats—are in fact quite reactionary themselves, a point emphasized by the authors. Housing regulations have been used by the urban left to restrict new construction, as if city neighborhoods are gated country clubs that should never allow change or new people. The liberal business elite have fortified the business permitting process so much that, in many cities, it is nearly-impossible for competing entrepreneurs to enter basic professions like hair-styling. And to carve out a voting bloc, the left has defended unionized public monopolies that deliver services at far higher cost, and less efficiency, than is necessary.

To the authors, making cities more “open” would mean embracing economic and administrative liberalization. They call for housing deregulation, so that cities can accommodate growing populations; one-stop shops for business permitting; and civil service reform, so that bureaucracies are either held to better standards, or replaced through privatization. They also call for better online data, so that residents can easily view info on their cities’ spending and debt, and gain access to officials.

All these measures would, in fact, open up cities in the technical sense–by allowing in more people, and granting them more options once there. If such openness regarding cities was promoted more by Republicans, it might change the perception about which party best embodies this core urban value.

Happy Birthday Jane Jacobs! (Now Let’s Have A Debate)

Jane Jacobs

1. This week I wrote three articles: one for Governing Magazine about how to make pedestrian malls successful; and two for Forbes—about how Syracuse is squelching a driveway-sharing app, and the latest attempts from San Francisco NIMBYs to stop a Warriors arena.

2. Today would have been Jane Jacobs’ 99th birthday, and I know many of you celebrated by attending (or hosting) Jane’s Walks in your cities. Because of other obligations, I wasn’t able to attend the Miami one, which was hosted in Little Havana by local realtor Carlos Fausto Miranda. If any of you did, tell me how it went.

3. I hate to use Jacob’s birthday as an excuse to seem divisive, but there’s something about her writings—and the way they’re interpreted—that I want to explore:

The thing that’s always made Jane Jacobs’s work so refreshing is that it has ideological crossover appeal. But this has also caused different schools of thought to emerge about her.

The left-leaning among Jacobs’ fans emphasize her work on urban form. Jacobs’ favorite neighborhood was her home base of Greenwich Village, and living there inspired her vision for other neighborhoods. As she brilliantly explained throughout The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the ones that functioned best had traditional street grids, human-scale buildings and parks, a mix of old and new architecture, and pedestrian accessibility. These elements of her teaching have been embraced by New Urbanists like Andres Duany, who have built entire neighborhoods on her principles; and by “smart growth” planners, who take the next step by imposing historic overlays and “form-based codes” on urban areas. These latter moves are done to stave off modernization, which they see as threatening Jacobs’ aesthetic vision for cities.

But the right-leaning side of Jacob’s followers focus less on design, than on her economic teachings, many of which came in later works. They adore the woman who loathed central planning and land use controls, and who thought that the “organized complexity” of city life was best tackled through organic growth. Rather than advocating for new layers of regulation, then, conservatives view Jacobs as an early advocate of market-based solutions. This side is led by people like Edward Glaeser, a proponent of more skyscrapers. Although skyscrapers might be taller than Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood, he argues, they would be a Jacobian response to many cities’ housing shortages, and if designed properly, would generate the street life she described.

I’m not here to say that one side is right or the other wrong. Both Jacobs’ economic and design teachings—and the way they’ve been interpreted—have been mostly beneficial for cities. But I will say that the New Urbanist side has gotten more representation. If you think today of what someone means when referring to a “Jane Jacobs-style neighborhood,” you picture a medium-density area with historic character, pocket parks, and niche coffee shops—places like Greenwich Village, The Haight in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Boston’s Back Bay. Meantime, large-scale neighborhoods—such as a typical downtown business district—are considered antithetical to Jacobian urbanism, and are frowned upon by planners.

I wish this perception would change, though, because high-rise neighborhoods play a role in cities that Jacobs would have appreciated. As I wrote on this site several weeks ago, the Miami neighborhood of Brickell—which is an overnight skyscraper zone that would have Glaeser beaming—is essential to the city’s economy, providing housing, offices, and recreation for the ever-important banking industry. It has also helped preserve surrounding downtown neighborhoods, by containing the city’s banking wealth to a small area, rather than having it inflict gentrification elsewhere. While Brickell doesn’t yet have great pedestrian infrastructure, the neighborhood’s sheer density has made it (as Glaeser would have predicted, and Jacobs would have liked) one of the city’s most active around the clock.

Yet I can’t imagine Brickell ever being the subject of a Jane’s Walk. There is something about the neighborhood’s sensibility—corporate, wealthy, glossy, neo-liberal—that doesn’t gel with Jacobs’ left-wing faction. However, Brickell and other skyscraper neighborhoods are essential in helping cities grow and stay competitive in a global economy. True fans of Jacobs should see the value of encouraging (or at least allowing) such neighborhoods, as a compliment to the more traditional-style ones.


Glamour in streetscapes

A while ago I attended an Urban Land Institute event on development trends in Fairfax’s Mosaic District. A presenter from the retail developer EDENS described their strategy of adding “sidewalk jewelry,” a design technique used to entice shoppers to travel down sidewalks between stores. Having never heard the term before, it nonetheless stuck with me as I thought about retail developments that manage to create relatively lively pedestrian environments from the top down.

At Mosaic District, this street jewelry takes the form of signage designed to engage pedestrians, fountains, and planters:

Mosaic 1


It’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing and engaging to pedestrians than the average strip center. While the typical strip mall has a parking lot for a set back, Mosaic District has a parking garage that allows the rest of the center to be more pedestrian-scaled. With the “sidewalk jewelry” framework in mind, it’s easy to see that many retail developers have embraced this trend toward focusing on the pedestrian experience once shoppers have left their cars at the center’s periphery. While Easton Town Center in Columbus has many of the same stores as any major mall, it’s outdoor shopping environment is distinctly different, attempting to emulate the “town center” in its name:

Easton town center

For shoppers who value retail ambience, these “lifestyle center” sidewalks provide a much nicer atmosphere relative to more dated strip center or shopping mall designs, but they can’t compare to environments where storefront decorations developed more organically. A recent trip to Quebec City reminded me of the sidewalk jewelry term, but there the visual treats that lure pedestrians down the sidewalk have much more texture than the shopping centers’ above because they are the result of an emergent order among the street’s businesses and residents rather than one developer’s vision:


This type of street meets social critic Virginia Postrel’s framework of glamour. In her book The Power of Glamour, she explains that glamour is something that transcends our everyday life and transports us to better, different circumstances. She explains that shapes that evoke mystery carry glamour because they create mystery at what lies beyond. The fortress walls surrounding the Quebec City add a sort of magic to the city’s charming streets:


Quebec City’s glamour makes it appealing to tourists, but cities that are home to more productive innovation have streets with even more glamour, such as this Tokyo scene where each sign invites the pedestrian to find out what’s inside the business:


As Postrel explains, this glamour “invites us into a world without giving us a completely clear picture.” While people may dismiss the importance of glamour in cities as a frivolous quality, Postrel explains the importance of glamour in our lives:

Glamour is all about hope and change. It lifts us out of everyday experience and makes our desires seem attainable. Depending on the audience, that feeling may provide momentary pleasure or life-altering inspiration.

[. . .]

Glamour can, of course, sell evening gowns, vacation packages, and luxury kitchens. But it can also promote moon shots and “green jobs,” urban renewal schemes and military action. (The “glamour of battle” long preceded the glamour of Hollywood.) Californians once found freeways glamorous; today they thrill to promises of high-speed rail. “Terror is glamour,” said Salman Rushdie in a 2006 interview, identifying the inspiration of jihadi terrorists. New Soviet Man was a glamorous concept. So is the American Dream.

Glamour, in short, is serious stuff. It can alter life plans, even change history. And as a broad psychological phenomenon, it holds intrinsic interest. While rarely addressed in C-SPAN discussions, glamour is the sort of topic to which such 18th-century titans as Adam Smith and David Hume often turned their attention. It spans culture and commerce, psychology and art.

Land use restrictions do a lot to eliminate glamour from urban development through setback requirements, parking requirements, and height limits. Rules of the game that favor large-scale development over the environment that’s possible with the chaos of many small developments prevent the elements of surprise that glamorous streets have. Today’s retail developers are attempting to add glamour back into their products with sidewalk jewelry, but no amount of attention to design on their part will match the level of intrigue of the streetscapes above. Viewed through Postrel’s lens, rules that remove glamour from cities aren’t just bad for the pedestrian experience, but they also dampen what can be an important source of inspiration in our lives. If glamour plays a role in driving us to action, it may be one factor that encourages people to pursue their work in the place where they will be most productive. Rules that eliminate glamour from a city’s physical environment can ultimately reduce its contribution to economic progress.


Book Review: Perverse Cities by Pamela Blais

In her new book Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy, and Urban SprawlPamela Blais explores the impact of flat-rate fees for development charges and network services like sewer, water, and cable. She explains in detail how these little-discussed policies play an important role in shaping development and redevelopment and how the current funding of these network goods incentivizes large lot, greenfield development over infill development on smaller lots.

Blais focuses her analysis on Canada and the United States. Development charges provide an easy inroad into her critique of average cost over marginal cost pricing for infrastructure. Many North American municipalities charge developers a flat-rate fee for each lot they develop. They often set this fee at the rate for lots of varying sizes, even though larger lots require more asphalt, sewer and water pipes, and cable to service them. While the cost differences may be small between one 25-foot versus one 60-foot lot, infrastructure for a new suburb of 100 houses will cost significantly more if the houses have 60-feet of frontage versus 25, but because these costs aren’t reflected in prices, residents don’t take them into account. Because the same development fee will be capitalized into each house, those who live on smaller lots cross-subsidize the services like road maintenance, garbage collection, and snow clearance of those who live on larger lots when these services are provided by local governments.

Blais provides detailed accounts of how these fees shape development patterns and that the resulting sprawling development is both environmentally detrimental and expensive for cities to maintain. She points to several network services that fit a model similar to development charges: water and sewer, electricity, gas, telephone, cable television, internet connectivity, and postal service. While she cites extensive empirical evidence that the cost of delivering these services is inversely related to population density, local and federal governments tend to charge flat rate fees for these services per lot, creating a situation in those who live on small lots provide substantial subsidies to those living on larger lots.

Blais advocates a model in which user fees are set as closely as possible to the actual costs that each household imposes on its municipality, which would significantly improve incentives compared to the current system. She doesn’t discuss subsidies that run the other way, though, benefiting residents in center cities at the expense of those on the fringe. For example, residents in center cities may live near a subway station and use it frequently. Train systems are typically subsidized by the taxes of suburban residents of the same city who may rarely use the train system, and capital costs of transit systems are often paid for by federal taxpayers who receive little if any benefit from transit systems. Blais sees setting user fees close to actual costs as a tool to encourage more compact development, so she selects only examples in which city-dwellers cross-subsidize those in the suburbs rather than the other way around.

While I think Blais provides a clear and detailed account of the side effects from funding network services with fees set at average costs, my primary critique of her work centers on her use of the word “efficiency.” First, she uses the word in the sense that economists call pricing “efficient” when the price of a good is equal to the marginal cost to suppliers of providing that unit. But she also uses “efficient” to describe dense development. While denser development is more efficient in the sense that it uses less land, Blais doesn’t make clear that sprawling development can be efficient in the economic sense if people are willing to pay the full costs of this type of development. Blais seems to draw much of her support for setting user fees equal to marginal cost from a 2002 paper by economist Donald Dewees. Both Dewees and Blais come from the perspective of increasing allocative efficiency within the model of municipalities or regulated monopolies providing the same services that they do today. However, this static view doesn’t factor in that private sector firms are driven to relentlessly search for ways to reduce their production costs and improve the quality of the services that they offer over time through innovation. Not so for monopolists protected from competition, which is why many people celebrate the arrival of private services like cable killers, VoIP phone providers, and ISPs that don’t bundle their services with cable that will save them from having to deal with the protected monopolists that will never match the prices of competitive markets. While marginal cost pricing would introduce efficiencies over the current system, greater gains are possible by allowing the market to provide these services rather than attempting to set prices as the market would. While competitive provision of water supply and wastewater treatment are unlikely in the near term, existing Business Improvement Districts provide a model for voluntary public space maintenance and improvements that improve upon that provided by municipal services.

While I found a few pieces of  Blais’  analysis frustrating, I learned a lot from her book and highly endorse her approach to looking at prices, rather than regulation as the key to improving development outcomes. She succeeds in bringing attention to an under-discussed and important issue in the tangle of policies that shape urban development. Setting municipal service fees at marginal cost would be a significant step toward market-based development.

Book Review: What Killed Downtown?

Michael Tolle’s book, What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania from Main Street to the Malls, details the rise and fall of Main Street in one American small town. His case study relies on interviews with many Norristown residents who lived through the growth and decline of downtown alongside detailed analysis of downtown retail statistics. Tolle paints a picture of Norristown dating back to the time of William Penn through 1975, at which point he pronounces downtown dead. The depth of history in this case study including both economic trends and urban policy dating back to the town’s Colonial origins puts the story of the city’s street grid in a historical context that is not often available in urbanist literature.

Of particular interest, Tolle details the policy debates in Norristown surrounding traffic and parking dating back to the 18th century. This includes a description of Norristown’s location near the intersection on the Native American trails fanning out from Philadelphia, to the transition from turnpikes and toll bridges, to free, public roads. He explains the origins of the town’s original street grid, with 50-feet wide streets and 24-feet wide alleys and covers in detail the Borough Council’s more recent debates on parking meters and the move to making downtown streets one way. Even having never been to Norristown, I was engaged by Tolle’s descriptions of Norristown’s retail, restaurants, hotels, and personalities.

In the first chapters, Tolle explains that downtown Norristown grew increasingly successful with the advent of railroads and streetcars that made it easier to travel to and within Norristown. While the growth of highways in the following decades increased the ease of automobile travel passing by Norristown, frustrations with traffic and parking on Main Street mounted. The Borough Council implemented parking meters as a step toward managing parking supply. Initially their revenue was promised to go toward creating off-street parking in the downtown area, but instead the Borough Council siphoned this revenue stream into the general fund. Because parking meters had a one-hour minimum, they also hurt businesses and customers by discouraging short shopping trips. Some of Donald Shoup’s insights, such as the importance of allowing parkers to pay for only the time they need and allocating meter revenue to parking benefit districts may have reduced downtown Norristown’s troubles.

Tolle explains the town’s original 1934 traffic ordinance which came about as the competition for space for both traffic flow and parking increased:

This struggle would divide Norristown internally, and be a recurring irritant to a borough government and population that increasingly had to struggle to survive in a fundamentally changing world. While the issues of traffic and parking and their many ramifications would become lost in their own complexity, they at all times operated within a physical reality that was hard, simple, and unchangeable. Downtown Norristown between Arch and Markley streets was just under six-tenths of a mile long, a little more than 3,100 feet.

In the midst of Main Street’s rapid decline following World War II, downtown banks got together to finance a pigeon hole garage, designed to provide efficient parking for cars on a small lot. Unfortunately the technology failed, leaving downtown without new off-street parking and leaving the banks stung from financial loss on the garage effort. Tolle explains in detail how downtown Norristown never solves its parking problems. Even though downtown Norristown has fallen far from the shopping destination that it once was, downtown parking meters remain a contentious issue with the need to manage parking supply through prices bumping up against demand for free short-term parking.

He ends with an analysis of the “suspects” that killed downtown, including local and county government, the downtown merchants, and shopping malls. He assigns a share of the blame to each subject, but ultimately concludes that the largest share of blame lies with the people who chose to start shopping at suburban locations rather than historic downtowns as they had the opportunity to do so:

Ultimately, we have to admit the truth. We did it. We killed the downtown. We did it by falling in love with our cars, and with everything they came to represent for us: independence, possibilities, expanded horizons, status.

He concludes that cars and urban street grids are fundamentally incompatible, leading to the slow decline of areas on historic street grids as customers hear the siren song of “free, ample parking.” Further, Tolle connects this decline to the loss of social capital that comes with a downtown where shoppers know the owners of the stores that they frequent. While he is certainly correct in part — the option of free, ample parking outside of central business districts has proved insurmountable competition for some American downtowns — I find this an unsatisfying conclusion.

American downtowns are thriving in spite of cars in cities as small as Burlington and as large as New York with street grids comparable to Norristown’s. Boston’s street network is even less hospitable to cars than a grid but supports plenty of shopping districts. However, even when these historic downtown areas have profitable retail districts, often they are filled with more mall stores rather than the type of independent retailers that Tolle favors. It seems that the trend toward chain stores is driven by factors outside of urban form and even if urban policies allowed downtown entrepreneurs the agility to compete with malls, their profitability might require having chain stores as key downtown tenants.

Tolle provides a very well done case study that explains how parking and traffic policies combined with a failure to adapt contributed to one small town’s downtown decline and its relevance for other small cities across the country. He provides a thorough history and a portrayal that will be interesting to anyone interested in the lessons learned from a thorough statistical and narrative portrayal of what happened to one American city’s historic core.

Thoughts on The Power Broker and Government Roads

I recently finished The Power Broker by Robert Caro after many months of Metro reading. I loved the book, and can’t recommend it enough. Caro provides an overview of Robert Moses’ policies here. If you don’t want to invest in reading the full 1162 pages, I would particularly recommend the chapters that explain the impacts of Robert Moses’ policies on what were cohesive neighborhoods: “Changing,” “One Mile,” and “Rumors and the Report of Rumors.”

While reading The Power Broker, I was repeatedly reminded of the massive coercion involved in road building despite the commonly held belief among many advocates of limited government that road provision is one of the least offensive government practices. Oftentimes the small government tolerance of road building seems to stem from the relatively small subsidies that roads require. Randal O’Toole has often demonstrated that automobile travel is cheaper per passenger mile than mass transit and that the bulk of these costs are born by drivers. While he advocates moving to a vehicle mile tax that would more closely tie road costs to their users and allow for the devolution of transit funding, he does not challenge that road building is a legitimate state and local government function.

However, as Stephen, Adam and others have previously pointed out, these accounting costs of road building don’t take into consideration the opportunity cost of the land dedicated to roads, which in areas with high real estate prices is considerable. Moses notoriously bulldozed valuable developments for highways and while he made operating profits on tolls, he put land to lower value use in the process.

For example, Moses used eminent domain and government funds to transform what was once a privately operated elevated rail system into an elevated highway on Brooklyn’s Third Avenue, destroying property values and a neighborhood in the process. We have no way of knowing whether privately run mass transit systems would have continued to thrive in United States cities without the onslaught of government road building and transit regulations, but the fact that government roads are today more cost effective than government transit does not demonstrate that supporters of the market process should tolerate government intervention in urban form, even if it’s covered by user fees.

Caro explains how coercive government policies produced suburban development around New York that favored transportation by car:

The building of public works shapes a city perhaps more permanently than any other action of government. Large-scale public works shape a city for generations. Some public work — most notably the great bridges and highways that open new areas to development and insure that these areas will be developed on the low-density pattern fostered by highways as opposed to the high-density patterns fostered by mass transportation facilities — shape it for centuries if not, indeed, forever.

Obviously not all roads are built with Moses’ complete disregard for neighborhoods, and in a free market it’s likely that automobile transportation would still be the favored mode of transportation for many people. That said, comparing per passenger mile costs in a world where the urban form is determined by the state does not provide evidence that mass transit would necessarily be unprofitable in a free market or that government-provided roads are always less distortive than government-provided transit.

A Conversation about the Commonwealth of Belle Isle

Yesterday I learned about a proposed free city in the United States through Arnold Kling. The project, called the Commonwealth of Belle Isle would be located on an island on the Detroit River that is currently a city park. The proposal comes from Detroit real estate developer Rod Lockwood who recently wrote a novel that takes place 29 years in the future when the city-state is developed and prosperous.

When Rod wrote the book, he wasn’t aware of the support for international charter cities from economists like Paul Romer and investors like Michael Strong. He said that he got the idea for the city when he was running a marathon that crossed into Belle Isle. “Necessity is the mother of invention. The current state of Detroit led me to think about possible solutions, and I realized that Belle Isle could be the next Singapore or Hong Kong.”

As Arnold Kling points out, Rod’s background in real estate development gives him advantages over some other charter city boosters without this background. “I do understand the costs involved in greenfield development such as utilities and I have site planning experience,” Rod said.

To move to the city, residents would have to pay $300,000 under the proposal to cover initial infrastructure costs. Rod sees the 982-acre island as home to 35,000 people. The city would be a walking city, with cars stored off of the island, and the initial infrastructure would include a monorail system. Rod said that being a car-free city outside of emergency vehicles and service vehicles is an important quality of life issue. “When I started researching city-states, I looked into Monaco, which does have cars and roads,” he explained. “It would be nice to have more green space than Monaco, and being a walking city will allow for that.”

Rod identifies himself as a libertarian, but doesn’t hold the view that a banning cars limits liberty. “It’s not a matter of liberty, it’s practicality. In a dense community, the automobile is not practical. Plus we’re not forcing anyone to live here, so if they want a car they can live elsewhere.” Aesthetics are an important selling point for the proposal, and Rod says that a visionary master planner is a key piece of the development. “It will be a high-density situation, and many details need to be worked out. A free market with no zoning wouldn’t work turn out well when you’re talking about developing an island.”

Aside from the car-free lifestyle which would put the Commonwealth in a very small handful of American cities, the primary policy difference lies in taxation and government services. Rod proposes that residents would pay a federal head tax of about $2,000 per year to cover their per capita share of  national defense. Residents would not pay any other federal taxes or receive any other federal services. For municipal services, the only tax would be a Georgist land tax, and government expenditures would be capped at 10% of GDP. “We’re not taxing income or capital gains because we want to encourage people to work and invest in tools, equipment, and technology. Likewise, we’re not taxing improvements on land because we want to encourage development.”

While the project would have many hurdles to cross at every level of government, Rod points out that the commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands provide precedent for jurisdictions that have different tax structures from residents living in the states. He says that the reason Detroit, Michigan and the United States should want to see this project go forward is because the new city would have a  “tremendous positive effect on Detroit. This is precedent setting. The U.S. government would consent because Detroit is a problem city. I wish it weren’t but it is, and this would be a game changer.”



Frank Lloyd Wright’s Centrally Planned City

On my last post about Ayn Rand’s views on cities, I received feedback in the comments that obviously she loved cities and on Twitter that obviously she did not. I think I come down on the side that she likely saw cities, and particularly skyscrapers, as embodiment of human achievement. However Frank Lloyd Wright — the likely inspiration for her character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead — strongly opposed population density both for his architectural preference and from a public policy angle.

Wright called his urban development vision Broadacres because he thought that population density should be less than one person per acre. In part this may have stemmed from Wright’s practice of organic architecture. Many of the tenets of organic architecture, such as designing buildings with their users’ needs as the foremost priority, can be practiced as well in dense development as in houses like his most famous Fallingwater. However, Wright seemed to draw particular inspiration from designing buildings in greenfield locations, inspired by the natural landscape.

This is all well and good for those who want to live far from cities. However, Wright went on to argue that density of people and buildings is not merely an issue of preference, but one of democracy. He argued that city life restricted individuals’ freedom of movement, and that skyscrapers limited individualism by increasing congestion and “keeping concentration where it is,” as if working or living in a skyscraper was like being in prison rather than a voluntary activity. Like many who have argued against building density because it increases congestion, Wright downplayed the necessary traffic congestion that occurs when land use restrictions require people to live far from their workplaces.

Wright saw Broadacres as the anthithesis of Corbusian design, but both share a focus on green space and both would rely on heavy-handed planning, making them unlikely to turn out as well in practice as their originators imagined. At the time he promoted it, Broadacres received criticism from liberals who saw his design as anti-communal. While this may be a fair critique of the lifestyle that would result in Broadacres, it’s important to note that it’s also very anti-libertarian. The design relies on a central plan which Wright envisioned repeated over and over in cities across the country. He saw room for individualism in house design, but the land use plan would rely entirely on county-level planners.

In Archiectural Record (1935) he writes that Broadacres represents “a new freedom for America,” but then he goes on:

In the hands of the state, but by way of the county, is all redistribution of land — a minimum of one acre going to the childless family and more to the larger family as effected by the state. The agent of the state in all matters of land allotment or improvement, or in matters affecting the harmony of the whole, is the architect. All building is subject to his sense of the whole as organic architecture.


In the buildings for Broadacres no distinction exists between much and little, more and less. Quality is in all, for all, alike. The though entering into the first or last estate is of the best. What differs is only individuality and extent.

He sounds not unlike a Randian villain. While Wright professed support of limited government, he advocated authoritarianism in land use. Individual liberty requires the freedom for consumers to choose to live in a setting like Broadacres or in a skyscraper like one of Howard Roark’s, but Wright’s plan would not offer this choice.

(Both video links via The Atlantic Cities.)