Market Urbanism http://marketurbanism.com Liberalizing cities | From the bottom up Wed, 15 Aug 2018 14:00:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 https://i2.wp.com/marketurbanism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/cropped-Market-Urbanism-icon.png?fit=32%2C32 Market Urbanism http://marketurbanism.com 32 32 3505127 Turn New York’s Speed Cameras Back On http://marketurbanism.com/2018/08/15/turn-new-yorks-speed-cameras-back-on/ http://marketurbanism.com/2018/08/15/turn-new-yorks-speed-cameras-back-on/#respond Wed, 15 Aug 2018 14:00:46 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10231 On June 24 in Brooklyn, a driver in an SUV struck and killed four-year-old Luz Gonzalez, with many onlookers claiming the incident was a hit-and-run. The New York Police Department disagrees, and has refused to prosecute the driver, sparking multiple street protests. Beyond seeking justice for Gonzalez, activists demand that the city expand the use […]

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On June 24 in Brooklyn, a driver in an SUV struck and killed four-year-old Luz Gonzalez, with many onlookers claiming the incident was a hit-and-run. The New York Police Department disagrees, and has refused to prosecute the driver, sparking multiple street protests. Beyond seeking justice for Gonzalez, activists demand that the city expand the use of speed cameras in school zones, which they hope could prevent further tragedy. Yet precisely at the moment that the community is most sensitive to the risk that dangerous driving poses to children, the New York state legislature shut off 140 school zone speed cameras. Given their unambiguous success in improving traffic safety in school zones, legislators should act now to renew and expand the program.

While there is rare consensus among Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on the need to preserve and even expand the traffic camera program to 290 cameras, the expansion faces opposition from some members in the Senate. Opposition to the cameras has been lead by Republican State Senator Martin J. Golden—himself a notorious school zone speeder, having received over 10 tickets since 2015 alone—and Democrat State Senator Simcha Felder, who ineffectively used the cameras as a bargaining chip to install police officers in schools.

Since their implementation in 2014 as part of the broader Vision Zero initiative, school zone speed cameras have already substantially improved pedestrian safety in New York’s school zones. According to one study by the New York City Department of Transportation, the number of people killed or seriously injured in crashes in schools zones has fallen by 21 percent to 142 since the cameras came online. This is due in part to the fact that speeding drivers are getting the message: in the first 14 months following implementation of cameras, speeding violations in school zones fell by 66 percent to 35, and have remained far below historical norms since. Among those who get do get tickets, 81 percent slow down after their first and don’t get any more.

Controlling speed is central to improving safety in these zones. An increase from 20 mph to 30 mph increases the risk of pedestrian fatality from five percent to as much as 45 percent. Increase that speed to 40 mph and the death of the stricken pedestrian is a near certainty. In this sense, the existing speed camera policy in New York City may even be too lenient, contrary to the concerns of critics. The current speed limit in all school zones in the city is set to 25 mph, and tickets aren’t administered until a driver is going 11 mph over this limit, a speed at which a stricken child would likely die.

Speed cameras draw on much of what we have learned from the economics of crime. The field began when future Nobel Laureate Gary Becker faced a natural dilemma: Should he park in an illegal spot that’s convenient or a legal spot that’s inconvenient? In that moment, Becker asked himself two further questions: how likely is it that he would be caught, and if caught, how severe would the fine be? In this moment of human laziness, Becker had an epiphany: criminals are rational actors just like anyone else, and they commit crimes when they believe that the benefits outweigh the costs.

This helps to explain why so many people speed. According to a recent study of drivers in Spain, most drivers think there is next to no risk of punishment. While many cities and states respond to speeding epidemics by cranking up the fines, the more effective solution may simply be to ensure that every single speeder will be caught. For this, speed cameras come in handy. This isn’t to say that increasing fines—and heavily publicizing their increase—won’t help to reduce speeding. But this is a much more complicated analysis: if drivers thinks that the risks of getting ticketed or slim to none, fines must hit astronomical highs before they will change their behavior. Worse yet, in the rare event that they are fined, they will receive an onerous bill that can be especially painful for low-income offenders. Speed cameras cut out all this guesswork by consistently and fairly administering a modest fine. This may help to explain the near universal finding that speed cameras reduce speeds and save lives.

Luz Gonzalez isn’t the only child to have been stricken and killed by a speeding driver this year. In the borough of Brooklyn alone, at least nine children have been killed since January. According to one report by the New York City Department of Health, car crashes are now the number one source of deaths resulting from injury for children under 13. Now simply isn’t the time to scale back traffic camera technology that has been proven to inexpensively, fairly, and efficiently save lives. Albany may be inclined to play games with every issue it handles—but legislators have an obligation to get the cameras back on for the millions of children across the Empire State walking home from school.

For future content and discussion, follow me on Twitter at @mnolangray.

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An interesting complementarity in a city: rich & poor http://marketurbanism.com/2018/07/31/an-interesting-complementarity-in-a-city-rich-poor/ http://marketurbanism.com/2018/07/31/an-interesting-complementarity-in-a-city-rich-poor/#respond Tue, 31 Jul 2018 15:55:11 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10213 Here’s something I hadn’t thought of in quite this way (but many others probably have): In a living city, space is cheap enough so that people with wacky (often “terrible”) new ideas can test them out, while wealthier people in that city search for wacky new things to try out (because they’ve experienced a lot […]

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Here’s something I hadn’t thought of in quite this way (but many others probably have): In a living city, space is cheap enough so that people with wacky (often “terrible”) new ideas can test them out, while wealthier people in that city search for wacky new things to try out (because they’ve experienced a lot of other things). In “creative” markets, such as for art, the demand side complements the supply side across income groups in an interesting way.

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How Should We Interpret Jane Jacobs? http://marketurbanism.com/2018/07/30/how-should-we-interpret-jane-jacobs/ http://marketurbanism.com/2018/07/30/how-should-we-interpret-jane-jacobs/#respond Mon, 30 Jul 2018 14:00:30 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10198 At first blush, the enterprise of interpreting the Jane Jacobs’ work might seem like one best left to the proud and peculiar few, or to put it less charitably, those of us with nothing better to do. Yet the forces of history militate against this apathy: Jane Jacobs has emerged as quite possibly the most […]

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Jane Jacobs

At first blush, the enterprise of interpreting the Jane Jacobs’ work might seem like one best left to the proud and peculiar few, or to put it less charitably, those of us with nothing better to do. Yet the forces of history militate against this apathy: Jane Jacobs has emerged as quite possibly the most important figure in North American urban planning in the second half of the twentieth century. Her work is now taught in every urban theory and urban planning program worth its weight in ESRI access codes. She is responsible for introducing hundreds of thousands of people to planning and urbanism (including this author) and continues to shape how many of us think about cities.

In one of my more popular blog posts here on Market Urbanism—and in a forthcoming book chapter—I argue that we should interpret Jane Jacobs as a spontaneous order theorist in the tradition of Adam Smith, Michael Polanyi, and F.A. Hayek. Built into her work is a profound appreciation of the importance of local knowledge, decentralized planning, and the spontaneous orders that structure urban life. Needless to say, this is not the prevailing interpretation of the importance and meaning of Jacobs’ work. Two very different alternative interpretations prevail. In this post, I argue that both interpretations are mistaken.

Jane Jacobs, Form-Based Coder

Many have taken Jacobs’ particular critiques of conventional U.S. zoning, often referred to as “Euclidean zoning,” as motivating a new form of zoning that takes into account her observations on design. In contrast to the mandates of Euclidean zoning, which proscribes land-use segregation and low densities, Jacobs celebrated mixtures of land uses and urban densities. Jacobs spends large sections of Death and Life discussing in detail particular urban designs that she sees as essential to fostering urban life. Much of “Part One” focuses on the design of parks, streets, and blocks, and the remainder of the book contains various thoughts on which design elements give rise to great streets and neighborhoods.

One response to this work has been the development of form-based codes or “transect zoning.” Unlike traditional Euclidean zoning codes which focus on land uses and densities, form-based codes treat scale and engagement with the street as the subjects of strict regulation. The “transect” concept refers to the theory that urban densities should gradually fall as the distance from the urban core increases. Elements of form-based codes have been implemented in major American cities such as Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Miami, though they virtually always retain some conventional regulations on land uses and densities. There is evidence that Jacobs might have been sympathetic to some elements of form-based regulation. Indeed, she takes a deep interest in how new development affects streets and neighborhoods from the pedestrian’s point of view. Wickersham (2001) rightly notes that Jacobs at various points suggests that an improved zoning code should foster a diversity of uses and aim to preserve old buildings.

Interpreting Jacobs as advocating for a new system of comprehensive form-based regulation, however, conflicts with both the theoretical approach underlying both her early work and her later writing on urban planning. Jacobs profiles lively, mixed-use, urban streets not as an end to be engineered and designed, but as a naturally emerging phenomenon that conventional zoning prevents. Note that some of this thinking even slips into the thinking of transect activists: at the risk of oversimplifying the thinking of transect zoning advocates, there is a clear implication that transect zoning is correct because transects represent a natural form of urban order. Yet if it is the case that transects naturally emerge, why must urban planners mandate them? As Garnett (2013) notes, form-based codes and transect zoning only serve to replace one particular imposed vision of urban development with another, adding a new layer of complicated jargon and bureaucratic review. Jacobs’ repeated criticism of standardization and central planning suggest that this is not what she had in mind.

Further evidence that Jacobs’ essential contribution is theoretical and broadly applicable rather than aesthetic and limited to cities can be drawn from her later work. While her later work turned to economics and the creation of “new work,” Jacobs clearly doubles down on the theoretical foundations she laid out in Death and Life. In the initial Earth Week Teach-In at the Milwaukee Technical College in 1970, shortly after the publication of her second book which expressed similar themes, Jacobs continues to reiterate her case for decentralizing planning both in cities and economies. She criticizes the economic policy of her day:

The pattern I see is that people who are in closest touch with practical problems are rendered powerless to solve them. Decisions are imposed from the top. Development is not permitted to emerge from below, and thus precious little of any real value is emerging anywhere. (Vital Little Plans, pp. 204)

The ongoing importance of local knowledge, decentralized planning, and spontaneous orders to Jacobs’ work is continually reiterated. In a lecture at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam in 1984, Jacobs again bemoans the dearth of decentralized planning—describing the well-function city “[as] place with a continually high birth rate of small, diverse enterprises” (VMT p. 254) and the ongoing power of “centralized expertise” in shaping economies and cities alike.

Happily, for our purposes, Jacobs regularly drew on this framework to discuss her specific views on zoning. Between the publication of Death and Life and 1961 and her passing in 2006, Jacobs regularly advocated for performance zoning, a form of zoning that focuses exclusively on the negative externalities of new development. At the 1970 event, Jacobs even articulated the key issues that such a performance zoning code should focus, including noise, pollution, scale, signs, traffic generation, and demolitions (VMT p. 216). “Under performance zoning, far greater freedom of land use could be permitted than is now the case, with superior results for the environment.” Given that her theory of urban growth and change militates against stricter top-down land-use controls, and her advocacy of performance zoning suggests a viable alternative to the status quo, there is little reason that Jacobs’ observations about urban design should be taken as a blueprint for any kind of form-based code or transect zoning.

Jane Jacobs, NIMBY

Others have taken Jacobs’ key contribution to planning to be her emphasis on citizen participation in conventional planning and the power of community groups to stop projects. Unlike with advocates of form-based codes, there is reasonably strong evidence from Jacobs’ life that she felt that too much change occurred without citizen input. As Flint (2011) notes, Jacobs’ now famous battles with Robert Moses created a framework for later NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) efforts, including but certainly not limited to her 1952 fight to prevent a highway intersecting Washington Square Park. Beyond this battle, Jacobs helped to organize the community in resisting a number of large-scale projects from occurring in Greenwich Village using the tactics of endless public review and pressure on elected officials to kill projects.

An unsympathetic observer of Jacobs’ life and work might interpret this as the groundwork for the NIMBYism that would sweep America’s cities throughout the Quiet Revolution and block new housing construction. A sympathetic observer of Jacobs’ life and work might interpret this as a democratic model for how all urban development should unfold.

For the former reading—Jacobs as an unsympathetic NIMBY—it is helpful to interpret Jacobs’ activism in light of the circumstances of her time and her broader writing. Jacobs’ New York NIMBYism was primarily—but not exclusively—in opposition to projects designed and implemented top-down by conventional urban planners like Moses. In many cases these were public infrastructure projects, such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway, that would break up the urban fabric and displace thousands of residents. Yet even when they were public residential projects, they reflected a high modernist theory of how to revitalize a neighborhood, consuming entire blocks and dramatically remaking the neighborhood in a way that strictly private projects rarely can.

Note that in the single passage of Death and Life where makes Jacobs a clear call for some strict form of land-use regulation—she advocates for height limits—she immediately shifts back to celebrating relatively uncontrolled urban development: “The purpose of zoning for deliberate diversity should not be to freeze conditions and uses as they stand. That would be death” (D&L p. 253). While similar in means, this was quite different from the NIMBYism of today, whose ends are near total urban stagnation. Fighting a public redevelopment such as the Washington Square Village superblock is quite a different beast from fighting a new fourplex downtown. A celebration of unbridled change and entrepreneurialism permeates Jacobs’ work; interpreting her as the mother of all NIMBYs for her opposition to the high modernist projects of her time misses this point.

For the latter reading—Jacobs as modeling substantial public input on change— it is again valuable to draw a distinction between the challenges facing Jacobs in her time and the challenges facing cities today. Undertaking her work in the twilight of authoritarian high modernism in planning, it becomes clear why Jacobs thought bottom-up community organizing and public input were necessary to rein in its worst excesses. Some level of public input for projects that will completely remake the urban fabric makes sense—certainly for public projects, but even for private projects given their propensity for negative externalities is eminently reasonable.

What does not follow is that this kind of public process is necessary for every single change that takes places in cities, as NIMBYs today suggest. Aware that local knowledge matters in the aftermath of Jacobs and others, planning agencies today often coordinate public hearings and surveys to collect local knowledge. The trouble is that planners and policymakers often cannot distinguish between genuine local knowledge and what Harry Frankfurt describes as “bullshit,” or talk that serves some purpose other than knowledge sharing. As any regular observer of public meetings can attest, public comments can often mask nefarious motives such as racism and classism, and even when benign they can delay and often kill projects. The actual knowledge transfer isn’t from citizens to planners, but from irate special interests to elected officials, and the message is, “if you don’t kill this thing, we will vote you out.” Thus, while masked behind superficially Jacobsian rhetoric concerning local knowledge, the imposition of extensive public review onto every urban project has the effect of restraining truly decentralized planning and stunting the spontaneous orders that Jacobs spent her fifty-year career defending and celebrating.

Jane Jacobs, Rorschach Test?

It may very well be that Jane Jacobs is simply the ultimate urbanist Rorschach test, someone on whom we can each project our peculiar values and goals. She is just vague enough to be claimed by many different conflicting groups, a feature that I suspect is shared among great thinkers and writers. Indeed, the “Jacobs as Hardline New Urbanist” and “Jacobs as NIMBY” camps aren’t completely without basis; Jacobs seemed to have strong feelings about height limits, desired something like R6 density restrictions for Greenwich Village, and did occasionally fight private development proposals. The key question remains: how do we weigh these disparate pieces of evidence? Against these curious exceptions in her views and activism, we find a criticism of urban planning predicated on an appreciation of spontaneous orders (set out explicitly in the opening and closing chapters of Death and Life), a relentlessly critical attitude toward the very enterprise of zoning, and a lifelong appreciation of markets—one need not closely read Systems of Survival to realize she preferred the “Commerce syndrome” over the “Guardian syndrome.” Thus, we arrive at Jane Jacobs, spontaneous order theorist.

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Why Autonomous Vehicles != Endless Sprawl http://marketurbanism.com/2018/07/18/10154/ Wed, 18 Jul 2018 12:45:13 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10154 There’s been an ongoing debate in urbanist circles about whether autonomous vehicles (AVs) will damn us to perpetual sprawl and super commuting. I don’t believe that they will. In the first place, the business conditions under which AVs could conceivably induce more sprawl are unlikely. And in the second, there are numerous other factors that […]

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There’s been an ongoing debate in urbanist circles about whether autonomous vehicles (AVs) will damn us to perpetual sprawl and super commuting. I don’t believe that they will. In the first place, the business conditions under which AVs could conceivably induce more sprawl are unlikely. And in the second, there are numerous other factors that will affect the future of urban development in the US. That’s not to say we won’t double down on past mistakes, but it won’t be AVs that single handedly bring about that future on their own. 

No One Wants To Sell You a Self Driving Car

For AVs to even begin to induce more sprawl, they need to facilitate super commuting. For that to happen at any significant scale, they need to be ubiquitous and privately owned. And that is something I don’t think we’re going to see for one simple reason — it’s a product no one is selling.

Ole Muskie notwithstanding, no one with capital to burn thinks selling private AVs is a winning strategy (with good reason). Given the accumulated R&D costs of the last several years, the price a firm would need to charge for the first generation of personal AVs would be astronomical. Moreover, a company selling personal AVs would give up on mountains of valuable data generated as the vehicle racked up mileage. Trip data feeds back in to improving the ability of AVs to navigate and data about consumer habits is valuable as well.

Artist’s rendition of an AV (circa 2013)…still a bit behind schedule

We should also remember that the state of AV technology is still quite…meh. And in the absence of a step function improvement in the technology, the fastest way to get to market is to restrict the problem space. That means means a driverless TNC service that can be limited to trips in certain areas under certain conditions. Shutting down service during inclement weather is a lot easier than trying to tell car owners when/where they can use their vehicle.

Aside from what firms are and aren’t doing with AVs specifically, it’s important to note how AVs fit into the larger business strategies forming around mobility. All the major players are looking at mobility as a commodified service and are bundling access to these services in a way that’s accustoming consumers to thinking multimodally. Even Ford no longer thinks of itself as a car company, now they sell mobility.  

TLDR: The idea of selling personally owned AVs makes no sense and personal AVs are a prerequisite for AVs  to even begin creating the conditions under which we might double down on low density land use patterns. 

Cars Don’t Create Sprawl, People Do

The last 80 years of transportation policy in the U.S. has been all about making the world into a safer place…for cars. The interstate highway system, government mandated sprawl, parking subsidies, etc were all explicit policy decisions that rendered car ownership the only sensible choice for most Americans. We engineered sprawl to accommodate the car, the car didn’t organically induce sprawl on its own.

Similarly, the policies we choose today will determine whether and how our cities function in fifty years time. If we allow densification where prices warrant it, if we support effective mass transit, if we permit firms to bring alternative transit modes to market….we’ll reduce sprawl and, in some places, maybe even begin reversing it.

My expectation is that YIMBY activism will liberalize land use policy to different degrees in different cities and that we’ll get marginally denser cities as a result. I further expect this to coincide with an explosion in transportation options and a movement to redo urban infrastructure so that we can accommodate transit modes other than driving. These are the things, taken together, that are going to shape our cities going forward. Technology will color the tradeoffs we make, but no single variable will determine the future alone. 

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does gentrification cause eviction? http://marketurbanism.com/2018/06/27/does-gentrification-cause-eviction/ Wed, 27 Jun 2018 19:18:37 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10132 I found an interesting new website: EvictionLab.    This website contains eviction data by city for a large number of American communities. One might think that gentrifying cities and/or high cost cities have more evictions.  But interestingly, low-cost, poor cities tend to have more evictions.   Nine of the ten cities with the highest eviction rates […]

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I found an interesting new website: EvictionLab.    This website contains eviction data by city for a large number of American communities.

One might think that gentrifying cities and/or high cost cities have more evictions.  But interestingly, low-cost, poor cities tend to have more evictions.   Nine of the ten cities with the highest eviction rates are in low-cost southern states; the tenth is Warren, Michigan.

Even within states, low-cost cities tend to have higher eviction rates than more expensive, gentrifying cities.  For example, Fresno has the highest eviction rate of any major city in California- 2.8 (that is, 2.8 evictions for every 100 renter households) while Los Angeles and San Francisco are below 0.5.  Seattle has a lower eviction rate (0.3) than Washington’s smaller cities, Austin has a lower eviction rate than Dallas or Houston (0.98 percent as opposed to over 1.5 percent for Houston and Dallas). Miami’s 2.01 percent eviction rate, although high by national standards, is lower than that of other Florida cities such as Jacksonville (5.34) and Tampa (3).  New Orleans (1.6) has a lower eviction rate than Baton Rouge and Shreveport (both of which clock in at over 4 percent).   New York City is a partial exception- its 1.61 rate is higher than that of Syracuse and Yonkers; on the other hand no statistics are available for the state’s two biggest cheaper cities, Buffalo and Rochester.

So what does it all mean? It seems clear that there is not a strong correlation between gentrification and eviction, or for that matter between higher-than-average housing costs and eviction.  Beyond that, I’m not sure what conclusions to draw.

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How Much Should We Blame Planners for Sprawl? http://marketurbanism.com/2018/06/26/how-much-should-we-blame-planners-for-sprawl/ Tue, 26 Jun 2018 14:00:41 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10125 How much should we blame planning for the degree to which cities sprawl? As much time as we (justifiably) spend here on this blog explaining how conventional U.S. planning drives excessive sprawl, it’s worth periodically remembering that, at the end of the day, the actual extent of the horizontal expansion of cities is largely outside […]

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Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling vision

How much should we blame planning for the degree to which cities sprawl? As much time as we (justifiably) spend here on this blog explaining how conventional U.S. planning drives excessive sprawl, it’s worth periodically remembering that, at the end of the day, the actual extent of the horizontal expansion of cities is largely outside the control of urban planning.

Consider Houston. Whenever I say anything nice about Houston’s relatively liberal approach to land-use regulation, someone invariably comments some variation of the following: “Yes, that’s all well and good in theory. But in practice, heavily regulated cities like Boston are far more urban and walkable, so maybe relaxed land-use regulations aren’t so great.”

Indeed, most of Houston is classic sprawl. But this begs the question: to what extent can urban planning policy be blamed for sprawl?

The urban economist Jan Brueckner, drawing on an extensive literature, distinguishes between the “fundamental forces” that naturally drive urban growth outward and the market failures that push this growth beyond what might occur in an appropriately regulated market. (For the purposes of this post, I’ll be using “sprawl” and “horizontal urban expansion” interchangeably. In the same paper, Brueckner thoughtfully distinguishes the two.) The latter, urban planners can address. The former, not so much.

Let’s look first at the “fundamental” variables that planners have little to no control over. Brueckner identifies three: population growth, rising income, and falling commuting costs. The first variable is obvious: as cities grow, demand for all housing goes up, and some of that housing goes out on the periphery regardless of planning policy. Metropolises like Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta are currently experiencing 2% population growth every year, meaning they are on track to double in population in the next 35 years. You would expect a lot of horizontal expansion, all else being equal!

The second variable is income. Houses are what an economist might call a normal necessity good. It’s a normal good in that, as we get richer, we spend more on it. But it’s also a necessity good, meaning that as we get richer, we spend proportionally less of our income on it. This first stage is essentially what has been happening in Sun Belt cities like Charlotte, Houston, and Orlando over the past few decades, where median incomes have in many cases doubled. With all that new demand for housing, you would expect a lot of it to go out on the periphery on greenfields, regardless of planning policy.

The third variable is commuting costs. If it’s cheap to commute long distances, people will do it. Nested in this variable is the fact of technological change and progress. The cities that are booming today are taking form in an age when most people can afford to buy a one-ton metal machine and commute alone to work at roughly 60 miles per hour. It’s easy to get far out of town, where land is cheap and even a middle class resident can afford a decent sized home on a quarter acre lot. When Boston and Philadelphia were building up and out, the big new thing in transportation was the electric streetcar, and many people still had to walk. Land values within walking distance of these transit options were unsurprisingly quite high, meaning that housing had to go up, not out. We shouldn’t expect these classes of cities to come out looking the same.

On top of Brueckner’s three variables, I’ll add two more that come up a lot in these discussions. The fourth variable is agricultural productivity. Under the standard urban model, the outer edge of a metropolis is the point at which residential, commercial, and industrial developers are unable to profitably outbid agriculture for land. That means that in regions with high agricultural productivity, you would expect to see more compact cities, and in regions with low agricultural productivity, you would expect to see more sprawling cities.

This theory has been repeatedly tested and validated. And short of running a few hundred regressions, you can intuitively work it out: in a place like Las Vegas and Phoenix, land holds no agricultural value whatsoever, so once some form of development pencils out, it happens. On the flip side, in regions of outstanding agricultural productivity like Western Oregon and Central Kentucky, rents for urban uses must be quite high before developers can outbid agricultural uses. Why do you think Lexington, Kentucky and Portland, Oregon were the first and second cities, respectively, to adopt urban growth boundaries? Because they both are home to large, power agricultural interest groups (the horse industry is quite powerful in my home state of Kentucky) and land rents were so high that the pressure to expand outward was already weak relative to other cities. Of course, as rising residential rents inch further above agricultural rents in these two cities, their growth boundaries may gradually weaken.

A fifth and final variable is landscape. No matter what all the other variables are doing, if a city is bounded by the ocean—Seattle, San Francisco, Miami—or mountains—Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Asheville—you could expect it to quickly start building up, since it’s either very expensive or physically impossible to build out. Take a look at a random sampling of of metropolises regularly derided as sprawling—Oklahoma City, Raleigh, Columbus—and you will find that many sit on a flat, featureless plain with few barriers to horizontal growth. The effect of geographic features like this is so robust that it’s standard practice for researchers to control for them when studying topics like urban form and housing affordability.

So let’s bring it all together. Houston is a rapidly growing city, where incomes have approximately doubled since 1990 and nearly everyone can afford to commute alone by car. Agricultural productivity is not unusually high and the metropolis sits on a flat, featureless plain. It would be weird if Houston didn’t sprawl under these conditions. Indeed, it would almost be a miracle if planners and policymakers could have forced the city to do anything else.  

None of this is to say that planners and policymakers have no control over sprawl. As Brueckner and others have pointed out, virtually every U.S. city under-prices the negative externalities associated with long commutes—namely, congestion and air pollution—and fails to internalize the cost of new infrastructure involved in suburban development. At the same time, most cities—even Houston and many of its suburbs—make it tough to build dense new housing in existing urban areas and require new housing on the periphery to sit on large lots along wide roads. All of this is bad and it needs to be reevaluated. To be clear, I don’t mean to diminish the harmful impact these policies! But these market and policy failures are only part of the set of variables driving urban form.

Cities are vast, complex systems, beyond the comprehension or control of any single individual or group. As the urbanist Alain Bertaud puts it, different cities should often be treated as different species entirely; Atlanta and Barcelona have about as much in common as an elephant and a mouse. They’re both mammals, sure, but try to treat them the same and the results could be messy. All of this should leave us humbled—but not incapacitated!—about the power of planning and policy to reshape cities. And it should leave urbanists less confident in their harsh moral judgement of today’s sprawling cities. You’re not going to turn Houston into Boston. But that doesn’t mean that tinkering on the edges won’t help.

For future content and discussion, follow me on Twitter at @mnolangray.

 

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Morton’s Fork and land use issues http://marketurbanism.com/2018/06/25/mortons-fork-and-land-use-issues/ Mon, 25 Jun 2018 21:47:02 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10121 I recently discovered a new logical fallacy: the “Morton’s Fork” fallacy.  This argument is one in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion.  For example, if I argue that new housing near public transit is bad because it (1) spurs gentrification by bringing rich people into the neighborhood and (2) increases crime by bringing […]

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I recently discovered a new logical fallacy: the “Morton’s Fork” fallacy.  This argument is one in which contradictory observations lead to the same conclusion.  For example, if I argue that new housing near public transit is bad because it (1) spurs gentrification by bringing rich people into the neighborhood and (2) increases crime by bringing poor people into the neighborhood, I am engaging in this fallacy.  Similarly, I have heard arguments that new housing is bad because it (1) brings down property values and (2) increases property values.

In such situations, it is sometimes possible that one of the two claims could be true, but it is unlikely that both claims could be true.

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Ch. 1 What is a City?: Concluding thoughts & works cited http://marketurbanism.com/2018/05/31/ch-1-what-is-a-city-concluding-thoughts-works-cited/ Thu, 31 May 2018 20:20:38 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10081 Viewing cities as spontaneous orders and not as works of art helps to explain the tradeoff between scale and order, as well as the role of time in softening the severity of that tradeoff. Complexity and creativity are at odds with scale and the comprehensiveness of design because increasing scale impinges on the action spaces […]

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Viewing cities as spontaneous orders and not as works of art helps to explain the tradeoff between scale and order, as well as the role of time in softening the severity of that tradeoff. Complexity and creativity are at odds with scale and the comprehensiveness of design because increasing scale impinges on the action spaces where creative, informal contact tends to happen. Design might complement that informal contact to a point, but beyond a fairly low level it begins to overwhelm it.

Again, small is not always beautiful, and big is sometimes unavoidable. That makes it all the more important to understand the impact of scale and design on spontaneous social orders.

That applies as much to private as it does to public projects. When the designs are small relative to the surrounding social milieu, the downside of the tradeoff isn’t very steep. The problems start when budget constraints are soft and projects become mega-projects and mega-projects become giga-projects. I don’t want to sound too ideological – Jane Jacobs somehow avoided being ideologically pigeonholed all her life – but soft budget constraints are primarily the domain of governmental and, especially, of so-called public-private developments: Those elephantine-starchitectural-wonder-complexes that too-often strive for off-the-charts wow-factors. Without legal privileges, subsidies, and eminent domain, could the scale and degree of design of purely privately funded developments even begin to compare to those? I don’t think so.

The rules of the game of urban processes interact in complex ways. So deliberately changing some of those rules to achieve a particular outcome is akin to trying to impose a particular design on the social order, killing the social order in the process, although perhaps preserving the appearance of life. Taxidermy again. (That, by the way, is why I have problems with landmarks preservation on the scale practiced in many major cities today, including New York.)

I worry that we pay lip service to “mixed uses” and “density” and “diversity” without really understanding exactly what these mean and how they are important for economic development and liveliness. Jacobs explained how a living city fosters economic development and liveliness – for her the two go together – by promoting the diversity of land-use and of skills, knowledge, and tastes. A government can’t build an entire city (or neighborhood even) because it can only go so far in constructing that kind of diversity and the self-regulating processes that emerge from it. But in the ordinary course of its activities a government can at least refrain from doing the things that would thwart the emergence of the invisible social infrastructure that gives rise to that diversity, development, and liveliness.

And because I’m afraid they won’t refrain, I worry that when planners propose fixes for traffic, poverty, crime, discrimination, pollution, obesity, economic ennui, or whatever, they do so without seeing or caring about the things that constitute what Ken-Ichi Sasaki (1998) calls a city’s “urban tactility,” another part of the fine-structure of society that is the result of human action but not of human design.

So, I end Chapter 1 with this final thought: The more precise and comprehensive and accurate your image of city is, the less likely that the place you’re imagining really is a city. A city is not man-made thing.

 

[In this space I’ll be posting quotes, ideas, and excerpts relating to a book I’m writing (thus far untitled), which I might describe as “What I have learned from the economic and social theory of Jane Jacobs.”  My hope is to get thoughtful, informed feedback that will be useful in shaping the book.]

 

Works Cited In Chapter 1

Gehl, Jan & Birgette Svarre (2013). How to Study Public Life. London: Island Press.

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1948). “The use of knowledge in society.” In: Friedrich. A. Hayek (Ed.) (1948) Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1967). “The results of human action but not of human design.” In: Friedrich A. Hayek (Ed.) (1967) Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Ikeda, Sanford (2007). “Urbanizing economics.” Review of Austrian Economics, 20(4), 213-220.

Ikeda, Sanford (2010). “The mirage of the efficient city.” In: Stephen A. Goldsmith & Lynne Elizabeth (Eds.), What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. Oakland, CA: New Village Press.

Jacobs, Jane (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage.

Jacobs, Jane (1969). The Economy of Cities. New York: Vintage.

Kirzner, Israel M. (1973). Competition and Entrepreneurship. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Koolhaas, Rem (1994). Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for New York. New York: Monacelli Press.

Lachmann, Ludwig M. (1978). Capital and Its Structure. Kansas City: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel.

Lynch, Kevin (1960). The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Pirenne, Henri (1952). Medieval Cities: Their Origin and the Rival of Trade. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press.

Putnam, Robert (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone.

Sasaki, Ken-Ichi (1998). “For whom is city design? Tacility versus visuality.” In: Malcolm Miles, Tim Hall & Iain Borden (Eds.), The City Cultures Reader. New York: Routledge.

Wagner, Richard E. (2010). “Entangled political economy: A keynote address.” Manuscript.

Weber, Max (1958). The City. Don Martindale & Gertrud Neuwirth (Trans. & Eds.). New York: Free Press.

Whyte, William H. (1980). “Small urban spaces.” In: Albert LaFarge (Ed.) (2000) The Essential William H. Whyte. New York: Fordham Univ. Press.

Wirth, Louis (1938). “Urbanism as a way of life.” The American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 44(1):1-24.

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