Some Inspiration from Guatemala

Turn the lights down, and the volume up. It’s time for some Market Urbanist media, courtesy of some future urbanist leaders who’s ideas may one day liberate our cities from yesterday’s unenlightened technocrats.

Architecture students at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala participated in Professor Gonzalo Melian’s (more on him and his work in future posts) Dynamic Urban Planning Workshop. Obviously very proud of his students, Prof. Melian offered to share his students’ inspiring videos with the readers of Market Urbanism, which you can watch below. Prof. Melian described the course as followed:

The Dynamic urban Planning workshop started this year. It has two parts. One part is theory and the other one is practice. The theory part has 15 sessions (90 min) and it is divided into two parts: Static Urban Planning and Dynamic Urban Planning.

Static Urban Planning is divided into different lectures about: the ontology of cities, what is a static urban planning, the modernist ideas as the beginning, some critics, such as Jane Jacobs, the history of the static urban planning system from 1950 to today and the static urban planning system in theory and practice.

The second part of the course, Dynamic Urban Planning, is divided into different lectures like: the importance of private property rights: the problem of the commons and the problems of the anti-commons; public goods and externalities in cities; the theory of economic goods of cities; the price formation in cities: the importance of free market prices; the theory of monopoly onto cities; entrepreneurship, knowledge and spontaneous order in cities; theory of the impossibility of economic calculation in cities; the capital theory of cities; the economic cycle applies on cities; the expansion of credit without saving as a distortion of cities; charter cities; and looking for free cities.

The practice part is divided into three parts: analysis, dynamic urban planning and dynamic urban design.

And the result is what you are about to watch [and is posted] on the dynamic urban planning blog.


GUATEMALA FREE CITY from Diego Saenz on Vimeo.

Video: Sandy Ikeda on The Unintended Consequences of “Smart Growth”

I came across this video interview of economist Sandy Ikeda by the Mackinac Center. Sandy currently blogs at thinkmarkets and has contributed guest posts to Market Urbanism. I thought Sandy did a great job discussing many of the topics we cover in this site. Sandy is particularly insightful when it comes to the “dynamics of intervention” as it relates to how the planning philosophy in the early days of the automobile created living patterns now disdained by modern planners. Today, Smart Growth planners want to use top-down coercive methods to correct the wrongs of past planners top-down follies, but will they get it right this time? Check it out:

The Unintended Consequences of “Smart Growth” from Mackinac Center on Vimeo.

Update: Here’s what Sandy has to say at thinkmarkets…

Zoning as a tool of class exclusion

by Stephen Smith

Discovering Urbanism has a nice post up about early 20th century urban planner Charles Mulford Robinson and his planning textbook, and it includes the following corrective to the notion that zoning originated as a way to separate polluting industry from places of residence and commerce:

There’s a common narrative about how zoning unfolded in America. First, planners needed to find ways to separate dangerous and unhealthy factories from the places where people lived. Once the legal basis for this tool was secured, it was eventually employed to separate businesses from residents. The final stage of zoning was to segregating different kinds of people from each other. That’s how we reached where we are today.

However, the Robinson textbook indicates that this progression was, if anything, reversed. In reality, residences at the time couldn’t be separated much from industry, because many of the working classes had to be within walking distance from their jobs. On the other hand, some of the very earliest uses of zoning were explicitly intended to separate “exclusive” neighborhoods from the lower classes, whether by requiring minimum densities or barring anything but detached single-family housing.

Originally posted on my blog.

Urban[ism] Legend: Traffic Planning

Mathieu Helie at Emergent Urbanism posted a link to a interesting game created at the University of Minnesota. Mathieu explains it better than I can:

The game begins in the Stalinian Central Bureau of Traffic Control, where a wrinkly old man pulls you out of your job at the mail room to come save the traffic control system. You are brought to a space command-like control room and put to work setting traffic lights to stop and go. Meanwhile frustrated drivers stuck in the gridlock you create blare their car horns to get your attention, and if their “frustration level” rises too high you fail out of the level. As the road network gets as complicated as four intersections on a square grid, the traffic becomes completely overwhelming and failure is inevitable, but the old man reassures you that they too have failed anyway.

OK, you’ve played the game? If not, don’t go further until you have.

Now that you’ve played the game and failed to control traffic, compare that top-down system with this amazing video a friend sent to me from Cambodia. You’ve gotta see this:

Man, I love this video! I must have watched it a couple dozen times. I keep expecting a crash, in what to me (only being familiar with top-down planned traffic systems) looks like complete chaos. Yet pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, scooters, rickshaws, and cars all make it to their destinations safely, and probably quicker than in the system in the game above. It must be similar to how capitalism must seem chaotic to people who have always lived in planned economies.

Don’t mistake me as an advocate of a world without traffic signals. I am quite certain that some sort of traffic signaling would likely emerge from a free-market street system. But, my bigger point is that when information is dispersed widely among decision-makers without government monopoly, sustainable solutions emerge from the uncoerced behavior of individual agents over time.

Another article at Infrastructurist discusses the philosophical differences Dutch and American road designs, and gives an example:

A fascinating example is a major–20,000 cars a day!–intersection in the Dutch city of Drachten that used to look a lot a typical American intersection, with lots of bright paint and traffic signals and enormous signs telling you what and what not to do. Traffic planners tore that stuff out and went naked, just putting down a roundabout in the center. The sidewalks even disappeared as distinct structures. Everyone figured it out though. Fatalities at the intersection dropped markedly, as did travel times.

Also read Tom Vanderbilt: News for Traffic Signal Manufacturers

Yglesias Has My Head Spinning…

In his last two urbanism-related posts, Matthew Yglesias makes great points only to dissolve them in a vat of unrelated statements posed as conclusions.  His logical inconsistency seems to invalidate his otherwise pretty good blogging on urbanism.

A couple days ago, Matthew blogged about regulation of neighborhood retail, quoting a DC blog:

“In DC, zoning laws make that idea [mixed-use retail] prohibitive, and what the zoning laws don’t cover ANC and neighborhood groups do in their zealousness to protect residents from interspersing residences with commercial activity.”


I really and truly wish libertarians would spend more time working on this kind of issue. And I also wish that ordinary people would think harder about these kind of regulations.

Yes!  More, please?   But then, the next sentence leaves me saying, “huh?”:

I’m a big government liberal. I believe business regulations are often needed. But still, there ought to be a presumption that people can do what they want.

So, I really don’t understand what this post has to do with libertarians anymore – why even mention them. It seems logically inconsistent to presume people can do what they want, while presuming a big government can regulate their economic choices.

Now, on to today’s post:

Randall O’Toole is a relentless advocate for highways and automobile dependency in the United States. Consequently, I don’t agree with him about very much.  But the thing I consistently find most bizarre about him, is that the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have both agreed to agree with O’Toole that his support for highways and automobile dependency is a species of libertarianism.


Central planning, of course, is the reverse of libertarianism. So if promoting alternative transportation is central planning, then building highways everywhere must be freedom! But of course in the real world building highways is also central planning. The Long Island Expressway is not a free market phenomenon.

Alright!  This fits in with our recent discussions at Market Urbanism! (and here)  But, of course he concludes:

It’s just a field that, intrinsically, requires a lot of planning. The question is about what kinds of plans to make.

So, libertarians should agree with you, but they’re wrong anyway?

Either Yglesias has some hidden respect for free-markets and has to add caveats to maintain his progressive street-cred, or he has some kind of chip on his shoulder and has to call out the hypocrites in circles he doesn’t respect anyways…  (the latter, I would interpret as a rational fear of the potency of free-market philosophy – at least not the impostor brand)


Also check out c4ss:  Libertarians Against Sprawl:

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates.  It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat. It’s not clear that can be done without abolishing government completely.

Do We Need “New Urbanism” To Fix “Unwalkable Sprawl”?

At Volokh, Ilya Somin discusses a recent piece in the American Prospect (also linked from here) that favors “New Urbanism” to prevent “unwalkable” sprawl.  Somin favors “voting with your feet” as the preferred method of satisfying location preferences.  Unfortunately, voting options have been whittled down through government interventions:

To the extent that we do need to enable more people to live in densely populated urban areas, it’s far from clear that government planning is the best way to achieve that goal. We can better achieve the same objective by cutting back on planning rather than increasing it. In many large cities, the cost of housing is artificially inflated by restrictive zoning laws, which tends to price out the poor and some middle class people. In the suburbs, as Adler points out, zoning policies sometimes artificially decrease density, for example by forbidding "mixed use" neighborhoods where commercial and residential uses are in close proximity to each other.

The ultimate question is whether we should trust deeper interventions into land use to fix the complete failure of past interventions.  Long before “New Urbanism” was the progressive utopian ideal, sprawling, auto-friendly and trolley-free, single-family suburbs was their “American Dream”.  But, progressives quickly forget their history when it turns out their past visions created something they are now supposed to hate:

Like previous generations of planners, the new urbanists often ignore the diversity of human preferences. Some people do indeed like high-density "walkable" environments. Others prefer to have more space and more peace and quiet. Neither preference is inherently superior to the other. To paraphrase a popular liberal slogan, we should celebrate diversity, not seek to use urban planning to force everyone to live the same lifestyle whether they want to or not.

The post evokes the typical variety of comments ranging from standard defense of suburbs as a rational choice to the favored Market Urbanist arguments.  (Happily, market urbanist ideas seem to be gaining popularity.)  As guest Market Urbanism writer, Stephen Smith correctly pointed out to the commenters:

It’s so sad when supposed libertarians defend the current transportation/land use situation, because in my opinion it’s one of the most profoundly damaging interventions in the American economy today.

Urban[ism] Legend: The Myth of Herbert Hoover

Please don’t misread the title. Herbert Hoover is not a man I consider a “Legend” – quite the contrary.  I use the words “Urbanism Legend” in the context of the series of posts intended to dispel popular myths as they relate to urbanism.

Myths and fallacies about Herbert Hoover are abundant these days as the media discusses the Great Depression. Most of the myths incorrectly accuse Hoover of being a laissez-faire ideologue. However, Hoover is better described as a Progressive, and strongly believed in the power of government to shape society. (at the time Progressive elitists enjoyed a home within the Republican party and advocated vast social engineering programs such as alcohol prohibition) This was a significant departure from the relatively laissez-faire doctrines of previous Republican Presidents Coolidge and Harding. In fact, Hoover’s commitment to progressive programs prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s running mate, John Nance Garner, to accuse the Republican of “leading the country down the path of socialism” during the 1932 presidential campaign.

I urge everyone to learn more about Hoover’s progressive interventionist policies on your own. (I also recommend Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression)  But, let’s look at Hoover’s anti-urbanist interventions, and legacy of sprawl.

Hoover, an engineer by trade, was a strong supporter of the Efficiency Movement, a significant campaign of the Progressive Era.  He believed everything would be made better if experts identified the problems and fixed them, and that efficiency could be achieved through government-forced standardization of products. This helps explain Hoover’s zealous affection for planning, zoning, home ownership, and various objectives often shared by the (often conflicting) elitist-progressive strains seen in Robert Moses or Lewis Mumford (and later New Urbanists).   (not to be confused with the Roosevelt New Deal Democrats who preferred intervention to promote decentralization and ruralization)

Hoover’s philosophy on planning and zoning could be exemplified by his praise of the Regional Plan of New York he gave in 1922:

The enormous losses in human happiness and in money which have resulted from lack of city plans which take into account the conditions of modern life need little proof. The lack of adequate open spaces of playgrounds and parks the congestion of streets the misery of tenement life and its repercussions upon each new generation are an untold charge against our American life. Our cities do not produce their full contribution to the sinews of American life and national character. The moral and social issues can only be solved by a new conception of city building. The vision of the region around New York as a well planned location of millions of happy homes and a better working center of millions of men and women grasps the imagination. A definite plan for its accomplishment may be only an ideal. But a people without ideals degenerates one with practical ideals is already upon the road to attain them.

(Later in 1922, progressive zoning triumphed over property rights in the US Supreme Court ruling, Pennsylvania Coal v Mahon, which decided, “property may be regulated to a certain extent, [but] if regulation goes too far it constitutes a taking.”)

We can trace the rapid growth of the adoption of zoning codes to Hoover’s tenure as Commerce Secretary during the 1920’s, when Commerce changed from a minor cabinet post to the most visible cabinet position. Before Hoover’s term as Commerce Secretary began in 1920, only forty-one municipalities throughout the United States had any sort of zoning laws. However, after eight short years this number had skyrocketed to 640. Popularity and legal legitimacy of planning and zoning grew rapidly through the 20’s with help from Hoover’s influence.  By 1924, the US department of Commerce under Hoover wrote the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which, had it passed Congress, would have granted cities the power to, “regulate and restrict the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population and the location and use of buildings, structures and land of trade, industry, residence or other purposes.”  Instead, many states used the act as framework to implement comprehensive plans on their own.  (Zoning as we know it today was Constitutionally validated by Euclid v. Ambler Realty two years later.)  Then, in 1928, Hoover’s Commerce Department rewrote the Enabling Act in the form of the Standard City Planning Enabling Act to more precisely address and promote the use of master plans and comprehensive plans.  The primary principles of the SCPEA were to:

1) organization and power of a planning commission to develop a master plan
2) plan for the physical development
3) master street plan
4) approval of public improvements
5) control private subdivision of land
6) develop a regional planning commission and regional plan.

In a 1996 article published by the American Planning Association entitled, “The Real Story Behind the Standard Planning and Zoning Acts of the 1920’s” [pfd], Ruth Knack, Stuart Meck, AICP, and Israel Stollman, AICP wrote:

[Hoover] was, in many respects, a progressive who hoped to reform society by reforming the operations of government. To some extent, in fact, the Commerce Department under Hoover could be said to be the first activist federal agency-presaging the New Deal vigor of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of particular importance to land-use planners is the fact that Hoover took an active role in shaping the statutes that govern American city planning.

Hoover was instrumental in starting the “Own Your Own Home” suburban advocacy movement, which lasted through the twenties. The government and business leaders of the “Own Your Own Home” movement described the single family home as a “symbol that could build consensus” and a “hallmark of the middle-class arrival in society.” To encourage home building, Hoover created the division of Building and Housing within the Commerce Department to coordinate the activity of builders, real estate developers, social workers, and homemakers as he worked closely with banks and savings and loans industry to promote long term mortgages (a new concept at the time – sound familiar?). Hoover’s promotion of home ownership as an investment of the 20’s remains a concept embedded in the American psyche, and may have helped contribute to our current financial mess.

The 1920’s also ushered in huge spending increases under the Federal Highway Act of 1921. At the time, highways were under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. Nonetheless, Hoover hosted two conferences on traffic while he was Secretary of Commerce. These conferences yielded a Uniform Vehicle Code and a Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance, which were heavily influenced by the automotive trade associations.

While popular legend paints Herbert Hoover as a laissez-faire ideologue, the evidence says otherwise, particularly when it comes to urban issues.  Many of the problems of sprawl and auto-dependency derided by today’s progressives can be traced to policies of yesterdays’ progressive elitists, including Hoover.  Maybe modern-day urbanists should look at Hoover’s legacy of land use policy and suburban advocacy, and reconsider their support of Hoover-like intervention and “stimulus” today that will burden future generations as Hoover’s legacy burdens living generations.


For further reading, here’s a recent article from Citiwire (as permitted) I googled-upon when searching for more information on the “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” of 1926:

Hoover’s Other Error: Making Sprawl the Law

By Rick Cole

For Release January 18, 2009

 Take any great place that people love to visit. You know, those lively tourist haunts from Nantucket to San Francisco. Or those red hot neighborhoods from Seattle’s Capital Hill to Miami Beach’s Art Deco district. Or those healthy downtowns from Portland, Oregon to Chicago, Illinois to Charleston, South Carolina. What do they all have in common?

The mix of uses that gives them life are presently outlawed by zoning in virtually every city and town in all 50 states.

Crisis offers opportunity. With real estate in a freefall, there is an opportunity to lay the foundation for a more prosperous and sustainable American landscape.

If only there is the vision and political will.

Scrapping zoning codes is the single most significant change that can be made in every town and city in America. It would aid economic development, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, foster healthier lifestyles, reduce dependence on foreign oil, protect open space and wildlife habitats, and reduce wasteful government spending.

Zoning is a legacy of Herbert Hoover. As Commerce Secretary, he championed the “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” to address “the moral and social issues that can only be solved by a new conception of city building.” In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld zoning to protect health and safety by “excluding from residential areas the confusion and danger of fire, contagion and disorder which in greater or less degree attach to the location of store, shops and factories.” The quite sensible idea that people shouldn’t live next to steel mills was used to justify a system of “zones” to isolate uses that had lived in harmony for centuries.

Under zoning, new neighborhoods were segregated by income, and commerce was torn asunder from both customers and workers. Timeless ways of creating great places were ruthlessly outlawed. The sprawl spawned by zoning spread from sea to shining sea.

Almost everyone admits the environmental and social devastation caused by sprawl. Yet it remains the law. What’s been lacking is the tool for producing great places instead of bleak, auto-dependent landscapes. If “zoning” is the DNA of sprawl the coding that endlessly replicates the bleak landscape of autotopia, then what is the DNA of livable communities?

It is found in timeless ways of building, updated for the 21st Century, including the need to accommodate cars. It regulates incompatible uses without the absurdities of conventional zoning. It is calibrated for new buildings to contribute to their context and to the larger goal of making a great place. It does so primarily by regulating the form of buildings, since that is what determines the long-neglected public realm of streets and sidewalks. It does that by regulating setbacks, heights and the physical character of buildings. For example, a form-based code could protect the existing scale of a neighborhood from the “teardowns” of traditional homes for replacement by McMansions–or facilitate the evolution of an auto-oriented commercial strip to a mix of uses, including residential and/or office over retail.

Called “form-based codes” or “smart codes,” this alternative framework for shaping great places exists, and it’s quietly spreading.

Where it’s been tried, it’s been a success. Seaside, Florida, the poster town for “new urbanism,” was “coded” rather than zoned, and ended up on the cover of Time magazine. In 2003, Petaluma, California scrapped its zoning regulations and adopted a new code for 400 underdeveloped acres in their Downtown, producing more than a quarter billion dollars in new investment. Now cities as diverse as Miami, Buffalo, Tulsa and La Jolla are pursuing “form-based codes.”

Unlike zoning, “form-based coding” is not a “one-size fits all” solution. The rules for form in a dense urban center are distinctly different from those for a predominantly residential suburban neighborhood. In each case, the form and character of buildings are “calibrated” to achieve a cohesive and complimentary sense of place.

Still, widespread adoption waits upon the widespread recognition that the time for reform has come. The real estate meltdown provides that wake-up call. The model is broken. Financing generic products (class A office; suburban housing tract; grocery-anchored strip center; business park, etc.) through globally marketable securities has become radioactive. By the time supply and demand right themselves, the financial and economic unsustainability of sprawl will be laid bare.

Of course, one can never underestimate what historian Barbara Tuchman called “the march of folly.” Perhaps in the interest of “stimulus” to the moribund economy, we will be willing to spend trillions more to subsidize sprawl. But in the end, as economist Herbert Stein pointed out, “That which cannot go on forever, won’t.”

Before that day comes, we can save untold environmental, economic and social damage by the widespread adoption of coding that respects human scale, restores the proximity of complimentary uses, and repairs the damage done to the American landscape and our rich (but abandoned) tradition of creating fine neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Scrap zoning. Adopt coding. Legalize the art of making great places that people cherish, that produce economic value, and that leave a lighter environmental footprint on the land.
Rick Cole’s e-mail address is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

The Nation’s mass transit hypocrisy

by Stephen Smith

I was heartened to see an article about the need for mass transit in the pages of The Nation, though I was severely disappointed by the magazine’s own hypocrisy and historical blindness. The article is in all ways a standard left-liberal screed against the car and for mass transit, which is a topic close to my heart, though I’d prefer a more libertarian approach to returning America to its mass transit roots as opposed to the publicly-funded version that The Nation advocates.

The first bit of historical blindness comes at the end of the second paragraph, when The Nation argues for government investment in mass transit on the grounds that it will “strengthen labor, providing a larger base of unionized construction and maintenance jobs.” But don’t they realize that the demands of organized labor were one of the straws that broke the privately-owned mass transit camel’s back during the first half of the twentieth century? Joseph Ragen wrote an excellent essay about how unions in San Francisco demanded that mass transit companies employ two workers per streetcar instead of one, codifying their wishes through a series of legislative acts and even a referendum. Saddled with these additional costs, the streetcar companies could not make a profit, and eventually the lines were paved over to make way for the automobile. Mass transit companies, whether publicly- or privately-owned, cannot shoulder the burden of paying above-market wages and still hope to pose any serious threat to the automobile’s dominance.

The second, and perhaps more egregious error, comes a little later, when The Nation lays the blame on every group but itself for the deteriorating state of mass transit in America:

Nonetheless, smart growth and transportation activists still have high hopes that the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress will revitalize mass transit. But institutional stumbling blocks–including generations of federal policy favoring roads and cars; pressure from fiscal conservatives; and the power of auto, oil and highway construction lobbies–may cause them to miss this opportunity.

Smart growth, though not a libertarian movement, has a distinctly libertarian issue at its core: reversing the mandatory low density zoning and parking regulations that afflict almost every city, town, and village in America. But who started the movement for zoning and low-density planning in the first place?  Progressives, a group which The Nation fancies itself a member of.

And in fact, a search of The Nation’s archives reveals that my suspicions were correct: the magazine was, sure enough, among those who were calling for a de-densification of America, and railing against the inefficiencies of mass transit. From the April 24 issue published in 1920, there’s an article entitled “The Lack of Houses: Remedies” in which the author, Arthur Gleason, lays out his policy prescriptions for dealing with what he considered to be a dearth of housing in America. Regarding zoning (which at the time almost always meant separating homes from jobs and decreasing density – anathema to the New Urbanist call for mixed uses and density), Gleason was wholeheartedly in favor of it:

Zoning regulates and limits the height and bulk of buildings, and regulates and determines the area of courts, yards, and other open spaces. It divides the city into districts. It regulates and restricts the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings. It conserves property values, directs building development, is a security against nuissance, a guarantee of stability, and an attraction to capital.

Not only did The Nation circa 1920 abhor density, but it also treated mass transit with disdain, writing that “[s]ubways make a slum out of a suburb.” This is typical of progressives of the era, who saw mass transit as capitalistic and backwards. There was also a tinge of racism to the attitude, as the “slum” was populated largely by Polish, Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants, while the “suburb” contained more acceptable non-immigrant Americans.

The Nation pays lip-service to America’s mass transit-laden past, writing that “it predates the automobile,” but then conveniently forgets the reasons that mass transit in America ceased to exist. And that’s convenient, because the reasons – almost all driven by government intervention against streetcars, subways, and density – were once causes that The Nation championed.

This post was written by Stephen Smith, who writes for his own blog called Rationalitate.