Market Urbanism http://www.marketurbanism.com Liberalizing cities | From the bottom up Tue, 20 Feb 2018 21:38:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.4 https://i2.wp.com/www.marketurbanism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/cropped-Market-Urbanism-icon.png?fit=32%2C32 Market Urbanism http://www.marketurbanism.com 32 32 3505127 new report on SROs http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/20/new-report-sros/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/20/new-report-sros/#respond Tue, 20 Feb 2018 21:35:20 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9648 Once upon a time, New York City’s poor single people were usually not homeless because they lived in little apartments with shared bathrooms and kitchens.  These units are called “single room occupancy” (SRO) units in plannerese. (When I was young, people used less flattering terms such as “fleabag” and “flophouse” to describe the nastier SRO […]

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Once upon a time, New York City’s poor single people were usually not homeless because they lived in little apartments with shared bathrooms and kitchens.  These units are called “single room occupancy” (SRO) units in plannerese. (When I was young, people used less flattering terms such as “fleabag” and “flophouse” to describe the nastier SRO buildings).

What happened?  Why are so many people sleeping on the streets of Midtown?  A recent paper by NYU’s Furman Center partially answers the question, by discussing the obstacles to SRO construction.  For decades, New York’s housing law has made SROs almost impossible to build, in a variety of ways:

  1.  By flatly outlawing SROs, unless they are built with government or nonprofit involvement
  2. Through anti-density regulations that limit the number of dwelling units in a building;
  3. Minimum parking requirements (though these are an issue primarily in the outer boroughs).

The paper recommends allowing market-rate SROs, limited density deregulation, counting SRO units as affordable housing for purposes of the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, exempting SROs from minimum parking requirements, and government subsidies for SROs.

 

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The absence of gentrification causes displacement http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/19/absence-gentrification-causes-displacement/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/19/absence-gentrification-causes-displacement/#respond Tue, 20 Feb 2018 02:44:50 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9640 Some progressives believe that gentrification causes displacement of poor people, that new market-rate housing causes such gentrification, and thus that new housing must be kept out of low-income neighborhoods. The first of these claims is based on the assumption that absent gentrification, low-income neighborhoods would be stable places.   But this is not the case.  Often, […]

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Some progressives believe that gentrification causes displacement of poor people, that new market-rate housing causes such gentrification, and thus that new housing must be kept out of low-income neighborhoods.

The first of these claims is based on the assumption that absent gentrification, low-income neighborhoods would be stable places.   But this is not the case.  Often, a city’s poorest neighborhoods are those losing population most rapidly.

In St. Louis, for example, the city’s low-income, crime-ridden northside wards are rapidly losing people: the city’s 3rd Ward lost 28 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 alone, and other northside neighborhoods also lost over 10 (and in a few cases, over 20) percent of their population in the 2000s.   The city’s racially integrated, somewhat poor Near South Side also lost over 10 percent of its population in the 2000s.   By contrast, the city’s gentrifying downtown and midtown actually gained population, while the white working/middle class Far South Side were somewhere in between.

Similarly, in Atlanta, the affluent northside and racially integrated downtown and midtown gained population in the 2000s, while much of the city’s all-black south side and far northwest side are losing population.  These declining neighborhoods tend to be poor: for example, zip code 30315 (Lakewood Heights on the southside) has a 38 percent poverty rate and lost 16 percent of its population in the 2000s.   Zip code 30314 (Vine City and other northwest neighborhoods) has a poverty rate of 34 percent, and lost about 18 percent of its population.

And in Chicago, the toughest neighborhoods also export people. The city’s downtown gained over 40,000 people since 2010, while the city’s traditionally impoverished Far South Side lost nearly 50,000.  In fact, nearly every major part of the city outside the Far South Side either gained population or lost no more than 2000.  Englewood, an area notorious for crime in the early 2010s, lost over 20 percent of its population.

What does this all have to do with displacement?  Poor areas like Englewood tend to have a city’s highest crime rates; it seems reasonable to conjecture that such social problems might lead to declining population, as people who can afford to leave move to other neighborhoods. In other words, poor neighborhoods displace people- at least if we definite the term “displacement” broadly enough to include leaving a neighborhood because it has became an unpleasant place to live.

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The Disillusionment of the American Planner, or How We Became Mark Brendanawicz http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/12/disillusionment-american-planner-became-mark-brendanawicz/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/12/disillusionment-american-planner-became-mark-brendanawicz/#comments Mon, 12 Feb 2018 15:00:10 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9607 Spoiler Warning: This post contains minor spoilers about Season Two of Parks and Recreation, which aired nearly 10 years ago. Why have you still not watched it? Lately I have been rewatching Parks and Recreation, motivated in part by the shocking discovery that my girlfriend never made it past the first season. The show is perhaps […]

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Mark Brendanawicz of NBC's Parks and Recreation

Spoiler Warning: This post contains minor spoilers about Season Two of Parks and Recreation, which aired nearly 10 years ago. Why have you still not watched it?

Lately I have been rewatching Parks and Recreation, motivated in part by the shocking discovery that my girlfriend never made it past the first season. The show is perhaps the most sympathetic cultural representation of local public sector work ever produced in the United States. The show manages to balance an awareness of popular discontent with “government” in the abstract— explored through a myriad of ridiculous situationswith the more mild reality that most local government employees are well-meaning, normal, mostly harmless people who care about their communities. This makes the character of Mark Brendanawicz, Pawnee’s jaded planner, all the more interesting.

It’s conspicuous that even in a show so sympathetic to local government, the city planner remains a cynical, somewhat unlikable character. Unlike Ron Swanson, Brendanawicz at one point meant well and has no ideological issues with government; he regularly suggests that he was once a true believer in his work, if only for “two months.” Yet unlike Leslie Knope, he didn’t choose government. In his efforts to win back Anne, Andy chides Brendanawicz as a “failed architect,” an insult which seems to stick. Brendanawicz ultimately leaves the show as an unredeemed loser: after taming his apparent self-absorption and promiscuity, he prepares to propose to Anne, only to have her preemptively break up with him. When the government shutdown occurs at the end of Season Two, Brendanawicz takes a buyout offer, and resolves to go into private-sector construction. Leslie, who had once adored him, dubs him “Brendanaquits,” and we never hear from Pawnee’s city planner again.

It isn’t hard to see why Brendanawicz was unceremoniously scrapped: he was ultimately a call-back to the harsher world of the first season, a world in which Leslie has deep character flaws that chart her on a course for regular disappointment (see also: early Michael Scott). In the brighter, friendlier world that began with Season Two, Brendanawicz had to go. But what does this say about city planning? Why is it that the only representation of city planning in popular culture over the past 25 years was such a sad, cynical man?

There are really two questions here: First, are planners in fact jaded? And second, why would the show’s audience be so comfortable with having planners presented this way? To dig into the first question, it’s useful to recognize upfront that most planners are smart, thoughtful, and well-meaning people. They have generally good ideas about how to improve their city and understand the deep flaws in the zoning ordinances they inherited. But there’s no point in denying that an existential cynicism hangs over the profession. Now more than ever, city planners are constrained by the whims of an angry public and politicians who want to avoid boat rocking at all costs. This cynicism-breeding disempowerment likely flows from the historically low view the general public has of city planners.

This turns us toward the second question: why is the TV viewing public comfortable with Pawnee’s city planner being so disillusioned? Note at this point that none of Pawnee’s other departments—sewage, police, libraries—are depicted in this way. As Tom Campbell points out in the Guardian, the cultural representation of planners as dotards and misanthropes is also a phenomenon across the pond as well. This is particularly odd, he adds, as it’s a far cry from the heroic image of the planner that prevailed during the pinnacle of high modernism in the 1950s and 60s. Campbell and the esteemed British historian of urban planning Peter Hall call for the return of this heroic image of planners as a way to attract the best and brightest to the field. Indeed, the current public view of city planners is perhaps unfair. Yet both Campbell and Hall fail to explore is precisely why the public image of planners collapsed so dramatically.

The trouble is that planning at its peak was a mixed bag at best. Early planning in the style of right-of-way procurement for roads, utilities, and sanitation as well as the construction of parks and public spaces was, for the most part, an unmitigated benefit to the public. Much of this work-a-day planning happened for centuries and often looked like a benign mixture of civil engineering and urban design. As planning expanded in the mid-twentieth century, it took on powers where success was hardly a guarantee and failure was a substantial risk. While early planning generally worked alongside markets and distributed decision making, high modernist planning necessarily involved privileging the plans of a special caste of technocrats. The profession at this stage situated itself in opposition to everything from markets, to apartments, to the poor and marginalized. While planning might have been sexy in this period of megaprojects and comprehensive land-use planning, as is any position with considerable power and a preference for strong egos (see also: architecture), it also inflicted incredible harm on our cities. That our profession is no longer able to attract those seduced by power, whatever their level of competence, does not strike me as obviously bad.

With public discontent already brewing, critics of urban planning such as Jane Jacobs rapidly gained support in channelling opposition to the field. This almost certainly wasn’t helped by the anti-democratic, top-down nature of much city planning activity. As conservative governments formed in the United States and the United Kingdom, political backing for centralized planning evaporated without any bottom-up support to fill the gap. In repentance and rest, city planners retreated, handing over much of their power to elected officials and angry members of the public. Most of us enter planning school and the profession with the goal of helping to build great cities. Yet today, much of planning is simply administering the land-use regulatory regime inherited from our high modernist predecessors. Most practicing planners I know will freely acknowledge that this system is deeply flawed. Is it any wonder that so many us turn into Brendanawiczs?

It’s time for a reckoning in planning. The public doesn’t like us and evidently we don’t like us either. None of this is going to change unless we have a frank discussion about the direction of the profession. Planning, and planners, have much to offer. The first step is to liberate ourselves from the arrogant and damaging excesses of planning at its “peak.” Megaprojects and root-and-branch revitalization have wreaked havoc on our cities; and attempts at comprehensive zoning and land planning and have devolved into a faustian bargain of more employment for planners in exchange for a life of fighting with members of the public, managing process, and filing paperwork. We are forcing ourselves to do work that we aren’t very good at, dictated by special interests, and against the wishes of the general public. Recall one of Brendanawicz’ final, miserable scenes on the show: Ron Swanson asks for a permit to build a shed, and Brendanawicz proceeds to pick apart his code violations.

In place of this tattered, cynicism-breeding planning we need a new liberal conception of the planner. Planning must be reframed as an intellectual adventure, a field in which the great planner accepts her epistemological limitations in the realm of land uses and densities and instead aims to understand, monitor, and report on the natural and unpredictable change underway in her city. Such a planner studies first real estate markets, environmental science, and urban design and second (if at all) familiarizes herself with binders of yesteryear’s soul-crushing regulation. This new planner, humbled but not incapacitated, should enjoy broad latitude to boldly plan out a flexible framework for infrastructure growth; she empowers, rather than resists, the organic development of cities, emphasizing the creation of beautiful and useful public spaces along the way. Above all, such a planner might emerge as a public intellectual; unafraid to take a stance, to explain her decisions on blogs and podcasts, and to educate (and learn from) the public about cities. The planning profession is about to enter Season Three. Will we adapt or be cut?

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

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Density Is How the Working Poor Outbid the Rich for Urban Land http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/05/density-working-poor-outbid-rich-urban-land/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/02/05/density-working-poor-outbid-rich-urban-land/#respond Mon, 05 Feb 2018 15:00:38 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9582 The great failing of modern urban planning is the failure to allow the market to determine the level of density across cities. Let me explain. Imagine you are trying to sell a property you own in a desirable inner suburban neighborhood in your town. The lot is 4,000 square feet and hosts an old 4,000 […]

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multifamily housing

The great failing of modern urban planning is the failure to allow the market to determine the level of density across cities. Let me explain.

Imagine you are trying to sell a property you own in a desirable inner suburban neighborhood in your town. The lot is 4,000 square feet and hosts an old 4,000 square-foot home. There is incredible demand for housing in this area; perhaps the schools are good, or the amenities are nice, or the neighborhood sits adjacent to a major jobs center, meaning that residents can walk to work. I’ll leave the reasons to you. Who do you sell it to?

You have at least two options: First, you could sell it to a wealthy individual, who would use the entire property as his home. He is willing to pay the market rate for single-family homes like this, which in this case is $300,000. Under current financing, he would likely have a monthly mortgage payment in the ballpark of $1,300. Second, you could sell it to a developer who intends to subdivide the house into four 1,000 square foot one-bedroom apartments, renting each of them at a market rate of $500 to service workers who commute to downtown. After factoring in expenses, her annual net operating income would be around $20,160. Assuming a multifamily cap rate of 6.0.%, this means that she could pay up to $336,000 for your property.

Based on this analysis, who do you sell it to? The answer is obvious: you will sell it to the multifamily developer who will subdivide and rent out the house, not necessarily because you’re a bleeding heart urbanist, but in order to maximize your earnings. As rents in the area rise, the pressure to sell to a buyer who would densify the property will only grow. The prospective mansion buyer simply cannot compete with the service workers under these very typical market conditions. How cool is that?

This may sound like an oversimplification. As with all economic examples, it is. But at the end of the day, these very simple market dynamics play an essential role in guiding the spatial patterns of our cities. When demand for housing grows in urban neighborhoods, low-density uses will convert into higher density uses. This might often start smallhomeowners converting underutilized floorspace in attics and basements into additional housing units to earn incomeand under high demand circumstances might escalatetearing down single-family homes and constructing apartment buildings.

When my great grandmother, a grocery store clerk and single mother, migrated to Louisville from a small town in Kentucky in the 1940s, they shared a subdivided mansion in Old Louisville with multiple other working-class families. The opposite also happens occasionally: when demand for housing falls, high density uses may be converted into low-density uses, or demolished altogether. When Louisville’s population collapsed in the 1970s and 80s, the glorified tenement my grandmother grew up in was converted back into a mansion owing to lack of demand.

Thus, density is the key to ensuring that the incredible opportunity that cities offer is available to everyone. It’s the only sustainable way that the working poor can outbid the rich for urban land, and it’s naturally facilitated by markets under normal conditions. Density is what makes a room in an old mansion affordable to a grocery store clerk struggling to provide for her children. Density is what enables the apartment developer discussed above to outbid the prospective mansion developer for land, because in a sense what she is actually doing is pulling the resources of those working poor families.

Density controls, whether the result of zoning, land-use regulations, or subdivision regulations, break this system, effectively prohibiting the working poor from outbidding the rich for urban land. These policies come in a variety of forms: minimum lot sizes, single-family zoning, parking requirements, minimum unit sizes, etc. But they all require some minimum level of housing consumption—purportedly for the residents own good, in many cases—which means that residents who cannot afford to consume this minimum threshold of urban land cannot consume housing in this neighborhood at all.

Let’s return to our above example. If your property was zoned for single-family housing, the developer who intended to subdivide wouldn’t even bother to bid and the structure would remain a single-family home, despite high market demand. The four prospective tenants would have to look elsewhere, bidding up other scarce units and suffering longer than desirable commutes.

Or imagine if the city allowed subdivisions, but restricted apartments to 1,500 square feet. In this case, the developer could only divide the house into two units. Rents normally rise with floorspace and additional bedrooms, but they rarely double in price. If the developer could only earn $800 per unit on the market, she could only justify spending $268,000 on the project, meaning she would be outbid by the prospective mansion buyer. If she could squeeze out $900 per unit, she would barely outbid the prospective mansion buyer, letting in only two tenants, and only those who could afford a 45% increase in rents. The two other tenants would be forced out of the community. Other mandatory minimum standards like parking requirements and lot sizes work the same way, prohibiting density and pricing potential residents out of the community. Needless to say, this process falls hardest on the working poor.

Banning density, whatever the pretense, whatever the means, effectively means banishing the working poor from cities. As the urban planner Alain Bertaud has put it, the market is not an end or a construct, it is a mechanism. It is an emergent system for distributing scarce resources. Sometimes it fails and state actors or civil society must intervene. Sometimes it produces undesirable outcomes that warrant rectification. But if we don’t understand it and work to build policy around it, the results will be ugly. From the mounting affordability crisis to the income and racial segregation of our cities, the failure of shifting responsibility for the distribution of densities from markets to planning boards has been a self-evident failure.

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

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Urban Mobility and Innovation with Anthony Ling at Stanford Graduate School of Business http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/01/28/urban-mobility-innovation-anthony-ling-stanford-graduate-school-business/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/01/28/urban-mobility-innovation-anthony-ling-stanford-graduate-school-business/#respond Mon, 29 Jan 2018 04:08:33 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9564 I recently gave a talk on the topic of “Urban Mobility and Innovation” at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I am currently studying. I was positively surprised by the turnout for the event as there are currently few formal groups focusing on urban issues at the GSB. The reason I did this talk […]

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I recently gave a talk on the topic of “Urban Mobility and Innovation” at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I am currently studying. I was positively surprised by the turnout for the event as there are currently few formal groups focusing on urban issues at the GSB.

The reason I did this talk is because I have heard many people wanting to work in this field after graduation, despite not having a background in it. I believe that entrepreneurs and business leaders going into transportation, logistics and real estate markets markets could benefit significantly in their businesses by learning the fundamentals of urban development and planning.

In this talk, I tried to explain how urban planning impacts new transportation technologies, as well as how new technologies are being adopted by city governments and regarded by urban planners worldwide. Some topics covered were:

– How does urban planning limit or incentivize sustainable transportation?
– Why are some cities walkable/bikeable and others not?
– Why does mass transit fail in the US?
– Solving traffic with tech: parking sensors and congestion pricing
– Microtransit and low tech transportation: ideas from developing countries
– The impact of autonomous vehicles and the Boring Company

This event took place on Thursday, Jan 25, 2018 and was co-sponsored by the GSB Real Estate Club and the GSB Tech Club.

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Is Zoning Popular? The Evidence is Weak http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/01/25/zoning-popular-evidence-weak/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/01/25/zoning-popular-evidence-weak/#comments Thu, 25 Jan 2018 17:09:02 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9555 “Zoning and prohibition are the twin monstrosities born of the travail and abnormality of the World War.” — General P.L. Mitchell, a vocal opponent of zoning in Cincinnati, 1927 In my lonely war on US zoning, I often hear a defense of zoning that goes something like this: “You may not like zoning, but it […]

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New Brunswick, NJ Zoning Map

“Zoning and prohibition are the twin monstrosities born of the travail and abnormality of the World War.” — General P.L. Mitchell, a vocal opponent of zoning in Cincinnati, 1927

In my lonely war on US zoning, I often hear a defense of zoning that goes something like this: “You may not like zoning, but it sure is popular with the American people. After all, every state has approved of zoning and virtually every city in the country has implemented zoning.”

One of two implications might be drawn from this defense of zoning: First, perhaps zoning opponents are missing some incredible redeeming benefit that obviates its many costs. Second, like it or not, we live in a democratic country and zoning is evidently the will of the people and thus deserves your respect. The first possible interpretation is vague and unsatisfying—I’ll wait for this purported benefit to be identified and remain opposed to zoning in the meantime. The second possible interpretation, however, is what I take to really be at the heart of this defense. After all, Americans love to make “love it or leave it” arguments when they’re in the temporary majority on a policy.

But is zoning actually popular? The evidence for any kind of mass support for zoning in the early days is surprisingly weak. Despite the revolutionary impact that zoning would have on how cities operate, many cities quietly adopted zoning through administrative means. Occasionally city councils would design and adopt zoning regimes on their own, but often they would simply authorize the local executive to establish and staff a zoning commission.

Houston was among the only major U.S. city to put zoning to a public vote—a surefire way to gauge popularity, if it were there—and it was rejected in all five referendums. In the most recent referendum in 1995, low-income and minority residents voted overwhelmingly against zoning. Houston  lacks zoning to this day. Meanwhile, the major proponents of early zoning programs in cities like New York and Chicago were business groups and elite philanthropists. Where votes were held, as in cities like St. Louis, support for zoning was often openly predicated on the idea that zoning would implement and preserve racial segregation. Needless to say, the poor, immigrants, and African Americans were often prevented from voicing their opposition to zoning and other racial segregation programs at the ballot box.

Yet the puzzle remains: if zoning was never popular, why did nearly every state and adopt it? Here it might help to clear up the actual origins of US zoning policy. Contrary to the popular view of zoning as a ground-up phenomenon, zoning was in fact developed, promoted, and heavily incentivized by the federal government.

Zoning as it exists today was developed by the federal Department of Commerce under future president Herbert Hoover. In 1924 and 1928, the department published the Standard Zoning Enabling Act and Standard City Planning Enabling Act, respectively, and distributed copies of each to every state legislature in the country. These acts aimed to accomplish three goals: First, to popularize the policies among legislators and provide a clear federal seal of approval. Second, to provide a model for zoning enabling legislation—legislation whereby the state allows municipalities to undertake certain police powers—and make it easy for state legislatures to quickly pass it. Finally, to secure court approval of zoning. At the time, the constitutionality of zoning was very much in doubt. Many zoning advocates both feared that poorly drafted zoning would prompt the courts to declare the policy unconstitutional nationwide and hoped that the widespread adoption of zoning would leave the courts hesitant to overturn it. Their strategy clearly worked: before 1920, just over a third of states had adopted any kind of zoning enabling legislation. By 1930, nearly three quarters of states had adopted the legislation. In 1926, a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of zoning.

Over the next 90 years, the federal government would continue to promote and in many cases require zoning, particularly during the New Deal. In 1936, the USDA published rural zoning enabling legislation, designed to push zoning into small towns and rural hamlets. Whether or not towns and cities needed or even wanted zoning, waves of grants and technical experts were forthcoming to nudge municipalities to draft zoning ordinances.

Often, these zoning ordinances were shoddily crafted by non-locals to help municipalities meet federal mandates. After all, as the federal government played a larger role in financing state and local infrastructure projects, zoning came to be expected. Likewise, as the government entered into housing finance in 1934, low-density, racially segregated residential zoning became a necessary prerequisite to secure funding for residential projects or mortgages. Today, the expectation that towns and cities have zoning continues to show up in applications for everything from infrastructure funding to emergency relief. Under such a regime, regardless of popular support, it would be downright weird if most towns and cities didn’t adopt zoning.

None of this is to say that there were never popular constituencies for zoning. A handful of states and cities had clearly adopted zoning by their own volition, as unsavory though their motives often were. But even if we were agree that the popularity of zoning in any way excuses the program—an argument which I am highly skeptical of, see postscript—the purported popularity of early zoning remains far from settled.  

On the one hand, we have strikingly little evidence from democratic public referenda for the popularity of US zoning. On the other hand, we have a century of the federal government drafting, promoting, incentivizing and mandating zoning. Where mass movements in favor of zoning are missing, we find only xenophobic business groups and progressive technocrats in favor. All of this casts serious doubt over the idea that zoning is in the result of popular movements or enjoys mass support today. Meanwhile, zoning’s incredible costs become clearer every day.


Postscript: Let’s take the defense that zoning is popular on its own terms, contrary to the historical evidence. It’s not obvious that popularity qualifies as an overriding merit in all or even most cases. Sure, we live in a republic, where policy is meant to operate with the consent of the public. But we also live in a liberal republic, where all citizens enjoy certain basic rights regardless of the whims of majorities. Until quite recently, nearly every city in the country enforced some form of school segregation. When unelected judges, after much hemming and hawing, finally cracked down on school segregation—against the wishes of majorities—they did the right thing. A policy that violates basic rights, or arbitrarily expropriates property, or abuses vulnerable populations isn’t made right for being popular in this country. Even if zoning were popular, its tendency to do all of these things should make us deeply skeptical of the policy.

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Mini review: Suburb, by Royce Hanson http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/01/17/mini-review-suburb-royce-hanson/ Wed, 17 Jan 2018 15:40:50 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9543 Suburb: Planning Politics and the Public Interest is a scholarly book about planning politics in Montgomery County, a (mostly) affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.  The book contains chapters on redevelopment of inner ring, transit-friendly areas such as Friendship Heights and Silver Spring, but also discusses outer suburbs and the county’s agricultural areas. From my perspective, […]

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Suburb: Planning Politics and the Public Interest is a scholarly book about planning politics in Montgomery County, a (mostly) affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.  The book contains chapters on redevelopment of inner ring, transit-friendly areas such as Friendship Heights and Silver Spring, but also discusses outer suburbs and the county’s agricultural areas.

From my perspective, the most interesting section of the book was the chapter on Friendship Heights and Bethesda, two inner-ring areas near subway stops.  When landowners proposed to redevelop these areas, the planning staff actually downzoned them (p. 56)- and NIMBYs fought the planning board, arguing that even more downzoning was necessary to prevent unwelcome development.

These downzoning decisions were based on the staff’s “transportation capacity analysis”- the idea that an area’s roads can only support X feet of additional development.  For example, Hanson writes that Friendship Heights “could support only 1.6 million square feet of additional development.” (p. 62).   Similarly, he writes that Bethesda’s “roads and transit could handle only 12 million square feet of new development at an acceptable level of service.” (p. 75)

Thus, planning staff artificially limited development based on “level of service “(LOS) .  “Level of service” is a concept used to grade automobile traffic; where traffic is free-flowing the LOS is A.  But the idea that development is inappropriate in low-LOS places seems a bit inconsistent with my experience. Bethesda and Friendship Heights zip codes have about 5000-10,000 people per square mile; many places with far more density seem to function adequately.   For example, Kew Gardens Hills in central Queens has 27,000 people per square mile, relies on bus service, and yet seems to be a moderately popular area.

Moreover, the use of LOS to cap density has a variety of other negative effects.  First, places with free-flowing traffic tend to be dangerous for pedestrians; for example, if an arterial is at LOS A, cars travel over 35 mph and thus create a high risk of injury or death to walkers.  Second, when people and jobs are excluded from transit-friendly places such as Bethesda, they do not disappear.  Instead, they migrate elsewhere- often to more car-dependent places, increasing regional auto traffic.  Third, policies that limit housing anywhere reduce the regional supply of housing, thus affecting regionwide housing costs.

At any rate, this book’s value for market urbanists is to show what planners really do.  Sprawl supporters often paint zoning as a reflection of the market, and planners as pro-density ideologues.  But in fact, planners often seek to split the difference between developers who seek to create housing and jobs, and nearby homeowners who want less of both.

 

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Book Review: The Public Wealth of Cities http://www.marketurbanism.com/2018/01/05/book-review-public-wealth-cities/ Fri, 05 Jan 2018 16:41:19 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=9451 The Public Wealth of Cities by Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster proposes a series of reforms to improve municipal finances. The authors lay out guidelines for creating urban wealth funds (UWFs) and argue that financial stability is key to societal success.   Detter and Fölster first call for basic financial competency. According to the authors, most […]

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The Public Wealth of Cities by Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster proposes a series of reforms to improve municipal finances. The authors lay out guidelines for creating urban wealth funds (UWFs) and argue that financial stability is key to societal success.
 
Detter and Fölster first call for basic financial competency. According to the authors, most cities don’t even know what they actually own. Real estate and equipment are often owned directly by individual departments with no central record to provide a bird’s eye view of a city’s assets as a whole. When this is the case, good asset management becomes impossible because no one knows what they’re managing.
 
The authors also point out the need for cities to decide what is and is not a commercial asset. Where administrators designate an asset as commercial, maximizing ROI should supersede all other objectives. That doesn’t mean everything a city owns has to be managed to turn a profit, but where a piece of real estate or a facility is meant generate income, it ought to be managed explicitly to that end.
 
Professional financial planning is Detter and Fölster’s third major prescription. They argue that cities should hire professional asset managers to oversee their portfolios and that these managers should be shielded from the democratic process. They go on to make a very public choice argument that elected officials have inappropriately short time horizons and that pressure to please constituents can lead to decisions at odds with the long term sustainability of municipal finances. After developing that line of reasoning, they provide Singapore as an example of a municipality that does this pretty well.
 
In terms of the ideas presented, I loved the book. It touches on the organizational challenges of getting municipal finance right while speaking to what execution has to look like as well. It also moves us beyond a discussion limited to taxation and into a conversation about how municipal authorities can claw back some of the value they create, the same as we’d expect any firm in the private sector to do; and in so doing, it offers sustainable ways to fund those functions that won’t make money, but that we’d like to see supported all the same. 
 
On the flip side, the first couple chapters are a little repetitive. If I had to guess, I’d say the publisher was pushing for a minimum page count and the authors added some fluff. And, do remember, this is a book on municipal finance. If you don’t already geek out about topics like the institutional structure of the Hong Kong Metro Transit Railway Corporation…you might find it a little dry. Beyond that, though, it’s an informative read and well worth your time if you care about the nuts an bolts of municipal finance (and wouldn’t mind seeing the loose screws affixed a little more tightly). 

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