This book, available from solimarbooks.com, is a set of very short essays (averaging about three to five pages) on topics related to urban planning. Like me, Stephens generally values walkable cities and favors more new housing in cities. So naturally I am predisposed to like this book.
But there are other urbanist and market books on the market. What makes this one unique? First, it focuses on Southern California, rather than taking a nationwide or worldwide perspective (though Stephens does have a few essays about other cities). Second, the book’s short-essay format means that one does not have to read a huge amount of text to understand his arguments.
Because the book is a group of short essays, it doesn’t have one long argument. However, a few of the more interesting essays address:
- The negative side effects of liquor license regulation. Stephens writes that the Los Angeles zoning process gives homeowners effective veto power over new bars. As a result, the neighborhood near UCLA has no bars, which in turn causes UCLA students go to other neighborhoods to drink, elevating the risk to the public from drunk driving.
- The Brooklyn Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles; Los Angeles facilitated the transfer by giving land to the Dodgers- but only after a referendum passed with support from African-American and Latino neighborhoods. On the other hand, the construction of Dodger Stadium displaced a Latino community. To me, this story illustrates that arguments about “equity” can be simplistic. Los Angeles Latinos were both more likely than suburban whites to support Dodger Stadium, yet were more likely to be displaced by that stadium. So was having a stadium more equitable or less equitable than having no stadium? (On the other hand, a stadium that displaced no one might have been more equitable than either outcome).
- Why developers are so often vilified. Stephens suggests that this may be because their products are visible on the streets to people who don’t use them, who can condemn those products as they walk or drive past them. By contrast, if we don’t buy a consumer product we might never know what it looks like.
More broadly, Stephens points out the gap between what urban planners want and what actually happens. Urban planners are often blamed for overregulation; but Stephens suggests that most urban planners share his vision for Los Angeles, but are frustrated by neighborhood activists’ veto power over new development.