Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sprawl — new opportunities for planners and activists

In a recent post, I suggested caution that the engineering and design ideals of the "new suburbanism" model of suburban growth would present a temptation to London planners to regulate the fashion into existence not only because of its appeal to the professional planner's predisposition for templates but also because their pretensions to authority over people's living choices would be flattered by sympathy from urban elites and activists. In response, James Bow, who himself was educated as a planner, wrote in a comment that the existing sprawl of suburban development is as much or more the product of planning regulation as any remedies that would be imposed by planners in the form of "new suburbanism." Indeed, the worst aspects of post-war suburban development — the homogeneity and indifference to location — have been entrenched by regulation. However, new models of suburban growth that advocate higher density are themselves tendered to regulatory interests and are designed as commercially acceptable surrogates for the demands of far more interventionist agendas. Where Bow and I would depart is that where he suggests that sprawl is driven more by regulation than consumer demand, I would maintain that sprawl itself is driven as much or more by demand for low density suburban housing and that only the worst aspects of sprawl are driven by regulation. Typically, however, the worst aspects are made to be representative of the whole and the causes entirely misattributed by those vocal interests whose own advantages compel them to condemn sprawl — "urban elites on aesthetic grounds [and] activists of progressive or socialist stripes who find little common ground with or support from residents of self-owned property." Their dominance of media, academic and local political venues has imbued their agenda with the pretended authority of common wisdom — "it's so, so I know that it's so" — and invested their anti-sprawl policies with enough general sympathy to countenance even tighter restrictions on the free market and property rights.

I highly recommend this article by Dr. Ronald Utt appearing in the Heritage Foundation that precisely defines the real problems of urban sprawl:

One of the great myths spread by opponents of suburban development is that the land-use patterns we have today are the result of free-market forces, greedy developers, and unregulated property rights. Contrary to urban legend, gaudy strip malls and tacky subdivisions are more often a consequence of over half a century of zoning and land-use planning conducted under the guidance of professional planners in cooperation with elected officials. What repel us today are not the unintended consequences of free enterprise, but planning concepts from the 1960s that have dropped out of fashion.

Having failed us once, planners are asking for a second chance—along with more regulatory power than ever before—to impose their aesthetic sensibilities on the rest of us, the philistine masses. Instead of letting the planners have their way, communities should work to restore and strengthen individual property rights. Part of this is giving property owners and builders the freedom to construct housing that people want, not what the planners want to impose on them.

[…] Despite the rapid spread of zoning in the 20th century, local officials and zoning boards still tended to respect the rights of landowners, often granting reasonable requests for variances from master plans. This careful balance between freedom and regulation began to tilt away from property owners in the 1990s, when the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements rose to prominence. The activist wings of these movements gained traction by vilifying the suburbs and their residents. In response, many communities altered their zoning laws to slow the pace of suburbanization. The consequence has been to encourage leapfrog development—in what we now call exurbs—and even more sprawl.

It is revealing to look at the list of model communities that advocates of smart growth hold out as worthy of emulation. The Sierra Club conducts anti-sprawl tours in the Washington, D.C., area, and its guides highlight the beautiful neighborhoods of Old Town Alexandria in Virginia and Georgetown and Capitol Hill in Washington. Elsewhere in the country, anti-sprawl activists hold up Charleston and Savannah, both elegant cities, as role models, along with Society Hill in Philadelphia, Oakleigh in Mobile, the Garden District in New Orleans, and Beacon Hill in Boston.

These communities share a common trait besides their exquisite beauty and historical status: All were built before the advent of zoning, government planning, building codes, building inspections, building permits, and restrictive covenants governing the color of downspouts and window shutters. In short, they represent the spontaneous order of a cowboy capitalism long since regulated out of existence. Indeed, no enterprising developer could construct any of these communities today; the zoning ordinances of most of America’s counties and towns would stop him flat. Typical zoning provisions establish minimum lot sizes, minimum front and side setbacks, and minimum street widths. They make driveways and garages mandatory and prohibit mixed commercial and residential development. The lauded neighborhoods of the past, held up as examples of an ideal, wouldn’t measure up to today’s zoning. Building a neighborhood like that today requires local zoning and planning boards to grant a myriad of variances from existing rules. The boards, however, are seldom willing, in large part because citizens oppose higher density housing and the congestion it creates.

That zoning and planning laws effectively prohibit the construction of “ideal” neighborhoods reveals one of the ironies of the current debate on suburban land use: Advocates of smart growth and new urbanism are among the major casualties of land-use regulations that diminish property rights, despite their large role in encouraging such regulation.

Criticizing typical suburban developments with single-family detached houses on quarter-acre lots, smart growth advocates encourage higher-density development (smaller lot sizes) to conserve land and other resources; increased “walkability” and transit use to discourage auto use; greater social interaction among neighbors; and a mix of commercial and residential establishments. While some in the smart growth movement consider these high-density developments a lifestyle choice that should compete with typical suburban subdivisions for buyers, the movement’s activist wing would mandate high-density living. The activists would prohibit new lower-density suburbs because of the social costs that the activists say they impose on society.

These more extreme elements of the smart growth movement rely on harsh criticisms of suburban subdivisions to promote their alternative. In the process, they level many outlandish charges against suburbs and suburbanites—a sort-of national vilification. Typical of the abuse heaped on the inhabitants of cul-de-sacs is a recent Atlantic article by new urbanist James Howard Kunstler:
When we drive around and look at all this cartoon architecture and other junk that we’ve smeared all over the landscape, we register it as ugliness. This ugliness is the surface expression of deeper problems—problems that relate to the issue of our national character.
Not to be outdone, former National Governors Association executive Joel Hirshhorn argues that sprawl kills:
Know this: Sprawl is killing people, some 300,000 premature deaths annually because of the sprawl sedentary lifestyle, and it is killing our natural environment, scenic vistas, biodiversity, rural towns, and much more. The pursuit of happiness by the few profiting from sprawl land development is killing the future pursuit of happiness by the many. Spread this idea virus: sprawl kills.
Read the rest here — also recommended is The Costs of Sprawl Reconsidered: What the Data Really Show which debunks some of the economic planning rationales for limiting low density suburban growth.

This too, from a review of Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A Compact History in the Weekly Standard, Vincent J. Cannato writes:
Critics charge sprawl with all manner of sin: causing global warming, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources, aiding the nation's so-called obesity crisis, increasing economic and racial inequality, destroying the family farm, and despoiling open spaces, killing off American cities, encouraging "big-box" retailers like Wal-Mart who underpay their workers and kill "mom-and-pop" businesses, and creating conformist communities whose residents neglect the public interest for their own personal "privatopia." On top of that, they argue, suburban sprawl is just plain ugly.

The ideology of the anti-sprawl camp is easy to pare down to basics. Cars and roads are bad, public transportation is good. Low-density development is bad, high density is good. Local government is bad. Regional or metropolitan government is good. Private, "unplanned" development driven by the market is bad. Planned development according to the dreams of urban planners is good. Cities are the apex of American civilization and society. Suburbs and exurbs are drab, conformist, and politically reactionary.

[…] While suburban sprawl might not be everyone's cup of tea, (including mine) sprawl-like communities seem to afford a large number of people the kinds of lives they wish to lead. Sprawl critics have yet to convince large numbers of Americans that their solutions for engineering private choices about how and where to live and work will result in greater social benefits or happiness.

Sprawl is messy, chaotic, and sometimes annoying. In short, it is everything one expects from a free and democratic society. Leave the neat and clean societies for totalitarian regimes. Sprawl creates problems, just like every other social trend; but to damn it for its problems is akin to outlawing the sun for causing skin cancer.

Robert Bruegmann reminds us that much of the anti-sprawl crusade is a result of a rising level of prosperity, and the complexity of millions of individual decisions made on a daily basis by millions of citizens. Better to have to deal with long commutes and strained infrastructure than malaria, cholera, or declining life expectancy.

In terms of problems, I'd take sprawl any day.
HT Liberty Corner whose comment on urban sprawl is appropriately snarky.


Jay said...

I agree with Bow that sprawl and contemporary neighbourhoods are driven more by regulation than any kind of a priori uncoerced preferences.

I try to be wary of taking sides on this issue - the same way I do with the Wal-Mart one - it's easy to look at the hordes of people crowding into a Wal-Mart on a given Saturday and proclaim "look, people prefer shopping at Big Box stores" when it's pretty clear to me that there's a whole raft of regulation and subsidy (hidden or explicit) that may be unnaturally tipping the scales in favour of mega-stores ("just-in-time" delivery, for example, makes extensive use of the government road system thereby taking advantage of a massively subsidized coast-to-coast supply chain that Mom n' Pop stores and their customers are forced to pay for).

Like the Wal-Mart issue, a fair proportion of the 'anti-sprawl' movement are broadly anti-commerce anti-choice, but on the 'pro' side, I'd argue there are just as many within the ranks of those free-market think-tanks (Wendell Cox et al) that are nothing but apologists for the status quo. They've sort of painted themselves in a corner where they feel compelled to stick up for Wal-Mart and suburbs against the attacks of their political opponents, when perhaps a more intellectually consistent approach would be to oppose things like government provision of 'free' roads and onerous zoning regulations that necessarily favour big, cookie-cutter developers as passionately as they oppose top-down intervention in urban design. Let the real free market sort out living and working preferences and who knows what kinds of urban forms will grow out of it.

Brent Gilliard said...

Social engineering alert.

Is building a 'functional' home a microcosm for what the planners are trying to do in London, or are there differences I'm missing?

(First your home, then your suburb, then... the world?)

MapMaster said...

Jay, your comments are always welcome and appreciated… but I'm not really worried about painting myself into any sort of corner or about my libertarian soul for that matter. As I mentioned in a comment on a previous post, my suggestion that sprawl is driven no less by consumer demand than regulation is primarily anecdotal, but the distinction is niggardly on my part for the purpose of the conversation and not terribly important in itself — we would all agree, I think, that the free market has not been given the opportunity to build the residential expressions of uncoerced preferences. My point is, however, that there is demand for low-density "sprawling" suburban development in some form or another — I don't know how evident that would be in the lower mainland with that Land Protection Act, or whatever it's called — and that the political interests opposed to sprawl make it a temptation to impose a regulatory regime in favour of a design fashion because it attempts to placate the anti-sprawl movement.

Your cautions are noted, of course, and I do agree, except… that people often do prefer buying big lot suburban houses or going to Wal-Mart. It is their side that I take, if I must be seen as taking sides. It does not appear to me that you are suggesting that suburbs and Wal-Marts exist only because of the regulations and subsidies that support or encourage them. Suburb developers and Wal-Mart do take advantage of regulatory and political environments (what other sort is there in which to locate advantage?) but thrive in addition due to their own creativity and innovation in response to consumers and prevail to provide benefits to people for reasons above and beyond politically-motivated incentives.

Contemporary suburbs and Wal-Marts are currently — at least in many locales (see Vancouver) — under political attack from the same regulatory regimes. These could simply be considered cases of dying by the same sword, but whether or not you think they are worth defending themselves, the truth is that existing regulation, subsidies and planning are not the subject of general censure — the existence of suburbs and Wal-Marts are attributed to the free market. Casus belli in another ideological war, perhaps, but the uncoerced preferences of consumers are being dragged into the same prohibitory climate. It is no accident that the choices of innocent consumers are attacked on the same grounds, attributing their behaviour as selfish, narcissistic, brainwashed, misguided, anti-social, stupid, etc.

For that reason, I do — and have done so — happily defend suburbs and Wal-Marts, except when they are pleading for subsidies or protectionist policies. To be consistent, though, I would like to see them fare on their own — arguments in favour of one form or another of development or retailing in the free market are necessarily vitiated by the absence of any unvitiated examples — and have frequently opposed land use regulations, subsidies, public property, etc. in addition to movements that thrive in and nurture these environments.

Caveat: I don't actually shop at Wal-Mart although I have placed myself under the thumb of the new local Great Canadian Superstore, and I aspire to own a big lot and house in a low density suburb or exurb someday. And, by the way, Jay, I think you're far too generous to the anti-sprawl movement saying that "a fair proportion" is "broadly anti-commerce anti-choice" — locally, at least, the vocal elements are entirely "broadly anti-commerce anti-choice" and the rest are, by assent if not demonstratively, the same by default.

And, Entozoa, I'm not sure that the example you provided is a microcosm for what the planners are trying to do, but they do imagine that they are trying to build more "functional" homes. The problem is that the meaning of "functionality" is governed by the textbooks of planners — and informed to some degree, I've no doubt, by sympathetic ideologically motivated preferences — and has no necessary relation to the meaning of functionality to homeowners. I think that it's pretty much a given that homeowners want their houses to be functional according to their own definition and purposes, but planners cannot prescribe what form that takes. Those who want that sort of functionality are welcome to it… and those that don't shouldn't be constrained by a centrally planned vision. The couple in the article you cited at least created their own design — myself, I like separate rooms.

First your home, then your suburb, then... the world?

I don't think the order of operations is terribly important to the social engineers — all objectives are equally valued.

Jay said...

Great points as always, Mapmaster.

When it comes down to a specific question of whether Wal-Mart can buy and develop a piece of property - no question I'll come down squarely on their right to do so. Same goes for low density housing in the burbs.

I was simply expressing my recurring frustration over the way the mixed economy operates. It really is like trying to unscramble an egg.

MapMaster said...

Thanks, Jay. I share the frustration (and I mean to check out the Stefan Molyneux piece you linked to when I get home tonight). Defending the free market does place one in treacherous waters a) when examples of an unadulterated free market do not really exist in certain commodities, and b) when one is badgered into accepting as substitutes the adulterated examples for the sake of argument. But point taken — I must learn to more clearly define the parameters of my posts. That's why comment sections are so useful, however.

Lisa said...


I aspire to own a big lot and house in a low density suburb or exurb someday.

I hope you don't plan on living in that house, no doubt complete with an SUV in the garage, because I won't be joining you.


Pietr said...

I have to say that I was brought up in a wealthy suburb in rural Yorkshire, and earned my pocket-money gardening and washing cars.
It taught me the value of hard work.

But for the past fifteen years I have been living in a multi-storey high-rise apartment; I have realised I don't like gardens, and I do like microwaves and four-packs.

So I guess if I ever come to Canada to stay, I'll be aiming for a 25th floor apartment somewhere on the Lake Ontario waterfront.
I quite fancy the enclave on the Western shore near Toronto.

Jim said...

I think new urbanism is more popular than you give it credit for. Cities in the US that have created it sell out before models are open. The popularity of Portland Ore. rose after they tightened rules on sprawl.

Another important subject is the loss of farmland to sprawl. In the US this runs to about 3 million acres a year. If nothing is done to protect farmland eventually people will ask "how did the government let this happen."