Some Accounting for Taste

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In a piece on EconLib, Washington University economist John Nye has an interesting post about former Reason editor Virginia Postrel's book, The Substance of Style and the externalities of aesthetic choices. A snippet:

It's not too much of a stretch to argue that the debate over urban sprawl is more about aesthetics than any number of more obvious issues regarding the environment or the cost of long-distance commuting. To quote a young professor I know, "I just don't like all these big cars and want to see few of them." On the other hand, I also met a (probably atypical) Parisian who told me, "I'm sick of these old buildings and tired of Paris being a museum. We need more skyscrapers, freeways and shopping malls." Perhaps these two gentlemen would be happy to switch places, but they cannot happily coexist in the same city.

Whole thing here.

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  1. There are many debates about many issues that fall under the rurbric of “the debate about sprawl.” Some small number of these are entirely about aesthetics. Others have some degree of aesthetic content. Still others have nothing to do with aesthetics. There are a number of related and similar issues, and subsuming them all under the heading “The Sprawl Debate” does more to obscure than clarify, and just encourages people to decide which side of the imaginary line they should be on. To describe someone who wants to see central-city Paris be built at a greater density as “pro-sprawl” should give you a hint that there’s a shell game going on. Every person on earth probably holds at least on “pro-sprawl” and at least on “anti-sprawl” opinion. It’s much more useful to discuss actual issues.

  2. As far as I’m concerned, the issue is exactly that “anti-sprawl” is an obfuscation. It’s an aestetic response from patsies used by many who want to line their pockets with money or power.

  3. All those who disagree with JDM being motivated by avarice, obviously. No legitimate opinions, or even honestly held misguided ones, need to muddy his black and white cartoon.

  4. This is the problem that I have with the term ‘sprawl’. People invoke the word when they oppose new suburban development, infill development in the city or development of completely new towns outside of any current town areas.

    They don’t really mean that they dislike sprawl. They mean to say that they dislike growth. Anti-sprawl is just a very pc way to say anti-development.

  5. Joe has a good point. Pray tell us who specifically you seem to dislike so much, JDM.

  6. joe, you should at least cite ONE example of an anti-sprawl (or pro-density) argument is not an aesthetic one.

    I still find it interesting that with all the choices available, a pro-density or pro-sprawl person can’t just find a place where they are comfortable and live there without complaining about how others don’t live the same way.

  7. No matter how you feel abou spraw, I highly recommend Postrel’s book.

  8. “All those who disagree with JDM being motivated by avarice, obviously. No legitimate opinions, or even honestly held misguided ones, need to muddy his black and white cartoon.”

    Not avarice, vacuity. I know that the opinions against sprawl are honestly held. But your own post highlights the indefensiblity of your position. No one is objectively pro-sprawl. There are lots of people who are objectilvley anti-sprawl, as you admit. If you want to debate the merits of Urban Growth Boundaries, monorails, light rail, ecological damage, etc. Go ahead. You lose on the facts. The RPPI is a good place to look for actual numbers on this. It’s hard to find an anti-sprawl peice that doesn’t rely on the anti-sprawl aesthetics, or simply start from the assumption that sprawl is evil.

    c,
    I dislike the imbeciles who cause development to be such an absurdly expensive, ill-considered, graft-laden enterprise.

    How much of their income does the average homeowner who chooses to live outside of the urban core have to spend on the house of their (reasonable) dreams above and beyond what they would in a world where the anti-sprawl aesthetic didn’t play the major role in public policy? How many can’t have their dream home at all? How many hours are wasted in traffic, because anti-sprawl zealots use congestion (by their own admission) as a tool to force people into their preffered development pattern? (These aren’t rhetorical questions, you can find answers, and the numbers involved are pretty large.)

    If we could remove the aesthetic of anti-sprawl question from the debate, I’d be quite happy.

  9. I would like to weigh in with a personal anecdote that relates to the initial post above. When I was younger, and had just moved to Denver, CO, I would have to admit that I was squarely in the “anti-sprawl” camp. I can remember more than once complaining about how all of those rich people were ruining my view of the moutains, and how the suburban cookie cutter houses were an absolute blight to the beauty of the surrounding landscape. In both instances, my only objections were asthetic, and might I add rather selfish. Those around me at the time shared my view for the same reasons. It was not until I got a real job, started paying real taxes, and got to know people with real concerns such as raising a family that I dropped those objections, and learned to respect their desire to have a small piece of land to call their own. While I personally would never move to a sprawling suburb (I love the urban life, believe it or not) I do respect people’s right to make that choice for themselves.

  10. I’m surprised to hear so few anti-sprawl libertarians, considering that sprawl is probably created more by restrictive building codes (minumum distances from property lines, minimum lot sizes, restrictions on multi-family dwellings, etc.) than any other single thing. How do these laws not light your “property rights” fire?

  11. JDM, the biggest intervention driving up home prices is the large lot, single family only zoning district, which drastically reduces the number of homes that can be built while increasing the building cost per unit, and imposing additional costs on the residents for transportation (since everything is a drive away, every household needs multiple cars, and every car needs to be gassed up more oftern). As you have defended these codes in the past, does that make you one of “the imbeciles who cause development to be such an absurdly expensive, ill-considered, graft-laden enterprise?” And where do you get off calling the refusal to spend tax-dollars-confiscated-at-gunpoint to build you an extra lane “a tool to force people” into anything? Where did you get this idea that not hitting your brakes on the way to work is a human right?

    Anon, how’s this? Sprawl development vastly increases the energy required per person to achieve the same quality of life vis a vis pedestrian-friendly urban dwelling, imposing costs in pollution, fuel purchases, and America’s balance of trade. Nothing aesthetic there.

  12. c – zoning laws would only be a property rights concern if they were to change without compensating the owner of the property. If I bought a house in the country with rural zoning, I’d really have no property rights cause for complaint if the state wouldn’t let me build a skyscraper.

    Also, more often than not, it is the anti-sprawl crowd who take property and change the rules.

  13. the fundamental principle is that if I buy a piece of property, I wanna do what I wanna do with it. My right to swing my fist ends at my neighbor’s nose, not 8′ from his property line.

    I don’t know where you live, but where I live property zoning laws have gotten progressively more restrictive (i.e. more sprawly and less urban) for the past 50 years. If my house burned down, I wouldn’t even be able to legally build a house on my property.

  14. It is a little ironic that the ruggedly individualistic suburbanites are relying on a much more restrictive planning regime than us liberal collectivists who support traditional neighborhoods.

  15. Joe – the supply of single family homes is not being constrained by large lot zoning. The supply is being constrained by growth management plans and practices.

    In the greater Seattle area, for instance, developers are desperate to build new homes in the suburbs because there is massive pent-up demand and because the excess demand has driven up prices. Unfortunately, the government is simultaneously doing everything they can to prevent the construction of new suburban homes.

    There is no shortage of land to build. There is a shortage of permits, and an excess of regulatory barriers.

  16. “the ruggedly individualistic suburbanites are relying on a much more restrictive planning regime than us liberal collectivists who support traditional neighborhoods.”

    Sorry, but this is complete BS. It is the liberal collectivists who won’t allow a farmer to sell his property to developers, who enforce new high-density development zones, who won’t allow a property owner to build enough parking spaces for full sized cars, who subsidize “re-development” of urban cores, who won’t allow the construction of new apartment buildings without ground-level retail, etc., etc., etc….

    Are you saying that we should do away with all growth plans and zoning laws and allow the free market to decide our growth patterns? Or are you just completely full of shit?

  17. joe,

    Again, you are just ignoring reality. All of the laws where I live mandate MINIMUM density for new development. Please explain why the law is forcing people to do what they would have done anyway, or why there are people who so vigorously defend these laws, since they are so unnecessary. Transportation costs are VERY SMALL compared to the additional cost of housing brought on by draconian land use laws such as UGB’s etc. Highways are subsidized by non-user-fee taxes (like the gas tax) to the tune of .2 cents per passenger mile, while transit is subsidized at about 75 cents per passenger mile. I’m not sure why you’re ranting about human rights, but I’m pretty sure that using public funds to serve people is less egregious than using even more of them to herd people, and line the pockets of transit developers.

    I don’t know when I’ve defended zoning laws for their own sake, but I have no problem with covenanting governing land use, and government busybodies staying out of it. I know I have said that if you want to free up zoning to allow mixed use development, that I have no problem with it.

    c,
    What’s caused sprawl is that people want to live that way. To argue that the sum total of government interference makes living on an acre of land less expensive vs. living in a city is utterly impossible. Joe’s argument boils down to saying that he want’s to make the price of oil artificially high in the most roundabout way possible.

  18. I’m willing to call that bet — if ossified building codes mandating suburban development went away tomorrow, you’re saying that people would continue to build giant 6 bedrooms 1.5 hours from work would just keep on building? Bull. Fewer of these people want to do this than you think, people move out there because the cost is lower. But please, don’t think I’m telling you you have to stop — move away. I’m perfectly happy “letting the free market determine our growth patterns.”

  19. c – try rejoining the real world someday. It might do you some good. There really is no point arguing with someone who thinks people move to the suburbs to save money…. totally insane.

  20. Whether Paris is a museum or not depends on which side of the river you are on. 🙂

  21. “If ossified building codes mandating suburban development went away tomorrow, you’re saying that people would continue to build giant 6 bedrooms 1.5 hours from work would just keep on building? Bull.”

    Around Seattle, and lots of other urban centers, they have gone away, and, again, the opposite has occured and there are laws mandating minimum density development, and greatly restricting new land from development. Large lot housing is still being built wherever possible, and people are paying astronomical prices for it. Meanwhile, the trendy walkable urban neighborhoods of Seattle have brand new apartment buildings with (if I recall correctly) 30% vacancy. There is no need to speculate about what would happen.

  22. Nick,

    Is the “MORE…” link some kind of acknowledgement that the mere mention of development will set the usual suspects upon each other like so many wind-up Rottweilers in a useless 400 post frenzy?

    I haven’t seen an SUV post in a while…

  23. sorry, I was stuck in traffic since my last post. What did I miss?

    Totally insane, huh? Well, explain that to the folks who commute to NY from Allentown PA every day. They have to make a choice: live in the city for a spectacular price, or move to where new houses are being built on the outer edge of suburbia. Some would continue to do so with or without laws mandating this kind of development, but many would not.

    Maybe different parts of the country experience different symptoms of development regulation, but we certainly do not have “minimum density development” here in Jersey. Despite the market strongly supporting more housing, single family, (or even childless) development is rigorously pursued.

    And don’t even get me started on the ugly “god only knows who’ll move here” undercurrent of the efforts against building multi-family units.

  24. “And where do you get off calling the refusal to spend tax-dollars-confiscated-at-gunpoint to build you an extra lane “a tool to force people” into anything?”

    Here in California we have a steep gas tax, the purpose of which is building & maintaining roads. The politicians have been putting the money to other uses, however, and at the last election a proposition was voted on that would prevent them from using the gas tax funds for any purpose but roads. Alas the proposition lost. So here we are, heavy gas taxes going to fund Gov. Davis & his overuse of the state credit cards . . .

  25. “I’m surprised to hear so few anti-sprawl libertarians, considering that sprawl is probably created more by restrictive building codes (minumum distances from property lines, minimum lot sizes, restrictions on multi-family dwellings, etc.) than any other single thing. How do these laws not light your “property rights” fire?”

    I’m all for removing such restrictions, but I’m also for removing anti-sprawl rules. Most people I know don’t care for multi-family dwellings, small lots, etc. Myself, I plan to live in a house dead center on a 62 acre lot–if I can wade through all of the permits, etc., to build.

  26. “I’m surprised to hear so few anti-sprawl libertarians, considering that sprawl is probably created more by restrictive building codes (minumum distances from property lines, minimum lot sizes, restrictions on multi-family dwellings, etc.) than any other single thing. How do these laws not light your “property rights” fire?”

    Welcome aboard, c. I’ve been beating that dead horse for some time. You forgot to mention restrictions against both walk-up apartments downtown and mixed-use development in the suburbs; and subsidies to outlying infrastructure development at the expense of central ratepayers. And don’t get me started on FHA bias….

  27. Residential sprawl is caused by more and more people wanting (and affording) their own house on their own lot. The only way to accommodate that desire is to build the kind of developments generally called sprawl.

    Commercial sprawl is caused by people wanting to drive to stores that have a wide variety of stuff, low prices, and parking (“big box” stores).

    Building and zoning codes are pretty peripheral to these basic desires. In areas where there is minimial zoning, people create zoning via covenants and neighborhood associations in order to have neighborhoods that fit just about any definition of a “sprawl” neighborhood you would care to adopt. Residential-only zoning may contribute to strip malls, but only marginally as far as I can tell. Strip malls are more a creation of automobiles than anything else.

    The dense urban model of living reflects a pre-automobile level of technology. When you are relying on horses or trains, high-density living makes sense. However, most people have never really liked it, and even hundreds of years ago anyone who could afford a place in the country got one and visited it when they could. Automobiles and the modern economy allow more and more people to have their own patch, and so they want it as they always have and get it via “sprawl.”

    One man’s sprawl is another man’s castle.

  28. “One man’s sprawl is another man’s castle.”

    And that is exactly why I changed my tune. I have no right to force others to live in a manner of MY choosing just because I don’t want my view of the plains spoiled, and I think we are all better off living in the city.

  29. And how did SUVs get into this story? Again, way too much lumping, producing more heat than light.

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