The Ideal Communist City

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Randal O'Toole visits the former East Germany to see how the Soviet version of smart growth worked out.

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  1. Call it a hunch, but I’m prediciting that joe will have something to say about this.

  2. You know that in most of the world, “communist” is not a dirty word.

    Americans just need to be taught how they should want to live.

  3. The photos there show brutalist tower-in-the-park planning that today’s New Urbanists would rather strangle themselves than endorse. That’s pretty much a Soviet version of high Modernism, a planning ideology that new-urban types regard as an utter failure (and they deride the apartment houses in question as “commie blocks”).

  4. The really irritating thing is how often people like the Reasonites will conflate “smart growth” with “command and control”, when in fact the practice of smart growth calls for LOOSENING zoning codes to allow denser development in urban areas. Current suburban-style zoning code is what they SHOULD be calling “communist”, but since so many Republicans live in the suburbs, they can’t seem to wrap their heads around it.

  5. The dishonesty that pervuades every single piece I have read in Reason about “smart growth” confirms in my mind that I’m right.

    You don’t have to bullshit like that if you have reality on your side.

  6. M1EK,

    I have been reading this site for four years, and for all their wailing about government regulation and artificially high housing prices, I have never seen a single word written that denounces the large lot, single family only zoning that is the most dramatic, costly government intrusion in to the housing market.

  7. joe,

    Maybe the guys at Reason are just waiting for the right moment.

  8. Well, it is an obscure situation that’s pretty far removed from most people’s experience.

    Or not.

  9. – The few Trabants that are still left have become cult objects. Many of their owners poured much money into them, tuned them and gave them facelifts (after the re-unifcation, of course)

    – The horrible-looking high-rising concrete buildings are called “Plattenbau” (“panel building” roughly translated)

    – Yes, all of the Eastern German towns that were “artificially” created pretty much look(ed) horrible. But there has been much progress due to investment (although much of the private investment was attracted through HEAVY subsidies – a lot of money was wasted)

  10. M1EK – whether smart growth calls for loosening zoning codes or not is a very locations-specific claim. In some places it might.

    What we do see with “smart growth” is, nonetheless, a very specific set of controls on housing and transportation, often as part of a regional planning effort that, on the whole, sure looks like a net increase in government control and regulation.

    I think any attempt to claim that smart growth planning represents a net increase in freedom is a stretch.

    As for joe’s complaint, I personally find those kinds of neighborhoods not to my taste. I note that in the Houston area, which famously has no zoning, large lot single family is far and away the voluntary rule of thumb. I’m curious as to the basis for his assertion that it is by far the most dramatic, costly government intrusion into the housing market. I would have nominated rent control, myself.

  11. Those of us who have been reading Reason for over 20 yrs recall that the most “reasonoids’ are against “zoning” period.

  12. RC,

    Rent control is limited to a few cities, and in most cases, just a few units in those cities.

    Large lot single family zoning, on the other hand, is the predominant zoning classification for most of the developable land in most metro areas.

    Isaac,

    Then what’s with all the secrecy? If I were to publish articles about the evil of the Vietnam War, the evil of the Gulf War, the evil of the Pacific War, the evil of Operation Enduring Freedom, and the evil of the recent Iraq War, and respond to a question about the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan with “Oh, I’m opposed to all wars,” how willing would you be to believe that I was a principled pacifist without another agenda? Especially if I lived in Kabul.

  13. Of course when *all* zoning laws or *all* residential form zoning laws are denounced, that includes the obnoxious large lot- single family only zoning as well.

  14. Actually, Rick, I’ve never seen an article devoted to denouncing *all* zoning laws. Every single one that has been put on the web site has been about denouncing *those* zoning laws that contribute to smart growth. Those laws that contribute to dumb sprawl, on the other hand, don’t seem to warrant any comment beyond that occasional “to be sure” throat clearing that sometimes appears in the comments section when someone points out the obvious.

  15. Joe: It’s not hard to find me criticizing both the old model of planning and the new one (which, contra M1EK, is not merely or even basically a matter of loosening controls). This old anti-smart growth piece makes my position plain. So does this. And this.

    The trouble with discussing this stuff is that you can’t criticize the modern smart-growth crowd without certain people assuming you’re defending the previous orthodoxy. For an example, go to the other Joe’s post, some of which I agree with and some of which I disagree with but all of which amounts to a strawman attack.

  16. What was I just saying about comment-thread throat clearing? Please, everyone, click on the three links Mr. Walker provides. And keep in mind that these are the pieces HE chose as his best argument that he is neutral about smart growth, and only concerned with regulations. Go ahead, they’re each about a page long.

    I glad to see you included that declaration that “it’s ok to criticize” the problems created by the sprawl-inducing regulations and subsidies that created the modern suburb. Why don’t you ever do that? Even once?

    It’s interesting to note that the article about “Hanoi” includes a quote about how apartment buildings foster a sense of solidarity among the workers who live in them. Arthur Levitt of Levittown fame made exactly the same point, in explaining why he wanted working people to live in single family homes.

  17. To clarify, an honest libertarian (rather than a suburban Republican who just doesn’t want to be in bed with the Religious Right) would probably come up with something like:

    New smart growth zoning codes are still a governmental intrusion into private property rights, but they’re a lot better than the current suburban-uber-alles zoning codes which cover 99% of the practically developable land in metropolitan areas.

    They don’t. All I ever see is bitching about how smart-growth is communist (despite the fact that BY FAR the largest impact of smart-growth is a DECREASE in regulation on what you can do with a lot and an INCREASE in housing supply – resulting in lower housing prices, WITHOUT the evil of rent control!)

    The transportation issues are another example of the same. Jesse never compains about the absurd parking requirements which doom all development into the twin suburban ubiquities of purely single-family or pod-apartment-complex, or the transportation requirements like wide streets which later doom us to spend millions on traffic calming. Smart-growth usually requires less (sometimes no) parking. That ALONE, like the housing supply issue above, should make it the darling of libertarians, except for the unfortunate fact that many of said bloviators like driving their SUV and hate it when they can’t find parking.

  18. Every single one that has been put on the web site has been about denouncing *those* zoning laws that contribute to smart growth.

    That’s because it’s patently obvious that America *wants* sprawl. That’s the market at work![/sarcasm] Never mind that the cities have been laid waste by policies designed to drain them of people and resources, and that sprawl is pretty much the only legal alternative outside the cities. Given the available choices (shitty cities or sprawl) is it any wonder what’s more popular? If we as a nation actually gave a damn about our existing cities maybe people would find them more attactive and move there. Example: Upstate New York suburbs are full of people who are *proud* of the fact that they have never set foot in Buffalo or Rochester – yet as those cities continue to go down the toilet, they never seem to make the connection that, hey, maybe their neighborhood will turn to shit too.

  19. Why don’t you ever do that? Even once?

    Seems to me that I did just that. But I wrote those pieces in 1998, not 1968. Better to focus on the threat at hand, no?

    Anyway, part of the point of the articles (especially this one) is that many in the “smart growth” mob are continuing the policies they claim to be overturning.

    And I’m not “neutral about smart growth.” I’m opposed to smart growth. “Smart growth” is not the same thing as density, walkability, etc.

  20. That ALONE, like the housing supply issue above, should make it the darling of libertarians, except for the unfortunate fact that many of said bloviators like driving their SUV and hate it when they can’t find parking.

    I live in an urban rowhouse, I don’t own an SUV, and most days I don’t drive. Yet somehow I haven’t been moved when people like Al Gore and Parris Glendening call for smart growth. I wonder how that could be?

  21. Because you’re a Republican in sheep’s clothing. There’s fundamentally no other way one can spend all this time bloviating about Smart Growth As Communism, while remaining curiously silent about the far worse outrages committed by Big Government that brought us to where we are today.

  22. Oh, and your article about East Austin and light rail deserves a huge fisking of its own. Let me know when you’re ready.

  23. joe:

    I can remember reading such articles – on dead tree, of course – as this one:

    Dick Bjornseth, “Houston Defies the Planners,” reason, February, 1978, p. 17.

    when I first started reading the pre-web mag.

    Is it safe to say that you are also in favor of repealing that remnant of WWII “emergency regulation”, rent control, too?

    Kevin

  24. From a Reason article:

    While other cities seem reconciled to zoning and centralized land-use controls, Houston continues to buck the trend. Says Klein: “We have preserved the soul of Houston, which shall remain a beacon of freedom to citizens in other large cities.”

    https://reason.com/9402/col.southwick.shtml

  25. “And I’m not “neutral about smart growth.” I’m opposed to smart growth.”

    Smart Growth is a movement to address the problems created by a massive government intervention into how cities are built. There is an existant set of government policies that require development to proceed in a certain way.

    A movement develops that recognizes the harm that sprawl policies have causes, and seeks to eliminate those policies. There are roughly a million and one suggestions on how to do this.

    So where are our Reasonoids on this? Neutral? Stongly in favor? On board with the vision, but troubled by some the details? Supportive of a libertarian version, but opposed to a statist version?

    No, our Reasonoids are against a movement that grown up around opposition to the government-created built environment that we live in. Nothing is written about the government-induced problems that are being addressed, nothing is written about the different strategies that could be brought to bear, and no effort is made to promote a libertarian version of Smart Growth.

    To use anti-communism as an analogy, it is as if Reason runs piece after piece denouncing anti-communism, and defines it as a movement by Christian fundies and fascists, without ever running a piece critical of Communism itself. When people point out that free market democrats are a major part of the anti-communist movement, they note that, of course, they are opposed to all statist governments, yet not articles making this point appear in the magazine.

    When an opposition group appears to gain ground in a Soviet satellite, Reason runs an article detailing how some members are monarchists, while the group as a whole hasn’t sworn off the idea of a public pension system or state-owned electrical utility. Meanwhile, the hoops that people jump through to be admitted to the Communist Party is trotted out as evidence that communism is really, really popular in the Soviet Union, and therefore roughly reflects how party membership would look under a system of free association. For good measure, there are plenty of references to how shabby the offices of unofficial opposition groups look.

  26. M1EK: As far as I can tell, the sum total of my writing about “Smart Growth As Communism” is … zero, unless you stretch it to include my one-sentence description of Randal’s photoessay. I did spend some of my year at CEI writing about the downside of smart growth, always being careful to point out that I wasn’t defending the status quo ante. I hope you realize that’s not the same thing.

    As noted above, I haven’t been silent about the destructive regulations of the past (or the same bad ideas when they rear their heads in the present). Google my name with “urban renewal” and see how many articles come up.

  27. “Better to focus on the threat at hand, no?”

    You have to be kidding me. Virtually every community in the country with large amounts of buildable land has a sprawl-inducing zoning code. Smart Growth is a flea to sprawl zoning’s mountain. If we work really, really hard, in ten years, it might be a house compared to Mount Sprawl.

    Even setting aside the assertion that a movement to demolish sprawl zoning is somehow a threat, this statement is a perfect demonstration of the common conservative conflation of the terms “natural” and “status quo.” I guess that’s why they call them “conservatives.”

  28. I stand corrected: prior to there actually being a significant movement that criticized sprawl policies, Reason writers did, in fact, oppose zoning.

    Once a non-libertarian (or more accurately, not exclusively libertarian) movement developed around opposition to sprawl zoning, the line went dead, and “the threat at hand” is the crowd trying to do away with the social engineering project, rather than the project itself.

  29. Jesse, your opposition to other central planning schemes, like urban renewal, is well known, and I recognize it gladly.

    Unfortunately, that only makes your silence on the most significant example of central community planning even more deafening. It also makes your entrenched hostility to the most effective and broad critique of that central planning project, your determination to deny the important role played in that movement by free marketeers, and your commitment to factually-challenged critques of that movement’s observations, even less comprehensible.

  30. Well, zoning/growth laws certainly have something in common with communism, while the absence of zoning laws have nothing in common with communism.

  31. Perhaps we see a proportional relationship between the level of state involvement in urban design and the failure of urban design. “Hanoi” represents high state control and great failure, New Urbanism represents moderate influence with a reworking of ideas that have moderately failed, and “sprawl” represents minimal state control that produces what people seem to still want.

    TND hasn’t been around long enough for a complete assessment. Will we be ripping down those superblocks with false facades in 20 years? We’ve been sprawling since we’ve had the wealth to do so, for about a century. Of the three schemes, the least centralized, sprawl, appears the most successful.

  32. Joe: I know of no substantial movement in this country to eradicate zoning laws and eliminate subsidies to growth. I do know of a movement to introduce a different set of zoning rules and to rechannel those subsidies to growth. It calls itself “smart growth,” and it’s no more libertarian than those people who conflate “natural” and “status quo.”

    I’m aware that there is a faction within the New Urbanism that is more libertarian than not — I had some admiration for Milwaukee’s mayor John Norquist, for example. (I was planning to interview him for Reason, in fact, before circumstances interfered.) But smart growth and New Urbanism are not the same thing, and while I’m willing to believe that there are some smart-growthers in the Norquist mold, the vast majority of smart growth literature I’ve read would increase rather than decrease our regulatory burden.

    And that’s all I’ve got to say for now — other duties call. Maybe I’ll check in on this thread again at the end of the day.

  33. “”sprawl” represents minimal state control that produces what people seem to still want.”

    Bull. “sprawl” is the end-result of the largest set of regulations on property this country has ever known; from setbacks to impervious cover to FAR to simple height-restrictions to single-family vs. multi-family to parking requirements, and those are just the most commonly-known ones.

    “smart growth” in its “new urbanism” common form is an effort to REDUCE many of those regulations which are now known to promote and subsidize sprawl far beyond its natural constituency.

  34. sprawl-inducing zoning code

    Or is it “sprawl supporting”? Maybe the code written to support the kind of growth the people want. It seems a stretch, but maybe government is actually reflecting the will of the people when it dictates large lots and spends their taxes on roads and sewers for exurban expansion.

    ==

    How well would TNDs (or even trad neighborhoods) work if we eliminated all forms of transportation subsidy? Isn’t the cost of motoring in Germany significantly higher than in USA? Yet, people are apparently paying the price for cars while the S-bahn deteriorates.

  35. “the vast majority of smart growth literature I’ve read would increase rather than decrease our regulatory burden.”

    Bull. Smart growth generally calls for

    – allowing higher buildings
    – allowing lesser setbacks
    – allowing less parking
    – allowing multi-family mixed with single-family
    – allowing a mix of uses vertically rather than horizontally

    While one could say, if one insisted on wearing the Suburban Sprawl Good Hat, that each of those is just a modification to an existing regulation, it’s pretty damn clear that in practice, reworking zoning codes for smart growth results in more, not less, freedom for the property owner.

    Only in a few cases does smart growth PROHIBIT suburban-style development (Portland’s downtown parking maximums, for instance). In the vast overwhelming number of real-world implementations, it has continued to allow sprawl-style single-family development, but unlike current code, ALSO allow new-urbanist-style development.

  36. https://reason.com/9402/col.southwick.shtml

    More dishonesty….

    Houston’s defeat of zoning … proved that voters are suspicious of huge new bureaucracies, especially when they understand the impact on their property and livelihoods.

    Nonsense. All it proved was that all voters are equally susceptible to false claims targeted at them by people with an agenda.

    We have preserved the soul of Houston

    If the “soul” of Houston is that of an unattractive city, relentlessly hostile to pedestrians and with somewhat above average crime, then by all means fight zoning if that’s your wish. But don’t claim that zoning is responsible for urban woes when Houston suffers the same woes as every other large American city.

  37. M1EK: Such regs exist in urban cores, too. The more libertarian position might be to oppose all regs, not just look for the most pleasing setback requirements, etc.

    Perhaps also overlooked are “sprawl-inducing” regs not related specifically to land use. Maybe some prefer a suburb because it still allows smoking in bars, firepits in yards, hobbyist shops in garages, has a lower tax rate, and doesn’t finance stadiums.

  38. Rhywun:

    All it proved was that all voters are equally susceptible to false claims targeted at them by people with an agenda.

    What false claims? The article gives evidence that the voters were indeed suspicious of the bureaucracies, and the impact on their property and livelihoods. What evidence can you provide that the claims were false?

  39. ‘”sprawl” represents minimal state control that produces what people seem to still want.’

    Bwaa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaaaa! Stop it, you’re killing me!

    Which of these can be built in a large lot single family sprawl district, and which can be built in a mixed use district informed by smart growth principles:

    Apartment building, grocery store, single family home on 4000 square feet, single family home on an acre, storefront building with apartments above, two family house, office building, artist studios?

    A smart growth zoning code would regulate the use of land, but would do so much less than most sprawl codes. If you are limited to building 10 units of housing or less, you are less regulated than if you can only build 1 unit of housing.

  40. Rhywun:

    But don’t claim that zoning is responsible for urban woes when Houston suffers the same woes as every other large American city.

    That just not true:

    http://www.fee.org/vnews.php?nid=2973

  41. Joe, have you considered switching to decaf?

  42. Rhywun,

    When you read “soul”, think “liberty” and you’ll be hep to the meaning of:

    “We have preserved the soul of Houston.”

  43. “Maybe the code written to support the kind of growth the people want. It seems a stretch, but maybe government is actually reflecting the will of the people when it dictates large lots and spends their taxes on roads and sewers for exurban expansion.”

    That’s a very complicated matter. There has always been a “westering” impetus in the American psyche – the desire to own your own piece of land, to have wide open spaces, to be out of the evil corrupting city with its commerce and economic stratification…we all know this. Ads urging people to get out the big bad city and raise their kids in a neat, green suburb can be found in any New York City paper after the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    Yet survey after survey demonstrates that a preference for large lot areas, nothing within walking distance, and little or no common space are not the reasons people buy houses in sprawling suburbs. Consistently, good schools and low crime are cited as the top two reasons, by far. Neither of these factors are inherent in the physical layout of suburbs – both result from the public and private sector channelling of funds out of cities, older towns, and inner ring suburbs, and into newly built suburbs. Policies/rational economic decisions that can be traced back to the social engineering policies of the Progressives and New Dealers.

    The appropriate metaphore is that development patterns reinforce themselves by making conformity to existing development patterns the path of least resistance. This dynamic occurs across many areas – geographic, political, intellectual, emotional, economic, etc. Over the first 2/3 of the 20th Century, the government and its corporatist partners in banking, real estate, and construction put in a hell of a lot of effort to break the country away from the existing pattern of development – the one that ran through Jericho 10,000 years ago through the traditional suburbs of the early 20th century, the same general pattern changing in response to new technologies – and hammering it into a new, rational, engineered, modernist variety whose main ingredients are the sprawling suburb and the radiant city.

    People want to buy nice houses in nice neighborhoods that have good schools and low crime, and that they can afford. Because of the distortions of government policies, only sprawling suburbs meet these criteria these days.

  44. Dynamist, I gotta call you out on this: “The more libertarian position might be to oppose all regs, not just look for the most pleasing setback requirements, etc.”‘

    The more libertarian position would be to recognize that a minimum setback of 2 feet is much less restrictive than a minimum setback of 30 feet. People can have all sorts of opinions about whether a 2 foot setback is more or less pleasing than a 30 foot setback, but a code that allows you to set your building back 2, 8, 10, 22, or 70 feet is objectively less restrictive than one that lets you set it back 30 feet or more, only.

  45. People want to buy nice houses in nice neighborhoods that have good schools and low crime, and that they can afford. Because of the distortions of government policies, only sprawling suburbs meet these criteria these days.

    So you want to replace the old policies with new policies that you assure us are great.

  46. Also overlooked by focusing purely on preference is the contribution of *price* to the housing decision. Sprawl is hugely subsidized by urbanites – by gas taxes, property taxes, utility fees out of proportion to costs, etc. Urban living, on the other hand, has its supply choked by hostile zoning codes to the point that cost per square-foot is truly extraordinary in areas where healthy urban living options remain.

    So sprawl is much cheaper than it would be naturally, and urban living much more expensive.

    Those who doubt this need to explain why, pre-WWII and the zoning codes and tax subsidies which sprung up around that time, 99% of development was what we today call ‘urban’ and 1% ‘rural’ with nothing in between. Even the so-called ‘streetcar suburbs’ share more with new urbanism than they do with cul-de-sac sprawlburbs.

  47. Dynamist:

    “Perhaps also overlooked are “sprawl-inducing” regs not related specifically to land use. Maybe some prefer a suburb because it still allows smoking in bars, firepits in yards, hobbyist shops in garages, has a lower tax rate, and doesn’t finance stadiums.”

    Ironically, most of those freedoms are easier to find in older urban areas than in new suburbs and especially exurbs. Are you at all familiar with this issue?

    And as for taxes, the primary reason it’s so cheap to live the exurban lifestyle is because urbanites subsidize it. Period.

  48. “Urban living, on the other hand, has its supply choked by hostile zoning codes to the point that cost per square-foot is truly extraordinary in areas where healthy urban living options remain.”

    Just to clarigy’s M1EK’s point, the “hostile zoning codes” are those of the sprawly suburbs, who refuse to allow the expansion of urban-scale development that would occur within their borders absent the ‘burb’s zoning controls.

    Rick Barton, I’m not surprised that a city could thrive with no zoning in the modern era. A sprawly suburb, on the other hand, would quickly turn into something else, or remain a wealthy aberration as the other suburban areas around changed.

  49. What false claims?

    How about:

    Zoning will restrict churches and kill jobs in the black community; zoning will segregate minorities; zoning will raise rents and taxes; zoning will kill redevelopment and zoning will breed slums.

    All of this is at best, misleading; at worse, outright false. Are we to believe that Houston, alone among all large American cities, has no slums or segregation? The animosity towards zoning is really an animosity toward *density*.

    “We have preserved the *liberty* of Houston.”

    OK… so people are somewhat more free to build whatever they want. That doesn’t make the city any more attractive or livable to people who might not enjoy the suburban lifestyle that offers one the “liberty” of having to drive everywhere for even the simplest task.

  50. Soda,

    Excellent!

    Rhywun,

    That zoning restricts churches in the black community (and in other communities) is manifest. There is heavy evidence that it has segregated minorities (sometimes by design). Zoning raises rents by a restricting of supply dynamic. If not raising tax *rates*, zoning certainly has a record of causing land owners and renters to pay higher taxes. Redevelopment projects being cancelled because of the enactment of zoning laws is a common occurrence.

    The animosity towards zoning is an animosity toward coercion.

  51. The smart growth apologists are overlooking several key points:

    1) As O’Toole’s book points out (check the review from the American Planning Association journal on his site), suburbanization long predated the zoning and highway policies alleged to have caused it.

    2) Since suburban zoning policies are set by local governments in most cases, it is the residents and entrepreneurs of those areas that support those policies. Even given the massive public choice problems at the local level, competition between jurisdictions constrains the possiblity of wildly inefficient (in Pareto terms) policies. If a jurisdiction without any zoning rules really would lead to higher land values and/or higher quiality of life, there would be plenty of jurisdictions willing to give it a go. The evidence is that zoning laws by and large ratify private preferences.

    3) In the market for master-planned communities, which are large, privately developed parcels with their own internal “zoning” rules, there is room for a diversity of community styles, which compete for builders, retailers, and residents. The market results to date have many different successful models, but New Urbanism isn’t one of them. (For a discussion of these communities from an aesthetic variety point of view, see Virginia Postrel’s The Substance of Style, pp. 148-152 [hardback]).

    4) Given the use of local property taxes to fund local schools, there is a sound economic argument for “benefit zoning.” Simply put, you don’t want lots of families with children packed into high-density housing being subsidized by low-density residents paying high property taxes. If people can vote with their feet, the low-density residents will leave such jurisdictions and find ones without free-riders on their property taxes.

    5) European countries with drastic anti-sprawl policies, such as Germany, are still seeing the growth of suburbanization and a shift in trips to cars and away from public transit.

    I doubt anyone will read this far on the thread, but the hyperventilating by the Popular Front smart growthers was getting to be too much.

  52. steve,

    I read it! Good post!

    Rhywun,

    You mock the “liberty” of “having to” drive a lot, but first of all do you have any evidence that where there is no zoning, people CANNOT choose to live near enough to services to walk to them? I doubt it! Anyone who lives where there they have to drive everywhere as you describe most likely has chosen to and therefore is indeed exercising their liberty! Furthermore, if one’s “liberty” to have the kind of living situation one desires requires coercing others not to have the living situation they desire, tough tahini. The liberty to coerce others ain’t what liberty’s about.

  53. Maybe I’ll start calling joe “shampoo”, since he works up into a rich, creamy lather. Or is it M1EK who knows just where and how to scrub…

    How do we construct the scenario where cities subsidize suburbs? I don’t see it. The people who move out of cities don’t see it. Taxes come from those who produce wealth, right? Maybe if we count corporate taxes as coming from downtown towers?

    The absence of setback regs is more free than the most accomodating setback regulation. I must be missing something again.

    Looking up the thread, I think we’ve got differing ideas on what sprawl is. I suggest that streetcar suburbs were the sprawl of their time. At some level of density sprawl becomes objectionable to those who think they know better. 1920s sprawl is denser, so NU/TND boosters like it. 1950s sprawl still had “main street” so some elements are kept in TND. 1970s sprawl requires a significant (exclusionary) level of wealth for residents (usually in the form of autos), and that seems to be part of what irks Good Growth boosters. The GGs seem to want to mandate diversity and punish energy consumption. 1990s sprawl amplifies the trend and thickens the lather.

    Answers to surveys are probably conditioned toward what is socially acceptable. I suggest people move to get away from dirtballs and the ills associated with poverty, along with the westering impulse. Good schools might almost be a euphemism for “no renters/hillbillies/beaners/niggers/wops/micks/etc.”. Respondents might not even want to acknowledge their own predjudices to themselves; citing low crime is easier pyschologically.

    Also, by moving into new developments, people have the chance to create their own communities. If I buy a condo in shampoo’s building, I have to put up with all the established patterns and ideologies in his neighborhood. Maybe I want to get away from panhandlers and lefties, and I can find like-minded folk in the exurbs. No TND offers that kind of fresh start.

    ===

    Rarely in these pointless debates does anyone mention the value of land. Excluding whatever regulatory and subsidy schemes buyers are subjected to, it will cost more to own a square foot next to the harbor/station/interchange. A fixed amount of cash might buy 1000sf in town or a few acres 30 minutes away. Is there any correlation between density regs and lot cost? Maybe lot cost is a less elastic preference, as a percentage of total housing budget.

    Henry George still wants to know why the homeowner gets to keep the increase in land value created by the building of infrastructure by the public-at-large. If the taxpayers build a sewer (or stadium) which increases the value of adjoining land, that increase in value is owed to the taxpayers. Take the speculation out of real estate and you’ll probably have less sprawl because it becomes much harder to earn back the cost of holding land idle.

  54. A stray musing–
    What factors caused the switch in the location of the poor? In Jericho time, the poor lived on the fringe of settlement, far from the walled city’s benefit. Now the poor live in the middle of town, at the center of benefit. The rich and poor switched spots.

  55. Anyone looking for a movement to eradicate zoning and subsidies to growth should look to the American Dream Coalition. Our position is that zoning is an unnecessary intrusion and that there are better ways of protecting neighborhood property values. We believe people should have freedom to choose how they want to live and that government’s only role should be to make sure that everyone pays the full cost of their choices.

    That also happens to be the position I have always taken in my writings, for those who care to read them. I have no problem with smart growth densities as long as they are not imposed on people (as they have been in Portland, San Jose, and many other cities). I oppose subsidies to low-density housing. Though we might argue about what is a subsidy, if you agree with these principles please consider joining the American Dream Coalition and we can debate the fine points at our next annual conference.

  56. From Randal’s The American Dream Coalition site:

    Homeownership — Smart growth’s urban-growth boundaries and regulation of home construction make housing unaffordable to most families. Housing in San Jose, Portland, and other smart-growth cities is far less affordable than housing in Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other less-regulated cities.

    Freedom — According to the Heritage Foundation’s 2002 Index of Economic Freedom, nations that protect property rights and other forms of economic freedom have per capita incomes at least six times greater than nations will little or no economic freedom. Higher incomes mean higher environmental quality as well.

    http://americandreamcoalition.org/

    (or just click on Randal’s name)

    What a wonderful organization! I’m going to join.

  57. Hehe. The knee-jerk responses are amazing.

  58. “How do we construct the scenario where cities subsidize suburbs? I don’t see it. The people who move out of cities don’t see it.”

    The two examples I’m most concerned with:

    Transportation alone is a huge subsidy – urbanites who drive pay gas taxes which go mainly to suburban arterials and commuter highways. This isn’t just interstate highway stuff – in our area (Austin), the center-city gets essentially zero back on gas taxes since none of our major arterials are part of the state highway system, while the far suburbs get a ton back in both commuter highways and major arterials. see http://mdahmus.thebaba.com/blog/archives/000118.html for one of about ten I’ve written on this specifically.

    Property taxes – taxing based on value of land, and then providing services to all – this penalizes those with the valuable urban land who actually generate the LEAST demand on city services like city-funded roadways, fire/police/EMS, water/wastewater, etc. Yes, you need more police/fire/EMS in a denser area on absolute terms, but it’s still less per-capita, since they can cover/respond more quickly for a given population size. Utilities especially are a huge subsidy for suburbs, since the user charge for hookups and system maintenance is usually flat, and suburban residents need a lot more pipe-per-capita. There’s a famous study on this on the internet (Tallahassee, FL) which you should really read.

    In states with a higher proportion of income taxes vs. property/sales taxes, it’s not as bad, but it’s still a net subsidy.

    Let me know when you’d like more.

  59. Dyanmist,

    What you’re “missing” is the fact that, in the debate between sprawl and smart growth, it is not the sprawlers who advocate no (or mild) building setbacks. It is the the smart growthers who don’t want to mandate that the front third of your lot remain open, and the sprawlers who carefully write land inefficiencies into the zoning codes in order to keep out the non-rich.

    Sprawl, as it is generally understood, is not the same thing as growth or even expansion. Most New Urbanist developments (which, contra steve, have proven to be successful throuhout the country, from Memphis to Florida to Massachusetts) are new suburban communities. Sprawl refers to a method of laying out a community, not just the expansion of an urbanized area.

    In most countries, the city center is still the place of greatest wealth and prestige, which declines as you move outward. Paris has highrise public housing slums in its suburbs that function for all the world like Cabrini Green. It took a deliberate, intense effort on the part of government and private industry to change this, through techniques like redlining (the denial of financial services like insurance and mortgages to older urban areas). In addition, public sector capital was focused on supporting suburbanization and on projects that reduced the quality of life and character of cities, such as urban highways and urban renewal projects that replaced neighborhoods with strip malls and parking lots.

    It’s important to note, however, that city centers still, in many cases, remain high points of wealth and prestige. You’ll have an expensive central business district, with high end office, retail, and (increasingly) condo space; surrounded by a couple rings of crappy neighborhoods and older suburbs, surrounded by wealthy newer suburbs. Very often, there will be highways and sprawly commercial strips gouged though the older neighborhoods, to connect the people who live in the outer burbs with the downtown in which they work and play.

  60. the center-city gets essentially zero back on gas taxes since none of our major arterials are part of the state highway system

    I have to call bullshit on this. Many metro areas use gas taxes to fund public transit, the bulk of which goes to central city transit infrastructure while the bulk of the taxes are paid by suburbanites driving more of the mileage.

    I’ll agree that there is a lot of ridiculous zoning in the suburbs, I’ve been at zoning meetings where things like setbacks have been defended as “green space”. Sprawl to satisfy environmentalists.

    But a lot of sprawl is justified because there’s no infrustrcture to justify higher density. Lower densities can get by with septic systems, ditches, etc.; high density requires things like large sewer systems and storm drainage. A lot of old high-density urban development relied on dumping stuff into rivers.

  61. Smart Growth is a movement to address the problems created by a massive government intervention into how cities are built.

    By offering yet more government intervention?

    My suggestion is end the government intervention and let what happens happen. But that’s just me.

    If people prefer a city lifestyle, fine, zoning regulations shouldn’t be biased against that. If people prefer suburbs, fine again.

    My guess is that suburbs will win out. I can see the appeal of city life for young single professional types, but with the married with children set, you want a house, a yard, and a controlled environment for your kids.

  62. Transportation alone is a huge subsidy – urbanites who drive pay gas taxes which go mainly to suburban arterials and commuter highways.

    Urbanites drive? I thought you’all walked to work, rode a bike, or rode a bus.

    Property taxes – taxing based on value of land, and then providing services to all – this penalizes those with the valuable urban land who actually generate the LEAST demand on city services

    The major urban areas contain large apartment buildings, where presumably renters “share” the cost of the taxes.

    In any case, here in CA we have Prop 13, which “froze” property taxes until land is transfered, etc., so it isn’t clear that the valuable urban land is taxed at its current market rate.

  63. M1EK: I guess it depends on how you slice the total tax&spend pie. Maybe Austin’s spending distribution is particularly loathesome? Urbanites who drive just can’t use that much fuel unless they motor the miles on those suburban freeways. Roads are not fully funded by use-related tax anyway. Consider the income-tax-funded federal highway subsidies that go to downtown arterial projects (Big Dig is the low fruit here).

    As Russ points out, demand for services is more a function of income than location. joe’s Paris example demonstrates this, too. Otherwise Paris is I think a weird exception to the poverty-center/rich-ring pattern (because in addition to joe’s points, Paris didn’t allow urban renewal and high rises within it borders during the 20th century).

    joe: I accept that one might use a different definition of sprawl. It seems “sprawl” = “dumb growth”. Tell me again why sprawl is dumb. Is it inefficient by the metrics you deem important? Is it that you would prefer a different regime of subsidy and control to please your tastes? I see no philosophical difference between building a streetcar line to 1000-foot lots in 1920 and building a highway to acre lots in 2005. Different time, different wealth, different scale. Same process, same impulse, same emotion.

    Rather than using the state to prevent people from getting what they think they want, or encouraging them to live as you prefer, persuade them that they’ll be happier stacked atop one another dependent upon public largesse to keep the thugs out of the nearest greenspace a few blocks away.

  64. “the center-city gets essentially zero back on gas taxes since none of our major arterials are part of the state highway system

    I have to call bullshit on this. Many metro areas use gas taxes to fund public transit, the bulk of which goes to central city transit infrastructure while the bulk of the taxes are paid by suburbanites driving more of the mileage. ”

    Wrong. The diversion of fuel taxes to transit is dwarfed by the diversion of property and sales taxes to roads, especially suburban arterials.

    When I refer to “urbanite” vs “suburbanite”, keep in mind that “urbanite” doesn’t mean “non-driver in Manhattan”; it means “resident of an urban neighborhood who, in most American cities, still must drive to function”.

  65. Dynamist,

    “I see no philosophical difference between building a streetcar line to 1000-foot lots in 1920 and building a highway to acre lots in 2005.”

    Then with all due respect, you are unqualified for this discussion.

    Those streetcar lines to the streetcar-suburbs were usually funded BY THE DEVELOPER and their operating costs were paid for BY THEIR USERS. At the time, no suburban commuter highways even existed, so transit could indeed compete on a fairly level playing-field.

    The modern suburban commuter-highways, on the other hand, are paid for BY THE GOVERNMENT and are subsidized by the very non-users whose city they usually end up destroying.

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