Trading Places

William T. Bogart on dynamic cities and unaccountable planners


For all the popular invective and academic arguments about "sprawl," it's almost impossible to get a clear measurement of how much sprawl there actually is. That's largely because it's hard to pin a precise definition onto the word. In Don't Call It Sprawl: Metropolitan Structure in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press), the economist William T. Bogart offers "a simple test to apply to any purported definition of sprawl. Apply it to Central Park in Manhattan. In most cases, you will find that it implies that Central Park should be developed. For fun, you can point this out to the definer, who will quickly assure you that he or she didn't mean it that way."

As its title suggests, Bogart's book suggests throwing out the pejorative term "sprawl" altogether and approaching our cities and suburbs with a different lens. Borrowing models from the study of international trade, Bogart views metropolitan regions as dynamic systems; he rejects any approach that confuses a static snapshot of a region with the region itself. By no means a libertarian purist—he is willing, for example, to consider certain subsidies to urban downtowns—he is nonetheless skeptical of centralized planning and of reformers who would rather impose their will on the landscape than "use the existing momentum but…deflect it in a better direction." He is also a clever writer, always willing to leaven a dry economic passage with a joke or an allusion to speculative fiction.

Bogart is dean of academic affairs at York College in Pennsylvania. I spoke to him by phone on December 11.

reason: If we shouldn't call it sprawl, what should we call it?

Bogart: "Trading places." It's a more accurate description of how metropolitan areas are structured today: Parts interact with each other by trading goods and services, which includes people moving from place to place and consuming and producing goods and services.

It's also an explicitly dynamic term. Over the course of a day the populations of different parts of metropolitan areas change, and over the course of time the populations of metropolitan areas change. Too much of the discussion about metropolitan structure has been too narrowly focused, in both space and time—it looks at a very small part of a metropolitan area at only one point in time.

There's also a wonderful movie called Trading Places, and one of the themes of that movie is that two people whose lives didn't seem to be connected—who seemed to be in competition—in fact had a common interest. That's an excellent metaphor for the position many local governments find themselves in. It seems that they are competing with each other for business, housing, and other resources, but fundamentally they have a shared interest in the metropolitan area succeeding.

reason: How does trade among suburbs and neighborhoods resemble trade among nations?

Bogart: Importing is consuming more than you produce. Exporting is producing more than you consume. So really the difference is over what geographical region are we considering the production and consumption that's going on. We're very familiar with it with countries, because—(chuckles) this is the sort of thing that reason readers will be familiar with—there are lots of government regulations and often taxes involved when good and services cross national boundaries. There typically are not those kinds of regulatory or tax barriers when goods and services cross local boundaries. In that sense it's much less visible, because there isn't a government agency collecting information on it. But it is very large and very pervasive.

Zoning is a trade regulation. If you do not allow a certain type of activity to occur within your municipality, you have automatically determined that you will not be exporting it. It can also affect trade indirectly, in that if you allow a particular type of land use but either restrict the way it is engaged in or restrict the total amount of it, you can change the pattern of imports and exports relative to what it otherwise would have been. If a Wal-Mart or some kind of a superstore wants to locate in your town, and you don't allow retail with a large enough footprint or with the type of traffic that a superstore needs, you haven't gotten rid of Wal-Mart. You have made sure that the residents of your town will be importing the services of Wal-Mart from someplace else.

reason: If zoning is a trade regulation, then what's the metropolitan equivalent of a free trade policy?

Bogart: One of the justifications for these sorts of policies is the control of externalities. To economists, the right approach is: If there are spillovers, address them directly. Don't constrain developers from coming up with clever solutions to those problems. So if you're concerned about traffic congestion, don't ban a land use. Require a certain level of traffic flow and let the developers figure out how they can organize themselves, including perhaps contributing the infrastructure, to maintain that type of traffic flow.

For example, Houston is not zoned. It is not true, though, that Houston does not engage in land use control. The municipal government does directly prohibit or restrict certain types of negative externalities. And the municipal government participates in enforcing contractual arrangements. If someone is doing something that is not in conformance with the local covenant, the municipal government will take the lead, legally, in enforcing that covenant. In a sense they've privatized and contracted the services of what in most towns is the job of a planning department.

reason: Why don't you think the Houston model has been imitated?

Bogart: I have two answers for that. One is: I'm completely baffled. (laughs) The other has to do with the political economy of the planning profession and the incentives in governments. The planning profession is not held accountable for bad advice.

Why is it that we have single-use zoning that's very restrictive? Because that's what planners told us was the right way to do things. Now they've said that's not such a good idea after all—that it's a good idea to allow some types of small retail scattered in and amongst retail areas on major streets. Well, if you go to Houston you find that: On the major streets you have retail, and on the side streets and back areas you have the housing developments. Sometimes people in Houston can in fact walk to shop. And they did it without some planner in the city government telling them, "Oh, you should put some stores close to the houses." It turns out that's such a good idea that a developer got rich doing that. So what's ironic is that some of the current, cutting-edge New Urbanist ideas have been in place in Houston for years without the intervention of the planning profession.

The other thing that's frustrating is, if you read a lot of planners' critiques of what they refer to as urban sprawl, they're completely focused on the present. You would think a profession called planning would be concerned with the evolution and transition of areas. But they aren't. They'll look at a situation where a few houses have been built, and they'll say that's sprawl. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps over the next 10 or 20 years there's going to be further infill development there—if it's allowed by the local land-use controls—and in fact what they're seeing is a city in construction. As a country, we're growing in population. Those people have to go someplace. And they're not all going to go there at once.

So we have to think about not just land use at a particular point in time, but where we're going. Areas change, and a lot of the problems we have in redevelopment are self-inflicted because of the type of land use regime that we've imposed on ourselves.

reason: Of course, it's all the rage in some cities to do a 20-year forecast—which never matches where the development ends up appearing.

Bogart: The real urban planning is sewers and highways. That part of urban planning is, to a large extent, competent civil engineering. So you have to do that. What I'm objecting to in these 20-year plans is the planner saying, "The apartments are going to be over here, the houses are going to be over here, and the stores are going to be over here." And then 10 years later, when someone wants to build apartments where the store was going to be, or worse try to redevelop a store into apartments, they have to move heaven and earth to make it possible. If the infrastructure's there, and if people want to do it, then why not let them?

reason: It's usually acknowledged today that downtowns are losing their status as the center of the city. You write that this process has been going on for longer than is usually assumed.

Bogart: It began with the invention of mass transit in the early 1800s. It accelerated in the early 1900s with the invention of the car and especially the truck, because manufacturing was able to get out of downtown. Manufacturing wanted to get out of downtown, and everyone else downtown wanted manufacturing gone too, because it's noisy, it's smelly—there's all kinds of problems. So the manufacturers were able to leave, and that has let the downtowns adjust from being everything to being a certain set of things.

I allude in the chapter on downtowns to a book by Jean Gottman called Megalopolis, where he identifies some specific special roles that downtowns play. One of the things that completely frustrates me is that a lot of people cite the word "megalopolis" but haven't read Gottman's book. It's an incredible book. If a lot of planners would read it and think about it, they probably wouldn't cite it the way that they do.

reason: What's good about it?

Bogart: He looks at the long-run changes that are going on and tries to understand them. The reason no one reads it is it's about 800 pages. He talks about the growth of activities over 200 years on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Among other things, he has very thoughtful discussions about how farmland transitions into being urban. A lot of the forests that people are bemoaning the loss of, for example, only became forests relatively recently. Before that they were cornfields. But they were inefficient cornfields. Forests were a good way to hold them until they could actually be redeveloped.

Again, what we're seeing is a long-range transition from rural to urban. Rather than just object to that, Gottman tries to understand both the cause and what the real costs and benefits are.

reason: You also argue that mass transit is a historical anomaly.

Bogart: Essentially, people are willing to trade off the inconvenience of mass transit only if there's enough speed in return. There was a very short period of time when technologically that was feasible, and it dated from the late 1800s until about 1930. Mass transit, and particularly large-scale fixed-rail transit, really only makes sense where you have the type of highly dense employment and highly dense residences that are very rare in the United States. So building some of these light rail lines from place to place—it takes too long to build them, not as many people ride them as were projected to ride them, and it's much more expensive and less effective than almost anything else that you could do.

The other problem with mass transit is it is really inflexible.

reason: Or at least fixed-rail transit is inflexible.

Bogart: Buses are theoretically more flexible, although a truly flexible bus system is called a "taxi."

reason: I noticed there wasn't any discussion of taxis in the book.

Bogart: I made a conscious decision with this book to try to keep it, for the want of a better word, "short." The book itself tries not to be sprawling.

The sequel, if anyone buys this one, would work through what the implied policies are. On the general issue of accessibility across a metropolitan area for people who can't afford cars, there's some wonderful work that's being done, both by academic researchers and with some policy experiments, on subsidizing car use for low-income individuals. You can almost think of it as a component of an employment voucher. I have a job in the suburbs, and through one of these programs I get a car with a forgivable or a subsidized loan. And it's not called in as long as I am successfully continuing to work. It is true that there aren't a lot of jobs within walking distance or along fixed-rail systems from concentrations of low-income individuals. The answer is not to try to plop a bunch of jobs in their neighborhoods. The answer is to increase the accessibility.

The person that's been very prominently active on this is Michael Porter of Harvard, with the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. He identifies the problem in a lot of neighborhoods and central cities as isolation. From my perspective, public policies that increase that isolation are counterproductive. And public policies that reduce that isolation, which includes making cars affordable and accessible, are good ones.

For people that can't drive, that's where the quasi-taxi shuttle becomes appropriate.

reason: What's the relationship between commute times and congestion times?

Bogart: Well, commute times in the U.S. have been roughly constant. They fell during the '50s and '60s, as more people started to drive, and then they've remained constant for the last thirty-something years. In central cities in rush hour in the 1950s, you had greater employment densities in the downtown and greater traffic congestion in the downtown. What's happened is the traffic congestion has been more spread out. That's kind of a good thing—the infrastructure is being used more efficiently and more broadly.

The headline numbers on congestion that people come up with—billions and billions of hours spent in traffic—if you actually calculate it, for most people it works out to be a few minutes a day. Granted, there's a lot of things I would rather be doing than driving in a congested situation a few minutes a day. However, if you compare that even to bus travel time, it turns out that people would rather spend a few minutes in congested cars than spend the minutes at the bus stop or walking from the bus stop to their jobs or sitting on the bus. And when you go to fixed rail the commute times are just off the chart relative to the amount of congestion. Except in a few situations—that's where you find people riding fixed rail. But much of the congestion is a problem we've chosen to have.

reason: You write that "lags in investment mean that existing metropolitan structure will always be inefficient." You also note that "if all the houses in an area are newly constructed at the same time, then they will likely become obsolete at the same time." So is the inefficiency a good thing?

Bogart: It gets us away from that static view and more towards a long-run view. Those static inefficiencies are perhaps a cost of a long-run efficiency. You're much better off having a place where there is this constant flow and flux. That flow and flux means that things are leaving that shouldn't be there anymore, and things are coming in that think that it's a good place for them, and maybe it works out and maybe not.

A wonderful book in many ways is Edge City by Joel Garreau. He talks about people who look at some of the places in Venice and say, "Why can't we build something like that in America?" They forget that the city developed over 800 years. It's not as though an urban planner came in and said, "Let's build this plaza." Developers would go in and build something. If it was great it lasted and people redeveloped it and kept it, and if it wasn't then 20 years later someone came in, tore it down, and built something else. Over the course of a few hundred years you might be left with something pretty nice as a result, because the good stuff stays and the bad stuff goes.

A lot of our negative judgments are taken perhaps too quickly. Some of these Baltimore neighborhoods with rowhouses, maybe 30 years ago someone said, "Why would anyone want to live in a place like that?" Well, it turns out that there's a large number of people who want to live in places like that, for very good reasons. Had we done things that were advocated with bulldozers and wrecking balls, they would have lost that opportunity.

reason: You mention the number and diversity of local governments in urban areas like Pittsburgh. In a lot of the more recently developed areas out west, instead of a host of local governments there's a host of private community associations. Is one landscape more flexible than the other?

Bogart: I don't think we know yet, because the jurisprudence is still evolving about the extent to which the private associations are allowed to operate differently than municipal governments.

That's a little bit of a copout. Part of the difference, from my point of view, is the ease with which you can change. You don't see a lot of incorporation and disincorporation and mergers of municipalities. With a homeowners association, if it's not adapting well, somebody goes bankrupt. That gives you an opportunity to reorganize that governments don't have. If a lot of struggling cities and school systems were private operations they would already be bankrupt.

The reason I have to say that I don't know yet is because so much of the private association activity is new construction. We don't know how they're going to respond when they hit a downturn. Or when what was constructed for the demographics and preferences of 2006 has to respond to the population of 2036. Until we get there, we don't know.

And again, it's not clear to what extent these associations are going to be held to the same constitutional restrictions that municipal governments are held to. If they're regulated the same, then my guess is they'll have the same difficulties in being flexible.

reason: Your book also criticizes the ideas of metropolitan regionalism and tax-base sharing.

Bogart: One reason to be against tax-base sharing is that it's not that much money that's being distributed. As a result, it can't really change anything.

Another reason is, if you look at places that have metropolitan government, they essentially have tax-base sharing built in. To my eye, I don't see the difference in internal disparities in those places relative to places that don't have tax-base sharing or metropolitan government.

Let me come at it at a slightly different, practical angle. I live an hour north of Baltimore. If we were to going to do a regional government, my county should be part of the Baltimore regional government. But I'm in Pennsylvania, and Baltimore's in Maryland. If the regional government people are serious, they'd be talking about multi-state regional governments, and I have yet to hear one of them address that seriously.

Also, you're essentially just changing the level of inflexibility. One of the nice things about small municipal governments is that as a place changes from being rural to being urban, it can join a voluntary set of regional contractual agreements. Where I live we have regional police departments, where multiple municipalities participate. But if you draw a metropolitan boundary, what happens when the town right outside the boundary becomes economically part of the metropolis? Are you changing the boundary every time? What happens in a situation like Youngstown, where the metropolitan area is shrinking? How do you release a piece of the city that maybe should be farms again?

If metropolitan regional government is the answer, that's another argument for why everybody should be copying Houston. The city of Houston is huge. The city limits of Houston are over 600 square miles. That's unimaginably large, relative to what most regions are looking at. Yet I don't hear [prominent regionalist] David Rusk advocating, "Look at Houston! That's what we're trying to accomplish."

reason: You write that "people in Cleveland didn't know they were living in a new world until after the fact." How is "sprawl"—the idea, not the actual sprawl—constructed in popular discourse?

Bogart: There is some type of dramatic public event. A well-known local area gets developed, and all of the sudden people realize, "We're not what we thought we were before."

I mention in the book—and there's some nice research on this—that most people live in places that are, depending on how you measure it, about 50 percent developed. About half open space, half development. And over time, the peak of what gets developed is about 50 percent open space. So you have a huge fraction of people thinking, "That was that other farm, and now there's houses there." They incorrectly extrapolate that every farm in America has been turned into houses, and there's a public outcry.

Some of it is also self-serving. People move into an area and then attempt to change the rules under which they were allowed to move in.

reason: Last question: What does Italo Calvino have to tell us about metropolitan structure?

Bogart: The reason I used so many literary references is to evoke that metropolitan structure includes a lot of connections across disciplines and even across literature. I open with an excerpt from Calvino's Invisible Cities in which Marco Polo and Kublai Khan talk about the stones that make up the arch of a bridge. Marco Polo describes the stones, and Khan says, "Which one's most important?" Marco Polo says, "Well, none of them. It's the arch that holds up the bridge." Kublai Khan says, "So why are you telling me about the stones?" And Marco Polo says, "Without the stones there is no arch."

We have to focus on the individual, but we have to focus on that individual in the context of the complete relationship. For me, that's why it's so important to focus both on the individual trading places and on the relationships among them. Both are necessary for a thriving metropolitan area.