Cities

'Jane Jacobs Goals Through Robert Moses Tactics'

Community planners don't have all the answers.

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Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution To Rebuild American Prosperity, by Charles L. Marohn Jr., John Wiley & Sons, 240 pages, $25

In the years after World War II, flush with cash and optimism, American planners "skipped the messy iterations" of gradual urban and suburban growth, Charles L. Marohn Jr. explains. Instead, they subsidized ambitious new developments and saddled them with codes aimed at keeping them static. After all, once you've figured out the perfect design, why let anyone tinker with it?

"There is no anticipation of change, incremental or otherwise," Marohn writes of this approach in his book Strong Towns. "The building won't adapt, the block won't evolve, and the neighborhood won't transform over time, at least not easily. As it is built, evermore will it be, world without end."

The design wasn't really perfect, of course. These massive community plans made few accommodations for the human need to make adjustments based on experience.

Marohn, a professional engineer and land use planner, co-founded Strong Towns, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the development and growth of cities. His eponymous book at times may seem like a romanticized view of yesteryear, when city leaders were just…better. But city leaders weren't better before the rise of zoning and similar tools—there were just fewer of them, and they had less authority to carry out grand schemes.

Marohn takes readers everywhere from ancient cities to post–Civil War rail towns, demonstrating how urban centers once grew organically, constantly adjusting themselves to account for new information. Many of these places failed, but the ones that thrived evolved incrementally, taking on additional responsibilities for services like roads and public safety—but always doing so slowly.

Modern planners have failed repeatedly to accommodate the realities on the ground. In his 2018 book Order Without Design, Alain Bertaud recounted his work as an inspector in 1965 Algeria, where residential building permits insisted on "the rules, norms, and regulations for land development and construction" of France. French planners thought they had perfected urban design, so they saw no need to take into consideration the "income, culture, traditions, and climate" of this distant North African country.

Under such end-of-history planning, communities cannot adapt. You needn't go to Algeria to see examples. Consider the challenges a homeowner faces if he wants to have a "granny flat" on his property, or the gauntlets that must be run by such entrepreneurial innovations as Airbnb.

Many homeowners have bought in to that same planning mirage, and they aren't about to risk their investment by letting their communities evolve. As a result, Marohn writes, "A neighborhood of single-family homes must remain a neighborhood of single family homes. The person living there is unable to turn higher property values into a redevelopment opportunity that expands the number of units." As the community stagnates, people move up by moving out; the neighborhoods they leave behind decline and decay.

All this exacts a cost on public resources. Many cities and towns have viewed short-term growth as a good thing, not mindful of the long-term costs of upkeep for roads, pipes, traffic lights, and so on. When the costs of infrastructure maintenance come due, urban leaders attempt to pay for it with the short-term revenue of yet another development—if they don't defer maintenance altogether. It's a game no one can win. Ask the people of Detroit, a city that (among many other errors) embraced suburban growth early on, only to be hit with the crushing costs of upkeep. "When you take a prosperous and stable city, spread it out at tremendous cost over an enormous area, denuding and bisecting the original fabric as part of the transition, then saddle it with decades of liabilities, you end up with Detroit," Marohn warns.

The most financially productive parts of a city are not necessarily the ones you expect. With some exceptions in "highly gentrified areas," he writes, "poorer neighborhoods tend to financially outperform wealthier neighborhoods." They pay vastly more property tax and retail tax per acre, and they likely house more people. The planned development may seem like a wealthy enclave, but the cost of public infrastructure to serve it—roads, water and sewers, public safety, and the like—can significantly decrease its value to the city.

Marohn argues that many cities will eventually have to deal with the problem Detroit faced: an inability to support suburban and exurban development. He advocates a sort of triage, the strategy in an emergency situation of assigning limited resources sparingly to save as many lives as possible. "If we can have this conversation about human lives," he writes, "we can have it about neighborhoods." People who want to live in suburbs and exurbs should be welcome to do so, of course, but they ought to bear the cost of the infrastructure that such far-flung communities require.

By now, many city governments have realized that the costs of suburban infrastructure far outweigh any benefits of the growth. So they set out to develop their cities' cores and attract people back downtown. Density is their rallying cry: Increase the number of taxpayers living off the same existing infrastructure to save money. Instead of office parks and shopping malls, urban planners advocate building convention hotels, streetcars, and down-town stadiums.

But that's not a great idea either. On one of Marohn's podcasts, the former city council president of Sandpoint, Idaho, described this as an attempt to achieve "Jane Jacobs goals through Robert Moses tactics." In 1960s New York City, Moses was the planner who proposed several expressways through Manhattan; Jacobs was the author and activist who championed the people in the paths of Moses' plans. Today's planners may have learned the dangers of subsidized suburban development, but they're still addicted to top-down development schemes.

Instead of more grand plans, Marohn wants a return to the days of light regulation and incremental growth: Let the landscape evolve, improving through trial and error. More specifically, he calls for relaxing restrictive zoning rules and focusing on maintaining existing infrastructure rather than building new facilities.

Hike through a New England forest, and you may come upon low stone walls that were previously used to mark farm territory up to the time when the plot's output could no longer justify the effort and expense of working the land. In much the same way, Marohn suggests that because many suburban developments would be unsustainable if the true costs of infrastructure were passed on to residents, they ought to be allowed to go to seed. This may seem like bitter medicine, but he thinks it's the only realistic way to move beyond decades of bad bets and hollow promises.

Marohn's diagnosis rings true. Cities are being flooded with bad development advice characterized by conflicts of interest, inflated estimates of economic impact, and requests for public subsidies that would distort market forces—this time in the service of urbanization. Meanwhile, elected leaders look for anything that looks like a quick win, regardless of the long-term consequences. And all of this is done with unjustified confidence about what the future will bring.

"The curious task of economics," F.A. Hayek once wrote, "is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." Marohn aims to inject that same spirit of humility into municipal administration. Policy makers, planners, and think tank wonks don't have all the answers. They should admit how little they really know about what they imagine they can design and allow people acting freely to lead the way.

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  1. By now, many city governments have realized that the costs of suburban infrastructure far outweigh any benefits of the growth.

    Costs to whom? Benefits to whom? Is the purpose of government to serve the needs of the citizenry or the purpose of the citizenry to serve the needs of government?

    1. Traffic signals are $200k apiece if you get ’em cheap. Then you’ve got to buy more police vehicles to monitor the roads and the drivers. All the asphalt causes water runoff issues as well so you need to dig a retention pond.
      Highways are partially paid for by the federal government. But the state and city still need to build new interchanges and access roads. Suburban sprawl (car-dependency) costs an insane amount of tax money per capita, hence so many suburban municipalities are going into insolvency. My parents’ suburb is facing 2 options:
      1. Raise taxes
      2. Reimagine the local (dying) mall into a downtown area so that its tax revenues can subsidize the suburban parts of town.

      https://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-ponzi-scheme-surrounding-development-leaves-most-cities-and-towns-functionally-insolvent-2019-12-16

      1. “2. Reimagine the local (dying) mall into a downtown area so that its tax revenues can subsidize the suburban parts of town.”

        Care to explain how that comes about?

        1. Mixed-use and denser areas generate much more tax revenue per acre. Strip malls and suburban areas cost the city a lot of tax money.
          So for the city to remain solvent, it needs a mixed-use downtown area to offset the huge burden caused by sprawled areas.

          1. And you still haven’t explained HOW this comes about. Are you really that dense?

            1. Easy. You change the zoning to mixed use. Because mixed use is a profitable investment for such areas, a develop then comes in, buys the land, and develops it.

              1. There’s an assumption built into that, and a guy named Levitt figured single use was more profitable. On his dime.
                Got any examples otherwise?

                1. Sure. Just consider the farms that are now towns. From single use (agriculture) to everything.

                  So in a shopping mall, turn the parking lot into everything. The Talking Heads even made a song about it.

                  1. Nice try at some pedantry- fail. Are you a trueman sock?

          2. So for the city to remain solvent, it needs a mixed-use downtown area to offset the huge burden caused by sprawled areas.

            Or, they just redevelop the mall into an outdoor shopping center, which is basically the same thing except you have to deal with the weather to get from store to store.

            This isn’t just happening in “downtown” areas. It’s happening in plenty of suburban communities.

      2. I would think a far greater percentage of cities are facing insolvency than are suburban municipalities. Insolvency seems the natural outcome of expecting “free stuff” or being unwilling to pay for all the infrastructure and services that one demands be provided.

      3. Oh, I see below. No answer required; you, as a fucking lefty, think YOU know what’s right for the rest of us.
        Fuck off, slaver.

        1. I’m a libertarian who supports property rights and reigning in big government.
          It’s ironic to see so-called “libertarians” on the Reason comments advocating for zoning. The hypocrisy is hilarious.

    2. Costs to whom? Benefits to whom?

      Government exists to serve the needs of its constituents. But when it comes to land use, urban planning, etc., we need to understand that those “needs” and “desires” are to a certain extent predetermined by what previous generations of government officials have implemented. That is, if we view the point of municipal government as being to “deliver” on demand for cheap, suburban housing (say), which is desired precisely because previous policies have typically subsidized that kind of housing handsomely. So, we could theoretically simply deliver on that demand. But that means locking us into that ongoing cycle of subsidy, expansion, annexation, etc., which is ultimately unsustainable.

      The better view is to view land-use policymaking as a basic function of the government trying to get the most “bang” for its “buck.” From that perspective, density is best – it’s cheapest to service and most productive in terms of tax revenue. It’s also more sustainable, because dense design makes employment and business markets more competitive and efficient, which in turn has its own benefits in terms of costs/benefits to the city as a whole.

      If you can find a way to finance suburban development that puts you into that virtuous cycle, then by all means – nothing should stop us from planning accordingly. But empirically and factually speaking, that’s just not what suburban development does. It cannot sustain itself, because people, businesses, schools, services, etc., are too spread out. They constantly have to draw from more efficient urban cores to survive, and generation after generation of policy officials distort their economies and tax bases to prolong their longevity.

      1. “…The better view is to view land-use policymaking as a basic function of the government trying to get the most “bang” for its “buck.”…”

        No.
        The better view is to get the government out of anything to do with ‘land use’ and leave us alone.

        1. The only way to accomplish that would be to get the government out of utilities, sewage, streets, and any kind of public services (e.g., education, police, fire, etc.).

          You can’t go halfway. The moment you endorse government making decisions about how to spend money on public services, you open the door to making further decisions about how those public services should be allocated – i.e., “land use.”

  2. “Community planners don’t have all the answers.”

    Let’s not beat around the bush, We are talking about state-mandated planning.
    Giving the idea that planning itself is a bad idea is not smart and may well be counter-productive

  3. I am not religious. It always seemed to me that gods were always of the city planner type: they were hands on tinkerers. Having hastily created a shoddy prototype, they rushed it into production and then have had to stay on site ever since running maintenance.

    How much more satisfying it would have been to create the initial conditions and sit back and enjoy watching it evolve on its own for 14 billion years!

    But no one wanted to think up such gods, I suppose because they had to have some rationale for angry gods to throw natural disasters at them, plus allow genocidal wars, plagues, and such short,nasty, brutal lives.

    Thus it is with city planners. Instead of just letting cities grow, politicians had to invent modern day tinkering. I had not known that suburbs are generally Ponzi schemes, but all else in the political realm is, so it makes sense.

    The hubris necessary for politicians to think that they can create the one perfect world, whether they be city planners or socialists (but I repeat myself), is amazing. I long for the day when the DSM defines “politician” as a formof insanity which refuses to recognize reality.

    1. Ironically a lot of right-wing folks are the staunchest advocates of urban planning and government land-use control (NIMBYism).
      You’d think they’d enjoy having some property rights, but a lot of them fight against the right to build an ADU or duplex on their own property.

      1. I think your partisanship has confused you. One of the biggest reason people oppose loosened zoning is fear of property values decreasing. They paid a fortune to get in and they don’t want a bunch of riff-raff moving in and lowering their property values.

        San Francisco and Seattle on the left coast are prime examples, and those are no conservative strongholds by any stretch of the imagination. I am not as familiar with New York or other east coast cities and their zoning battles, but they aren’t conservative bastions either.

        1. No, your partisanship’s the problem; you want big government to take away your liberties.
          And those people aren’t experts on real estate by any means. I’ve seen NIMBYs get up in arms about high-end luxury townhouses getting built a mile away from them.

          Additionally, you have no constitutional right to tell someone he can’t build a duplex or ADU on his own property.

          1. Uh, you’re describing what the lefties who run SF do.
            If there is a right-wing example, please tell us about it, not simply claim it to be true.

          2. I what?!? You sure haven’t been here long if you think I have ANY use for government, big or not. Keerist, even lc1789 knows better than that!

            What the hell makes you think I want to stop someone building a duplex or ADU on his property, or a skyscraper for that matter?

            And why don’t you say anything about all the lefties destroying the big cities with their extornionist land use policies?

            Good god man, take your meds!

        2. One of the biggest reason people oppose loosened zoning is fear of property values decreasing. They paid a fortune to get in and they don’t want a bunch of riff-raff moving in and lowering their property values.

          People might believe this, but this is not generally how it works. Loosened zoning restrictions means property can be put to higher-value use.

          You’re certainly correct that “liberal bastions” like NYC, SF, and Seattle are places experiencing housing crunches. The politics around this is completely bizarre. But generally speaking it’s people in older, less-dense housing opposing the construction of higher-density housing, often citing the historic nature of their neighborhoods or the specter of gentrification – but this usually just means (in NYC, anyway) that other neighborhoods are bulldozed in favor of this denser housing. In NYC, it means that the rich, white denizens of places like Greenwich Village get to keep their shady, “historic” streets, while the poorer, browner residents of Bushwick get pushed out further east and south as towers of apartments are built there. Yes, it’s racist, classist, and hypocritical – but every bit in line with generations of New York politics. Welcome to Chinatown, basically.

          The rest of the country – the sprawling metros of the redder states basically – have their own issues in terms of economically sustainable development. I’m not sure they so much suffer from housing shortages as they do ballooning infrastructure costs in political environments that are not conducive to addressing the structural problems creating them. The Strong Towns formula is a good way to make those places more thriving, attractive places to live and work, though for different reasons than would apply in places like NYC or SF.

          1. “…People might believe this, but this is not generally how it works. Loosened zoning restrictions means property can be put to higher-value use…”

            That is:
            A claim…..
            With no evidence…..
            And is largely irrelevant, even if true, in residential areas.
            ——————————-
            “…I’m not sure they so much suffer from housing shortages as they do ballooning infrastructure costs in political environments that are not conducive to addressing the structural problems creating them. The Strong Towns formula is a good way to make those places more thriving, attractive places to live and work, though for different reasons than would apply in places like NYC or SF.”

            So you’re not sure there *is* a problem, but you’re sure you have a solution, including governmental policies.
            My, how…….
            Pathetic.

      2. Feel free to pull up a “right-wing” example. Nearly every community that puts in hyper-restrictive limitations on zoning and development is dominated by left-wing city councils. This is especially true in high-population metropoles, which have almost all been Democrat strongholds for nearly a century and a half, and exclusively so since the late 60s.

        1. “Right-wing” examples of restrictive zoning include things like parking minimums and single-family housing restrictions. These inflate the costs of dense development, in the former, and infrastructure, in the latter.

          You’re certainly correct that hyper-restrictive limitations is the go-to solution of left-wing states and city governments. Things like rent control and rent stabilization emerge when you recognize that other anti-density zoning practices drives up the costs of housing. You want to do something about that… without doing anything about the anti-density zoning in the first place. So it’s rules on top of rules, mucking up the whole thing.

          It’d be nice if we (in New York) could do something about it, but there are so many cross-cutting vested interests in the system as things stand, and so much corruption, that it’s hard to see the path to health. It’s a lot easier to think about what ails the smaller metro areas, where the solutions are a little bit easier to imagine.

          1. ““Right-wing” examples of restrictive zoning include things like parking minimums and single-family housing restrictions. These inflate the costs of dense development, in the former, and infrastructure, in the latter…”

            Uh, making a claim and hanging “right-wing” on it doesn’t work.
            Now, do you have any examples?

            1. I’m pretty sure that if you polled people on restrictive zoning of the sort listed by SimonP, support would skew “conservative” or “right”, and some of it even fits the intuitive notion of conservative in the true sense, i.e. a preference for keeping things the way they are.

              Of course you’d have to ask people living where those issues matter. In rural areas, where the population generally is more “right”-leaning, those issues don’t matter. So you’d have to poll people in generally urban areas (cities and suburbs), and in those places the supporters of the above would be “right” of the median on issues generally. It’s not those farthest “left” in the cities who are the bulk of the support for these restrictions.

              1. “and some of it even fits the intuitive notion of conservative in the true sense, i.e. a preference for keeping things the way they are.”

                Like… this?

                Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism

                In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive. If given a choice between two worlds:

                #1- A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic, chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly distributed, or…

                #2- A “progressive” society where everyone is poorer, but income is generally more evenly distributed. In this society, jobs and pay and industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances that they will continue to have what they have today, with little downside but also with very little upside.

                Progressives will choose #2. Even if it means everyone is poorer. Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology or wealth or lifespan or whatever. They want to take what we have today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just that. Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in 1900.

                http://coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2004/12/progressives_di.html

              2. “I’m pretty sure that if you polled people on restrictive zoning of the sort listed by SimonP, support would skew “conservative” or “right”, and some of it even fits the intuitive notion of conservative in the true sense, i.e. a preference for keeping things the way they are.”

                I’m pretty sure dimbulbs offering their opinions rather than evidence….
                Are.
                Full.
                Of.
                Shit.

              3. So you’d have to poll people in generally urban areas (cities and suburbs), and in those places the supporters of the above would be “right” of the median on issues generally

                LOL, what? Urban areas skew left-wing in their politics, not right-wing, in many cases extremely so. Suburbs were largely conservative for several decades as these people sought to escape the filthy, crime-ridden cities, but these places are now swing areas.

                Maybe your definition of “left-wing” is “Jacobin” or “communist,” but that’s not how the American political spectrum is aligned.

            2. You only have to look at the Reason comments to find a bunch of people who call themselves “right-wing” and get butthurt when you point out that zoning is not right-wing.

          2. “Right-wing” examples of restrictive zoning include things like parking minimums and single-family housing restrictions.

            Feel free to cite some actual places. There are plenty of single-family housing developments in downtown areas, too. It’s not just Megacity Block anthills.

            1. Hell, you know who has the most restrictive housing laws in the Denver metro area? Boulder, a city of wealthy, far-left wing residents. They were put in place specifically to preserve open space and natural landscapes around the city. It’s so fucking expensive to live there, their service class largely commutes from Longmont and other areas of Boulder County. Nearly all the bellyaching about pop-tops, scrape-offs, and multi-unit developments in Denver neighborhoods are coming from left-wing activists, mostly in the non-white ones in particular. It’s definitely not coming from right-wing advocates, because there are hardly any left in the city of Denver to speak of.

          1. Fucking idiotic response; GOTTA be a trueman sock.

          2. How exactly is Japan “right-wing”?

  4. “poorer neighborhoods tend to financially outperform wealthier neighborhoods.” They pay vastly more property tax and retail tax per acre, and they likely house more people.

    “So pack ’em in!”

  5. I like the urbanism movement because it actually means LESS urban planning and land use controls.
    We could solve most of our housing and transportation problems by simply removing the Draconian land-use regulations and letting single-family detached parcels get slightly upzoned.
    America’s extreme land-use regulations also ensure that real estate is a rich man’s game, putting a serious barrier on upward mobility.

    1. Here you admit that property values play a big role in keeping restrictive zoning. Take it just a little further to the big cities, controlled by Democrats, prime examples of fear of the riff-raff.

      1. And ironically the big cities controlled by riff-raff have less restrictive land-use policies than the average American suburb.
        In suburbia they control how far your building is set back from the street, how tall it is, the architectural style (or lack thereof, usually), whether you can plant a tree in your yard, and you can’t build a fence in your front yard.

        A Florida woman had to fight a 6-year court battle for the right to grow vegetables in her front yard.
        https://www.npr.org/2019/07/04/738791507/one-womans-quest-to-get-back-her-vegetable-garden-results-in-new-florida-law

        1. In San Francisco, they control (read: stop you) from building, even if your property is already zoned for such. Reason has had numerous articles on this over the past few months.

          Just sayin’.

        2. “And ironically the big cities controlled by riff-raff have less restrictive land-use policies than the average American suburb….”

          And, not “ironically”, and regardless of your cherry-picking…
          You.
          Are.
          Full.
          Of.
          Shit.

    2. “I like the urbanism movement because it actually means LESS urban planning and land use controls.”

      Fuck off, slaver.

      1. Sorry you hate property rights so much! You should live in North Korea.

        1. “Sorry you hate property rights so much! You should live in North Korea.”

          You are one confused person.

          1. He’s more fun than Tony. About time we got some fresh comic relief around here.

            1. The “Robert” idiot is amusing also.

    3. Sure, up until that development threatens to change the socio-economic landscape of some non-white barrio or ghetto, and then the “gentrification” complaints start rolling in.

      1. Gentrification complaints aren’t about greater density, they’re about more expensive developments. They want to keep property values down for poor residence and business renters.

        1. Complaints about gentrification are rooted in racial animus as much as they are economic complaints. In northwest Denver around the Highlands area, for example, it’s basically the reverse of what happened when Hispanics started moving into the old Italian neighborhoods en masse after the end of World War II.

          People from different cultures end up looking for businesses that cater to their wants. The first “gentrifiers” might patronize these places initially because they don’t have other options, but eventually businesses that cater to their specific tastes begin arriving and replacing the older businesses.

  6. Great article by right-wing economist Ed Glaeser on America’s extreme zoning laws, and how they cause so many societal problems.
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/boomer-socialism-led-to-bernie-sanders-11579304307

    Consider the housing market. “In the 1960s and earlier,” Mr. Glaeser says, “America basically had a property-rights regime that meant that anyone who had a plot of land could pretty much put up anything reasonable on that plot of land.” Since then, cities and towns have circumscribed the areas where homes can be built, capped numbers of units, and imposed strict requirements on developers—all of which raise prices. “So there’s this intergenerational redistribution that’s occurred by restricting housing supply.”

    1. More Ed Glaesner:

      “”The fact that there are poor people living in Boston is not something Boston should ever be ashamed of,” Glaeser said. “The fact that there is urban poverty is not something cities should be ashamed of. Because cities don’t make people poor. Cities attract poor people. They attract poor people because they deliver things that people need most of all — economic opportunity.””

      Perhaps not everybody wants to attract poor people (and the problems that coexist with poverty) to come live next door to them?

      1. Hey, at least learn to spell the guy’s name before you start twisting his words and advocating for big government to take away your property rights.

      2. He’s also dead wrong about why cities attract poor people–it damn sure isn’t because of “economic opportunity,” it’s because cities have the infrastructure and social programs to accommodate a large percentage of them.

        There’s just as much economic opportunity in the suburbs as there is in DA BIG CITY, but nearly all suburbs are explicitly organized around accommodating the needs of the middle and upper middle class. When a suburb gets to a point where it starts wondering how to provide “affordable housing,” it’s passed the point of scale of being a normal bedroom community, which is what almost all suburbs are.

        1. I made a typo, and you found it. Looks like you won the internet today- congratulations. I pasted a quote- that’s it. If the words are twisted, he did the twisting. And as far as this…

          “He’s also dead wrong about why cities attract poor people…”

          well- he’s the authority you chose. I guess his expertise must only extend to the topics with which you agree. Convenient, I guess.

          1. Ok, I fucked up again.

            “He’s also dead wrong about why cities attract poor people…”

            is not your comment. I have to stop posting comments using my phone, I guess.

        2. Infrastructure and social programs ARE economic opportunities.

  7. As a result, Marohn writes, “A neighborhood of single-family homes must remain a neighborhood of single family homes. The person living there is unable to turn higher property values into a redevelopment opportunity that expands the number of units.” As the community stagnates, people move up by moving out; the neighborhoods they leave behind decline and decay.

    This doesn’t make sense.

    A person buys a house. Must have been a decent enough neighborhood, or he wouldn’t have bought the house, right? Over time, property values increase (*), that person moves out because of being unable to do something that the previous owner also couldn’t do, and then the neighborhood stagnates and decays?

    How does that work?

    What about the person who bought the house from the first guy? Wouldn’t it stand to reason the second buyer bought for the same sort of reasons the first did? Why then, would the neighborhood decline and decay, and why didn’t that already happen when the first guy bought the house?

    (*) And about those higher property values- how’s that happen? Maybe people are willing to pay more to live in a neighborhood like that, rather than one where property owners are packing in as many housing units as they can? Just a thought…

    1. (*) And about those higher property values- how’s that happen?

      Overall, it is entirely because land is purchased via debt. Debt is the origin of inflation – assuming it is not net-net paid off. Banks create money by making loans. Unless the loan results in increased goods, the result is more money chasing the same amount of goods. And the beneficiaries are the ‘first users’ of that money who either a)already own the assets or b)have a chance to buy the asset before the price increases filter through to everyone else.

      A society that believes that increasing prices of both land and property thereon (which is always a depreciating asset which should decline in price) is their birthright, will find ways to ensure that can happen. In the US, it means we will redefine ‘inflation’ so that it excludes/distorts assets. Hey presto – those who own assets rising in price are not beneficiaries of inflation, they are the masters of the universe.

      1. “Debt is the origin of inflation –”
        You.
        Are.
        Full.
        Of.
        Shit.

        1. Sevo seems to have no idea of monetary theory. How can the money supply increase unless people borrow? And when they borrow, that debt is monetized whether officially or not.

          Want proof? Do bonds not circulate? They aren’t worth their par value, but they’re worth something. You don’t need a central bank to buy them up and issue their own notes on them for the money supply to increase, because more things function as money than you may think.

          1. Just to be more explicit, because it looks like you’re having trouble with this, if A lends dollars to B, B still has that many dollars, and A in addition has a note from B. B’s note isn’t so good that it would trade at the value in dollars B received from A, but it’s worth more than 0, so the money supply has increased. (Depending on the reasons people borrow, there’s probably also an increase in velocity of circulation.)

            If B pays off the bond holder in dollars, then there’s deflation.

            1. Robert
              January.19.2020 at 4:59 pm
              “Just to be more explicit,..”

              You misspelled “elementary”, and left out “irrelevant”.

          2. Robert
            January.19.2020 at 4:53 pm
            “Sevo seems to have no idea of monetary theory…”

            Robert…
            Is.
            Full.
            Of.
            Shit.
            Along with JFree.

      2. “A society that believes that increasing prices of both land and property thereon (which is always a depreciating asset which should decline in price) is their birthright”

        Birthright? That sounds a little strawmanny. There may be some who believe that, but… society as a whole? Not seeing it.

        1. Further:
          “…(which is always a depreciating asset which should decline in price)…”
          I just love how lefties know what the market value of something “should” be! Perhaps their gods speak to them through revelations to tell them what something “should” be worth?
          Or perhaps it’s their overwhelming narcissism and self-righteousness (and idiocy) which convinces them to tell the rest of us what we “should” value.
          JFree, you are an ass.

          1. Once they get rid of prices, or at least make them so nonsensical as to be meaningless, they can make anything they want depreciate or appreciate.

          2. It’s common sense that, on average, buildings and their contents wear out. It would be fatuous to not expect depreciation to be the overall trend.

            Not only that, but the present value of buildings in the future can be expected to decline on the basis of time preference alone. Would you not pay less for a place the longer you have to wait to move in?

            I don’t care how agnostic you are as to valuation; sure it’s subjective, but you’ve got to expect preference for positive value in near time, and depreciation in far time.

            1. If you don’t maintain them, sure buildings wear out and depreciate.

              So does property. Try not maintaining roads, sewers. power lines, telephone lines, retaining walls, wells, …..

            2. Robert
              January.19.2020 at 5:06 pm
              “It’s common sense that, on average, buildings and their contents wear out. It would be fatuous to not expect depreciation to be the overall trend.”

              One more lefty ignoramus to tell us what goods *should* cost; we got a live one here, folks. This sort of laughable imbecility doesn’t show up every day!

  8. I’m surprised utility regulation hasn’t been mentioned here yet. Part of the problem of long-term non-viability of suburbs and small towns is that utility providers are not permitted to charge high enough rates to self-finance maintenance and improvements. Utility infrastructure is routinely allowed to deteriorate into crisis conditions, and then providers are saddled with huge financing costs to keep everything working. When the regulators finally relent and allow realistic charges, customers are hit with massive rate increases that can force those at the margin to move.

  9. Marohn argues that many cities will eventually have to deal with the problem Detroit faced: an inability to support suburban and exurban development.

    Not that I disagree with the point, but you do seem to be ignoring an assumption you’re making – that cities *must* be in control. Whether its in a tight urban area or spread out into ‘burbs’.

    Detroit’s problem, as explained here, is that *Detroit* insisted on expanding to control these new areas. Most cities do. Instead of letting people build but requiring *them* to be responsible for setting up and maintaining their infrastructure.

    As it is, a lot of new infrastructure is subsidized by existing taxpayers. In my own town, we have a 4-lane divided highway going 10 miles out into the open desert. Sure, 20 years from now the area surrounding that road will be filled with development – there’s ONE neighborhood connected to it now. And that development is only a mile away from the highway anyway. Its used as a bypass for those of use who live in the SW part of the county so we don’t have to go through town.

    When towns are doing stuff like that, its only natural that people not facing the full costs of their choices, choose to move to the ‘burbs. And then the cities insist on those burbs being part of the city so they can get that sweet, sweet tax money. My own home will probably be forcibly annexed within the decade.

    So its not just planners here. Its a combination of things, among them the politician’s insistence that everything be within the state, nothing outside of it.

    1. When towns are doing stuff like that, its only natural that people not facing the full costs of their choices, choose to move to the ‘burbs. And then the cities insist on those burbs being part of the city so they can get that sweet, sweet tax money. My own home will probably be forcibly annexed within the decade.

      This is a big reason why Colorado passed the Poundstone Amendment in the early 70s–because Denver was gobbling up surrounding neighborhoods in the post-WW2 era like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos.

      1. That amendment was mainly about busing – which SC had ruled on re Denver in Keyes v Denver.

        Yes – there is an indirect tax reason cities have expanded. Partially, it is because most states cap/limit/force prop tax rate assessments at the state level so that munis can’t really fund infrastructure via prop tax on existing land so have to a)move to income/sales taxes instead and b)sprawl. Partially it is because we moved school governance into ‘district’ based rather than individual school-based. Partially it is because those who moved out to suburbs got the state level to fund roads – which forced the cities to pay the eminent domain costs of razing existing neighborhoods and no one ever gave a shit about what to do with the razed people.

        Busing was a crappy solution to a really deep problem in this country. And it really goes right back to the Constitution. The Constitution – and the entire federal level – acknowledges states – but states are generally just old lines on a map. Meaningful self-governance originates locally – de Toqueville’s great insight – but because federal law only recognizes states, it doesn’t really recognize ‘subsidiarity’ or ‘localism’. Yet another reason we really need an ArtV convention. States should be allowed to break up into what would likely be metro areas and separate ‘rural’.

        Metro areas shouldn’t be able to impose on rural merely cuz of current population and rural shouldn’t be able to restrict munis merely cuz of historical population.

    2. “Detroit’s problem, as explained here, is that *Detroit* insisted on expanding to control these new areas.”

      Most politicians don’t try to get elected in order to reduce their ability to influence and control others.

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  11. Everyone hates zoning and city planners when they want to build an outhouse for granny to live in; everyone loves zoning and city planners when their neighbor wants to build an outhouse for chickens to live in.

    1. Outbuilding, not outhouse. Subtle difference.

    2. Its not zoning that prevents nuisances from chickens. Its noise ordinances or restrictions on roosters. You’re going to have a hard time raising more than a half dozen chickens on the typical 10th acre suburban plot.

  12. On one of Marohn’s podcasts, the former city council president of Sandpoint, Idaho, described this

    Chuck and his wife live with their two daughters in their hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota.

    I’m sure these are all very smart people but these are rural towns of 8k and 12k respectively. I’m sure they’re smart but still, civic leaders of multi-million regional metro areas could be forgiven for not giving a fuck what these guys say.

  13. Many homeowners have bought in to that same planning mirage, and they aren’t about to risk their investment by letting their communities evolve. As a result, Marohn writes

    Another progressive prick who thinks that he knows better than the people whose money is actually at stake.

    “A neighborhood of single-family homes must remain a neighborhood of single family homes. The person living there is unable to turn higher property values into a redevelopment opportunity that expands the number of units.”

    My neighbor may well make a profit by redeveloping his property. But the immediate effect on my property value will be to decrease it. This is a kind of prisoner’s dilemma that we escape from by actually having either zoning or CC&Rs.

    As the community stagnates, people move up by moving out; the neighborhoods they leave behind decline and decay.

    That makes no sense. Turning a neighborhood from single family homes into multi-dwelling units generally means that lower income people move in. That’s what a “declining neighborhood” looks like.

    On the other hand, a well-maintained, well-located neighborhood of single family homes is the most upscale kind of neighborhood you can have.

    1. Turning a neighborhood from single family homes into multi-dwelling units generally means that lower income people move in. That’s what a “declining neighborhood” looks like.

      Not necessarily. All depends on the broader factors going on in the area that determine who is moving into the multi-dwellings. More density means more people spending more money per square mile or however you want to think of it- which means more public amenities, more private amentities, shorter travel times, etc. Things that DINKs like, and DINKs are the most coveted because they pay property tax but have no kids and don’t give a crap about the shitty schools.

      1. The big trend in real estate is for developers to build a mixture of single-family detached, small multifamily units, and retail, which gives the area a quiet residential feel and a little density to support shops and parks.
        They’re called Traditional Neighborhood developments because they’re built the way neighborhoods were built pre-war, and their house values are REALLY GOOD.

        It creates great places to raise a family but you can’t do that when the city council’s telling you you can only build ONE TYPE OF BUILDING FOR ONE USE OVER A LARGE AREA OF LAND.

        1. It’s not a “trend”–it’s New Urbanism, and it’s been a concept for close to 20 years.

          Longmont, Colorado has one of these developments right next door, called Prospect. Longmont has also been one of the faster-growing cities along the Front Range, going from 50,000 people in 1990 to close to 100,000. Guess what has been the favored development style during this time to accommodate all these people? Hint–it wasn’t TND.

      2. Not necessarily.

        Yes, necessarily.

        Humans do not adapt well to overly populated areas after adolescence.

        As their brains reach maturity, around their 25 year, they begin to feel the territorial urge and start to reject the semi-communal living situations that felt comfortable before.

        In dedicated urbanists this manifests as a disgust with overpopulation (supported by the erroneous feeling that THEIR urbanity is a good urbanity). This initial mental defect leads to a whole panoply of them, with the end result being leftism.

        Most, however, begin the trek towards individual dwelling. to the creation of family, territory, and security.

    2. “well-maintained, well-located neighborhood of single family homes is the most upscale kind of neighborhood you can have.”

      Actually all the highest price-per-square-foot real estate in the world is in densely-built areas.
      And the fact that walkability is the valuable asset in American real estate (feel free to look it up) means that a house being located close something that’s not single-family houses drives up the value.

      1. “Upscale” relates to quality as much as price-point. Densely built areas have higher per-square foot costs because they’re trying to cram more ants into the anthill.

        But a 2000-3000-square foot single-family house in the suburbs which has all the best schools nearby and multiple commercial centers is going to be considered upscale just as much as a highrise for childless yuppies.

    3. “That makes no sense. Turning a neighborhood from single family homes into multi-dwelling units generally means that lower income people move in. That’s what a “declining neighborhood” looks like.”

      I have no idea where your anecdotal examples come from, but I’d encourage you to look at Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon and try to make that case.

      1. Congratulations, you just named two cities that are grappling with a massive homeless problem. Those two cities are hardly bastions of high-density dwelling, either–Portland’s development restrictions are well-known, and try actually driving through Austin’s bone-crushing traffic sometime.

        1. And yet they both have less restrictions on development than a single-family detached-only suburb.

          1. No, they’re more restrictive.

            1. You’re lying.
              Good luck trying to build mid-rise or anything multifamily in a SFR-zoned suburb. You’ll face more restrictions

              Meanwhile they’re going up all over Austin. Actually a few months ago they loosened land-use restrictions even further.
              You wanna build single-family, multi-family, mixed use? You can build all that in Austin, but not a residential suburb. And Austin property values have been rising a lot thanks to that!

              1. No, you’re lying.

                Meanwhile they’re going up all over Austin.

                No, they’re not. Single-family home sales set a record in Austin last year. Over the last ten years, mixed-use building permits have never exceeded 20 percent of total inventory per year, and the last time it even hit 15% was 2014. In 2019, it was a mere 3%. Single-family homes, meanwhile, have ranged anywhere from 31-62% per year over that same time period. Multi-family apartments have ranged from 15-58%, and have made up the plurality of development permits over the last eight years–not mixed use. This is all on Austin’s open data portal, incidentally.

                Austin property values have been rising due to massive population growth from the city’s growing tech industry, not TND developments. Wherever the tech industry plants a hub over the last ten years, the cost of living inevitably skyrockets, including housing costs.

                You’re also an idiot because you actually think suburbs only have single-family home developments. Suburbs all over the country have plenty of multi-family dwellings.

              2. You’re lying.

                No, he is not.

                Good luck trying to build mid-rise or anything multifamily in a SFR-zoned suburb. You’ll face more restrictions

                This is a single restriction. The base restriction.

                Try going the other way. Try buying a lot in Austin, tearing down the multifamily, and replacing it with a single. See what happens. See how many restrictions you’ve violated.

                And of course property values would rise. When you convert unused land, or old factory/warehouse space to high density upscale housing, you can’t help by get rising values. But, just because 1 is more than 0, doesn’t mean you’ve had a huge success.

                Why?

                Because most of the slums of the big, dense cities began life as upscale housing.

                They start nice and stay that way so long as people need to live there. But once they don’t a transformation occurs.

                The original owners move to the suburbs–or the country if they’ve made enough and sell to someone just slightly lower on the ladder, the kind that WANT a grand home, but can’t afford to build one.

                These follow the pattern and head for the suburbs, selling to some who want a grand home, but will settle for a nice one.

                These folks sell their decent home to someone who’ll pay enough so they can retire comfortably to a smaller place. He’s already got a nice home, he’s looking to use this property to generate income so he can get a grand house out in the country.

                He rents it to a nice couple just starting out.

                and then

                he rents it to an elderly couple who’re staying in town to help out their kids

                and then

                he rents it to a young arty guy and his girlfriend

                and then, he sells it to another guy who wants to rent it. But this guy is going to turn it into three apartments. It’s still okay, but the wear is obvious.

                And this happens all over.

                And, in a surprisingly short span of time, a row of upscale townhomes becomes a slum. A development of beautiful condos becomes a de facto housing project.

                That’s how this happens.

                Twenty years later some young guy is going to notice a few architectural details, buy the place, restore it and gentrification is off!

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  15. This remind me of Ligitti’s The New Town Manager. In fact, most ‘urban development’ projects remind me of that take. 😛

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    1. Enjoy your anthill and dying without kids to take care of you when you get old.

    2. Marohn IS a fraud.

      Anyone who could say this–

      Marohn writes, “A neighborhood of single-family homes must remain a neighborhood of single family homes. The person living there is unable to turn higher property values into a redevelopment opportunity that expands the number of units.”

      without understanding that the higher property values stem from the fact that it IS a ‘neighborhood of single family homes’ can be nothing BUT a fraud.

  18. It’s a game no one can win. Ask the people of Detroit, a city that (among many other errors) embraced suburban growth early on, only to be hit with the crushing costs of upkeep.

    Every SimCity player has been there, am I right?

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