Monday, April 03, 2006


One of my coworkers likes to blame the world's problems on overpopulation. There are too many people, consuming too much (especially in America) and the planet can't sustain it all. Of course he's doing his bit be part of the problem. For the two people and two dogs in his household, the minimum necessary transportation equipment seems to be two Land Rovers and one full-size pickup with lifted "monster truck" suspension and a cargo rack setup that would warm M. Eiffel's heart. Their townhouse began life with about the same square footage as the suburban two-story dutch colonial I grew up in, and they've nearly doubled it with a "Southern Living"-quality deck and fully enclosed storage room below. I needle him mercilessly that the zoning inspector is going to show up one day and ask to see a whole lot of nonexistant permits for his "deck".

Anyway, between my coworker and my planning colleagues' for-granted contempt of sprawl housing that takes up the entire countryside, it got me to wondering how bad the problem really is. Are we going to run out of land? If so, when? The other night an adjunct tossed out the following figures for Arlington County, one of the most densely settled jurisdictions in North America. There are, roughly, 200,000 residents in 34,000 households, or about 5.9 residents per household. Extrapolating that somewhat fishy number (do you know any 6-person households? I don't) to the entire country, all 300m of us translate into about fifty million households. Give each of those 1/8 acre (roughly the space needed for a modern mcmansion, including its portion of the street) and we'd cover 13,762 square miles, or a square about 117 miles on a side. In other words, the entire US population could fit into New Jersey, and everyone gets a detached house, yard and 2-3 car garage.

Now, you'd have to cross the river into PA to go to Target, because that doesn't include any space for retail, public or office/industrial buildings. But let's say that stuff takes up Delaware, or Manhattan. I don't want to think about the traffic on the turnpike in that case, but the point is that subdivisions on their own can't explain why the Washington, DC metro area extends from Baltimore to Fredericksburg, and as far as Hagerstown in the west. More than half of that must still be greenspace, but just contained in between housing developments instead of off by itself in the mountains. And this is why some of us who aren't religious new urbanists still try to push clustering of human settlements. Suburban greenspace tends to be manicured lawns, golf courses or tightly contained pockets of forest covering unbuildable geography. Most of it doesn't function well as wildlife habitat, and not at all as a useful resource for humans, i.e. you can't farm it either. Even without planting a house on literally every 1/8 acre in the country, we can still eat up all the land. And then ironically find ourselves without anything to eat.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Sprawl, anti-sprawl, and anti-anti-sprawl

The Washington Times has a review of Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History (link via Planetizen). The book, which I haven't read yet, is said to dispel "anti-sprawl shibboleths", but the review engages in a few anti-planning shibboleths of its own.
[...] if we limited growth, wouldn't we relieve traffic congestion and pollution? It's a mystery how this argument ever got any traction. Trapping more people into a tighter space can only make pollution and traffic congestion worse.

Well, the argument has traction because of research showing that compact developments generate fewer and shorter car trips. That aside, in 1898, the approximate reference year for people who use the term "grimy city", the above was a true statement. Today it is not. Wood and coal smoke from trains, private chimneys and factory smokestacks has long vanished from the horizon, and the lack of sanitation facilities that characterized 19th-century towns and cities is a thing of the past. Depending on your preferred proximity to other people, modern downtowns are no more unpleasant than any suburb. And the increasing popularity of downtown "lofts" and town center-style shopping suggests that the conventional wisdom of the ideal tree-lined suburb may be equally obsolete.

That idea, however, is the central shibboleth of the anti-anti-sprawl movement, and the Times review marches it out in full dress uniform:
Central planners and cultural elites don't like to hear arguments about choice because they think that given a choice, ordinary citizens will usually make the wrong one.
Mr. Bruegmann repeatedly emphasizes the cardinal virtue of American suburbia. To wit, the suburbs have made it possible for ordinary Americans to enjoy the privacy, space, leisure time and choice that were once available only to the richest of the rich. The suburbs aren't a deviation from the American Dream -- they are the American Dream.

That for most of history a country cottage has been the preserve of the wealthy, and that ordinary citizens in the English-speaking countries have long aspired to similar conditions is historically undeniable--but as a commenter on Planetizen points out, the idea that Levittown-style suburbs are a natural result of free-market choice is laughable. Every built-up part of the United States has a zoning ordinance, and those ordinances regulate the use of property in excruciating detail with restrictions on building height, what part of a lot can be built (setbacks), ratios of parking spaces to building occupancy, ratios of building floorspace to lot size (a method of controlling building height), and in some cases complex formulas to determine the length of the shadow a house may legally cast on the neighbor's property.

Besides the zoning ordinance, municipalities often use existing residents' tax dollars to build water and sewer infrastructure (and any other public utilities they may provide) and improve local roads to support the traffic increase from new subdivisions. In a pro-market move, some are beginning to assess new construction for this externalized cost. Developers who often paint themselves as white knights of the free market can be seen fighting tooth and nail to preserve public subsidies for their profit-making business endeavors.

A truly free market might produce something that looks like sprawl, but nobody knows because it's never been done. There certainly are the Jim Kunstlers and Andres Duanys out there, peddling New Urbanism in a manichean, save-the-world ideological frame. Movements need that kind of fire at their core. But there are also those of us quietly suggesting--with more and more market data to back us up--that perhaps the problem isn't too much freedom of choice, but too little.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Well, I never said it wasn't good for planning...

...just that it won't be good for planners, if the public associates us with high-handed Kelo-based condemnations.

Here's a great example. The city of Freeport, TX intends to use eminent domain to transfer three downtown properties on the Brazos River to a developer who will build a marina there. The stated goal is to bring in $60 million worth of hotels and restaurants, revitalizing the downtown and reclaiming retail business from a nearby sprawl suburb.

Is this good planning? Undoubtedly. Assuming it works, the proposed project will bring recreation and street life back to Freeport's downtown. Residents will be able to shop in Freeport instead of driving to a nearby postwar housing development. There's a lot here for planners to like. As the catchphrase goes, people will be able to "Live, work and play" downtown. Without eminent domain, the same facilities might have been built on greenfields outside of town.

Of course there's also a lot for citizens to hate. This is exactly the kind of high-handed wave of eminent domain condemnations, benefitting developers and local government at the expense of homeowners, that was predicted the moment the Supreme Court ruling came out. It may not be long at all before the backlash begins, and it gets even harder than before to make good plans happen.

UPDATE: many more imminent eminent domain (say that five times fast!) proceedings in these two posts from The Agitator (hat tip: Bitter)

Friday, June 24, 2005

More on the Kelo decision

Instapundit has a nice (and balanced) roundup of the blog reactions this morning. One interesting point made is that if we're now going to have an eminent domain free-for-all, a lot of downtown churches may find their buildings condemned to make way for, say, loft condos. The urban poor will, as usual, be the most vulnerable--removed to make way for WalMart and the like.

Planners first arrived on the nation's radar screen during the Urban Renewal era, and to this day are often associated with "slum" clearance. For the uninitiated, that process involved the systematic denial of capital ("redlining") to urban poor and lower-middle class homeowners, and subsequent official designation of their neighborhoods as "blight", allowing them to be condemned wholesale to make way for public housing ("the projects") Kelo opens the door to a reprise, but on a far larger scale since this time the so-called blight will be targetted for replacement not by underfunded and politically unpopular public housing, but commercial development that makes money for everyone, especially local government.

Becoming publicly associated with another wave of slum clearance would be suicidal for the planning profession. We would be more than well-advised to keep a comfortable distance from development proposals that hinge on Kelo-based eminent domain rulings.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

SCOTUS Rules on Kelo v. New London

I'm of two hearts on the decision.

First, it's an unambiguous defeat for property rights. The libertarian in me can't find any silver lining in the fact that, as Justice O'Connor writes in the dissent, "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party". (quote bogarted from Ken Wheaton) with the benefits going to -of course- the richest and most influential citizens and businesses, including the already-hated regional and national developers.

The philosophical issues involved deserve a post -hell, a book- of their own; those of you who are interested will already be well-versed. In a nutshell, the pure market-driven solution isn't practical because land isn't a commodity. Infrastructure (a public good) needs to go where it needs to go, and the lone holdout can create significant and costly externalities by refusing to move. However, extending that argument, as New London has done, to cover the potential gains from private development (and the tax money that would flow from it) is uncompelling to say the least. In my opinion, the bright line here should be between public and private goods. That is to say, something like a transportation or utility network can shove a private property owner out of the way in the name of the common benefit, but any private facility (housing, shopping malls, office space and soforth) has to pay what the market demands. Seems simple enough, but that's before you throw politics into the mix. In the real world, what we end up with instead is a pendulum swinging slowly between greater and lesser scope for eminent domain. That's somewhat natural in a precedent-driven common law legal system, but it shouldn't have to be that way.

Second, the ruling is an unambiguous victory for the planning profession. The reasons are fairly self-explanatory of course, but the key is that a political movement in a given jurisdiction now has much more power to physically alter the landscape (or built environment) within its own lifetime. It seems to me that expanded eminent domain powers should strengthen the hand of local pro-development coalitions vis a vis NIMBYs who essentially sit on prime close-in real estate, forcing new housing and the public and private facilities that go with it to the periphery in classic sprawl.

Of course, that obviously won't make the pro-development folks any more appealing to the NIMBYs, who tend to be seen as "the little guy" in such disputes. If anything, it's likely to make the gap between planners, developers and the public wider and deeper, and ultimately lead to the pendulum's return swing. A more workable long-term fix would be some kind of wholesale reform of the land market, but of course that's strictly an academic discussion. It will be interesting to see where the Kelo ruling takes us in the next decade.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Long-Gone Minneapolis

This is a student blog, so you shouldn't be too surprised at the lack of posting during finals season. I've got one thought, though, and a link (unrelated) for those who are more thoughtful about their new urbanism, or who just like old pictures.

1.) About the political process of planning - because it's all about politics. There are a couple of essentially disconnected trains of thought in the planning profession.

First, most planners subscribe in at least a general way to the notion of new urbanism. We've all grown up around 60s-era modernism--we've seen it, and that it was bad. Even if we don't romanticize the prewar cities, we like today's Georgetowns and Manhattans and figure most everyone else would, too. Call this the architect's view, since that's where it mainly emanates from.

Second, researchers have shown that the always-frustrating, NIMBY-ridden zoning and planning process, which always seems to spit out more sprawl regardless of what the initial input is, does in fact have an economic landscape.
Describing this landscape (as William Fischel has done) should enable planners to move beyond hawking walkable downtowns to finding real strategies to make our land use goals palatable to stakeholders, especially the poor homeowners whose life savings hang in the balance with every decision.

2.) Most people today live in suburbia and have rarely seen an early 20th-century downtown. If you have, you probably think of it as a place to go out for a good time, or a classy setting to try to impress dates or family and friends from out of town. So here's a collection of photos of a working city (Minneapolis) from that era, with some witty and insightful commentary. Enjoy!

Monday, April 18, 2005

That's One Way to Avoid Property Taxes

The Post reports that the high cost of housing is pushing some DC-area residents into the sea--literally. If you can organize your life to fit on a boat, you can think about mortgage and slip fees as little as $800 a month, compared to $9-1400 for a 1-bedroom apartment or $2-4000 for any type of house. It's not just speculation; they found people from all walks of life who've given up on buying a house and are floating full-time.
Known in nautical circles as liveaboards, they include recent college graduates frustrated with high rents and retirees on fixed incomes who struggled to pay property taxes on their former houses. For some, it is the only way to stay off the streets.

"I've been homeless before, and I won't be homeless again," said Donald Littlepage, 44, a sheet-metal worker who moved aboard his boat after a second divorce.

The article goes on to say that several local marinas recorded a 300% increase in liveaboards in the past ten years. The fastest-growing county in the area (Loudoun) grew conservatively about 130% in the same timeframe. It's hard to interpret those numbers. Living aboard is also a lifestyle choice that becomes available to more folks as the economy improves. The economics are compelling, though. There are no property taxes (potentially not even personal property since the boat doesn't sit on real property) and the price of land, currently 50% or more of the cost of a new house in the area, doesn't count into the mortgage at all. Offhand, I'd say there's a solid opportunity here for an imaginitive marina developer and some project managers familiar with the houseboat lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest.

Juxtaposed with this, I heard on the radio this morning that the number of housing permits being issued in the metro area is falling. ...Huh?