Dismissing as “balderdash and poppycock” my claim that “government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous,” Randal O’Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute* admonishes me and other sprawl critics to “get their noses out of [James Howard] Kunstler‘s biased diatribes.”  My nose now lifted, I cannot see how O’Toole has even rebutted my post, much less exposed it as “balderdash,” not to mention “poppycock.”  O’Toole quotes me as saying that sprawl is “mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.”  That vast network includes but is not limited to:

  • Physical destruction of cities through urban renewal projects, public housing and highways;
  • Massive government spending on highway building;
  • Subsidizing of new home construction by government-sponsored entities;
  • Tax law benefits of home ownership;
  • The interstate highway system;
  • Minimum parking space requirements;
  • Traffic engineering and road construction codes that make it unlawful to make pedestrian-friendly streets;
  • Land use codes, including minimum setbacks;
  • Minimum lot zoning; and
  • “Euclidean” zoning that segregates residential, commercial and industrial uses.

(See Michael Lewyn’s work, to which O’Toole himself has linked.) In response, O’Toole addresses only one of these policies, namely, Euclidean zoning.  Developers, he argues, generally have no trouble getting zones reclassified. Hence, Euclidean zoning operates in practice as a licensing regime rather than a flat prohibition on varying land uses. Licensing regimes, of course, restrict supply by definition.  At most, therefore, O’Toole has shown only that Euclidean zoning does not prevent mixed use development as much as commonly supposed.

But so what? Let’s concede the Euclidean zoning does not cause sprawl; let’s even concede (as seems unlikely) that it has no actual effect on land use whatsoever.  Euclidean zoning is still just one set of strands in the vast network of laws mandating sprawl.  To produce the opposite of sprawl — that is, the walkable neighborhood — the government needs to let developers do a lot more than just mix uses.  Jane Jacobs identified the features of a functioning urban neighborhood fifty years ago: in addition to mixed uses, you need (at a minimum) short blocks, narrow streets, and a facade enclosure creating a legible public space. As an example, here’s a on old picture of Crown Street, an undistinguished street in New Haven (taken before New Haven was physically destroyed by I-95 and urban renewal). Many people would pay dearly to live near a street like that today — if it were allowed to be built.

Yet most jurisdictions in the United States make it illegal to build anything like Crown Street. O’Toole cites Houston, which has no formal zoning but is notoriously sprawling, as proof that central planning does not cause sprawl. Houston, however, requires streets to be at least twice as wide as Crown Street, blocks to be many times longer, lots to be several times bigger, and all buildings to provide free parking spaces.  Worst of all, Houston requires all buildings to be set back at least 25 feet from the street, thereby making a facade enclosure impossible and all but guaranteeing that Houston will consist of a wasteland of parking lots. Houston is in reality a textbook case of how government mandates sprawl.  As I noted a week before O’Toole’s reply to my original post, sprawl is legally over-determined.  That is, any number of government policies — of which Houston, even without formal zoning, has several — in themselves are enough to produce sprawl.

And O’Toole knows it.  He concedes that “Houston regulates such things as setbacks and building heights,” yet he somehow thinks it matters that “you can build a 7-Eleven in the middle of single-family homes.” Ye gad, nobody wants to live next to an asphalt-girdled 7 Eleven! The only commercial development allowed in Houston is strip mall centers where no pedestrian would ever go. Hence, Houston residents have no choice but to locate as far away from commercial development as they can possibly afford.  O’Toole quotes approvingly John Stossel’s claim that sprawl opponents want to prevent poor people from having a back yard. That is not actually true, whatever Kunstler might have said, but in any case O’Toole leaves unmentioned that sprawl defenders want to force everyone to have a car (or multiple cars).  The expense of keeping a car is an indirect tax that hits the poor the hardest.

Just to be clear, I am not arguing everyone should live in traditional neighborhoods, any more than that everyone should live in sprawling subdivisions.  I have no objection to Europeans moving into sprawling areas — provided that their governments are truly giving them the choice (I wouldn’t know).  Many sprawl critics have environmentalist, aesthetic, or even geo-strategic reasons for opposing sprawl. I oppose it simply because I believe Americans other than SWPLs and the super-rich should have a choice of something else. Free market defenders of sprawl, if Randal O’Toole is any indication, have not shown that they do.

UPDATE:  A friend writes: “To any discussion of sprawl and planning in Houston I would add the concept of frontage roads. These are what we would call service roads in and around NY.  They were required on all freeway construction with certain recent exceptions (Hardy Toll Road, etc.) The freeway builders in Houston wanted to encourage commercial strip development along the freeways. The inspiration was supposedly the L.I.E in Flushing, Queens.  I highly recommend Erik Slotboom’s ‘Houston Freeways.’ http://www.houstonfreeways.com/

I second the recommendation.  Behold the mighty works of the free market! Look on these freeways, Socialists, and despair!

* Ironically, I was first persuaded of the libertarian case against sprawl at a Cato Institute event in the mid-1990s featuring former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist.