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Sorry, But When I Said “Vast” I Really Meant Vast

Dismissing [1] as “balderdash and poppycock” my claim [2] 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 [3]‘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:

(See Michael Lewyn’s work [4], 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 [5] 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 [6] (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 [7] 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 [8] 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 [9] 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/ [10]

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.

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Comments Disabled To "Sorry, But When I Said “Vast” I Really Meant Vast"

#1 Pingback By A Sprawling Debate » Postmodern Conservative | A First Things Blog On March 20, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

[…] asks, when notorious sprawls like Houston don’t even have a zoning code? Bramwell responds by pointing out the litany of non-zoning regulations that discourage mixed-use neighborhoods scaled […]

#2 Comment By Oskar Chomicki On March 21, 2010 @ 7:54 am

You are absolutely correct about this. I have debated this question with libertarian-minded defenders of sprawl and they cannot really answer to the points about road building, minimum setbacks, etc. It is true Houston has no zoning, but it has the same freeway/road system as most modern American cities, which guarantees it will sprawl. The lack of zoning does allow a higher degree of mixed use than most places, but it’s hardly a walkable city layout.

I would however submit to you that sprawl-inducing zoning, for the most part, is a result of public opinion. Much of it is driven by developers and those who profit from the scheme of things, but it’s also there because of the NIMBYs and active citizens who come to city council meetings and object to apartments or retail being built near them. To be sure, this kind of zoning has also ingrained in the urban planning profession for over a half-century, so it’s second nature to the people who actually lay out cities. In this kind of environment, I think the New Urbanism is valuable in challenging the stale and unsustainable consensus (and ironically advocating a return to tradition), but it needs to be careful not to ally itself with statist busybodies.

#3 Comment By Keep Houston Houston On March 21, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

Hi, I’m the blogger you linked to RE: Houston’s sprawl-inducing street standards.

I have to step in here to defend feeder roads. Feeders are *incredibly* convenient; most have 45-50mph speed limits, and with periodic U-turns they’re easy to navigate; much moreso than the up-and-over movement you use to turn around on New Jersey highways like NJ-17 or US 1/9, which are the closest east-coast equivalent.

There’s really no way you can make an Ikea or a Wal-Mart Supercenter pedestrian-friendly, short of banning them outright, at which point you really are into Kunstler territory.

The problem is carrying those autocentric standards *off* the freeway system (where they’re appropriate) and into the developments. The parking issue is particularly noteworthy, because Houston doesn’t just require large amounts of parking in *new* developments – they actually come after *existing* developments that don’t meet the standards.

For instance, in my ‘hood (the ‘trose) there’s a joint called Ziggy’s Healthy Grill. It’s in a dense walkable mixed-use neighborhood, platted at the turn of the last century, build inside a converted house. For awhile they were leasing a vacant lot to comply with the city’s parking regs, but that fell through, and as a result the city is threatening to shut them down.

Shutting down walkable businesses in mixed-use pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. Yep.

It’s doubly ironic because we’re building a ton of new light rail lines, which we want development to occur along, and for years the developers have been harping on the parking requirements as being the biggest impediment to “transit oriented development.”

It’s nothing like Portland, which requires subsidies/tax abatements for places like Orenco Station or the Round at Beaverton. Houston developers *want* to build apartments and mixed-use blocks with *less* parking (because structured parking is expensive), but they *can’t* because the regulations don’t allow it. (Cite this next time someone claims Houston government is “controlled by the developers”).

Meanwhile, billions in new LRT construction proceeds apace. It’s almost Kafkaesque.

#4 Comment By Austin Bramwell On March 22, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

Keep Houston Houston – thanks for adding that depressing tale about Ziggy’s! Is there any movement to reform the parking space laws in Houston? If so, who’s preserving the (anti-property rights) status quo?

#5 Pingback By Government Planning and Sprawl: One View « Crossroads On March 23, 2010 @ 3:17 pm

[…] } The American Conservative has an interesting blog post up by Austin Bramwell about the role of government in promoting sprawl. It seems that his claim […]