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Did NIMBYs Save Cities?

In many ways, slow-growing suburbs encased in regulatory amber function the way greenbelts or urban growth boundaries are supposed to.

Aerial view of Levittown housing development on Long Island, 1954. Did this save New York City? Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

People who oppose new housing in cities don’t get a lot of love in urbanist circles—and for good reason. NIMBYism has helped result in less economic growth, lower wages, worse climate change, the inability of Millennials to get on the property ladder and start families, and a host of other ills that plague our country and its cities. But if one examines Google Maps closely and frequently, patterns sometimes emerge, which can be quite instructive.

Crime fell in cities across the country in the 1990s and urban neighborhoods began to appreciate in value and became more attractive to middle-class white-collar workers. Some older cities even saw population growth for the first time since the 1940s. But Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles did much better than others. No one has adequately explained the root of the “superstar city” phenomenon—sure, they are important cities culturally and economically, but many cities experienced economic growth without significant population growth, much less the superstars’ huge increases in residential and commercial rents and widespread gentrification. In most of the country, declines in home values and increases in poverty were much more widespread issues than gentrification.

The difference may have been the fact that the superstars are surrounded by NIMBY suburbs. 

Many cities experienced job growth during the “urban revival,” especially if they were home to a research university or medical center, and while only a few experienced the superstar revivals, metropolitan areas still grew, as they have for several decades. For example, Boston grew up by 12 percent between 2010 and 2019, while Greater Boston grew by seven percent; Chicago’s population stayed about the same but the Chicago Metropolitan Area increased its population by 0.4 percent, according to The World Almanac. Even more striking are the numbers for Baltimore, where the city lost three percent of its population, but the metro area gained 3.4 percent. For New York, the city grew by two percent between 2010 and 2019, but the metro area declined by the same amount. 

In some ways it shouldn’t be surprising that concentrated NIMBYism in suburbs has apparently led to investment and center city population growth, but people have an odd way of pulling the wool over their eyes when it comes to housing. But in 1990, William Tucker pointed out what should have been obvious: urban blight was the other side of the suburban boom: the massive expansion in home construction put millions of more homes on the market and many city neighborhoods were left with more housing than demand. “Although it is hard to remember, the major national problem in 1968 was a surplus of housing . . . Urban experts from all over the country were summoned to Washington to study the problem . . . because vacancy rates were so high . . . building owners could not charge enough rents to keep up their properties,” Tucker wrote in his classic work on housing, “The Excluded Americans.”

Today, many of the rules and incentives continue to favor building single-family homes, shopping centers, and office parks on previously undeveloped land, but in certain suburbs, zoning ordinances, litigiousness, lengthy review processes, and deliberately absurd requirements for off-street parking, setbacks, and other design elements can make those developments prohibitively expensive.       

There are further reasons why this should be the case: suburban land is cheaper than city land, which makes up a major portion of the cost of new developments, especially in cities with poor public transportation where parking is a necessity; redeveloping buildings can be complicated by historic preservation requirements, measures protecting mature trees, archaic infrastructure, and the possibility of having to remediate soil contaminated by lead, asbestos, or other formerly common toxic chemicals. 

This is not to say that cities shouldn’t have these protections or not require that toxic chemicals be dealt with, but they do make redevelopment harder and more expensive. When the city is surrounded by suburbs that make new development even harder, that can make those undertakings more attractive.

In many ways, NIMBY suburbs function the way greenbelts or urban growth boundaries are supposed to work. The classic greenbelt was an area of protected countryside a few miles wide and extending around the circumference of a city. No urban or suburban development would be permitted within it. The idea was that it would serve as a barrier to urban sprawl, forcing either an intensification of use in the city proper or resulting in industries, businesses and people relocating to other cities. But they didn’t work. The greenbelts already had railways and eventually had highways running through them to connect the city to the rest of the country, while the greater density within the city was not legalized either, so development ended up leapfrogging over the greenbelt. NIMBY suburbs seem to work better because greenbelts tend to be narrow—only a few miles wide (although London’s has grown rather massive over the decades)—while suburbs can extend much further out. Virtually all of Long Island is hostile to further housing development, while the suburbs of Westchester County block much development. While New York’s reach (and commuter railroad) extends beyond Westchester, commutes lengthen considerably, which makes far-out suburbs unattractive. 

Once investment is forced back into the city, NIMBYism continues to serve a useful purpose, keeping property values high, providing the city with higher tax revenues that can be invested into schools and improvements. One problem cities like St. Louis or Akron have is that their homes aren’t valuable enough for banks to lend money to the owners and produce very little in tax revenue. Detroit has one of the highest tax rates in the country. 

But there are limits. Before the pandemic, home prices and rents had reached outrageous levels in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and other cities. Far from helping revive cities losing money and people, they had begun hemming them in and strangling them. Even worse, they were affecting the whole country by making wages lower, reducing other economic activity. 

Moreover, it’s not an economic development strategy that overcomes the disinvestment and other problems. Cities cannot rely on their suburbs to make up for their own problems. It is a sad commentary on the state of our cities that the race for suburban homeowners to pull up the property ladder behind them incidentally benefited some people living in central cities. The experience of the last several decades clearly shows that cities and suburbs can grow together, or cities can grow without their suburbs or suburbs can grow without their cities. Cities are complex organisms. Sometimes they need walls to give them shape—and sometimes they need to push their boundaries.

Matthew Robare lives in Boston. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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