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kurtosis

New Urbanism and its Opponents

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I'm opening this topic because I think it's an issue that needs to be discussed in detail. This article represents a common libertarian/conservative critique which frankly, New Urbanism is not adequately prepared for. The more New Urbanism grows, the more we will hear of this.

Judging from discussions on this board and elsewhere, a lot of people who support New Urbanist style development have a very pragmatic approach. They are content to focus on the specifics of development with an underlying assumption that if things are done well they will gain more support and continue to grow. I disagree, I think that people's ideology plays a strong role in the way that New Urbanism will be interpreted and in the current political atmosphere there is a large movement that will attempt to portray it as unworkeable idealistic, government-driven planning.

There was a similar article in Reason recently. CNU issued a response which mainly claimed that their figures are wrong. This may be true but it is essentially a defensive move. My concern is that New Urbanists will spend a lot of time discussing among themselves and advancing projects without being prepared for the inevitable backlash. Once NU comes up on the national radar this will come very quickly. So I think that in addition to promoting New Urbanist developmentsI think one also needs to set out, very early, a compelling framework for why this sort of development is necessary.

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As I have mentioned in a previous thread, I'm a libertarian who is strongly in favor of New Urbanism, so let my throw in my two cents ...

Most so-called libertarian critiques of the New Urbanism are hypocritical, and lack basic philosophical foundation. They go something like this: "Sprawl is the free market, let people build what they want. No more government planners telling us what to build." While that line of reasoning makes sense within the context of various socialist regulations often imposed in the name of "smart growth," it is largely incoherent when levied against New Urbanism.

In reality, this argument crumbles under the weight of even minor scrutiny. First and foremost, sprawl is not a result of the free market. In no way, shape, or form would the free market produce our current sprawl-style building patterns. Low density zoning, maximum lot coverages, minimum parking requirements, on-site parking requirements, draconian height restrictions, roadway easements and setback requirements, countless unnecessary regulations mandated by traffic engineers, and the list goes on and on. All these things are government intrusions (dare I say socialistic intrusions) which directly promote sprawl, and quite obviously force many developers to build designs in a way which they otherwise wouldn't.

Furthermore, NU design codes hardly represent the work of an oppressive government bureaucracy. The NU originated through the Congress for the New Urbanism, a private organization comprised of numerous developers and architects who were sick of government agencies preventing them from building what they wanted. The New Urbanism was actually a way for them to free up, or liberalize, the zoning codes. In fact, it is sprawl-style zoning codes which were fashioned by countless municipal bureaucrats, NIMBY's, and traffic engineers with the specific and unabashed intent to limit and constrain others' property rights

For all intents and purposes, the most basic component of New Urbanism - the new urbanist zoning overlay - is about the most free-market, developer-driven, urbanism out there. If a developer wants to build sprawl, they follow the basic zoning and build sprawl. If a developer wants to build under urban design guidelines laid out in the overlay, they get the benefit of increased density (and ostensibly increased profit). This overlay zoning code is philosophically and morally equivalent in purpose to any other zoning code, including the original sprawl code. Let me repeat for emphasis. A new urbanist zoning overlay is no more of a government intrusion than the original zoning code that mandated sprawl-style development in the first place. In theory, if developers are given the option of choosing between NU and sprawl (i.e. an overlay, as opposed to a replacement code) libertarians should be logically forced to accept NU, unless they are willing to affirmatively reject sprawl zoning as well.

This brings us to a basic revelation about many such critics. They aren't willing to repudiate sprawl, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is just as government imposed (if not more so) than the New Urbanism. I suspect that such people are not truly libertarians. They are merely reactive NIMBY's (or perhaps even BANANA's - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) who, due to a mild right-wing leaning, feel comfortable waving the "free market" flag in support of their anti-density preferences. Hard facts about restrictive sprawl zoning, massive government road subsidies, and the general anti-free market reality of sprawl would do little to assuage such people. As long as they get their wide highways, free parking, and cheap suburban land (a side effect of the money the government pumps into highways) they are happy. "Who cares if it's inefficient? Other taxpayers are picking up the dime."

To the real "pure" libertarians who stand opposed to New Urbanism, I offer these three explanations.

- Many libertarians simply are ignorant of how the government effectively mandates sprawl. Every now and again you read a libertarian article (Thomas Sowell comes to mind) complaining about government highway spending. However, most libertarian writers are economists or political scientists. They neither know nor care much about the details of zoning laws, government expenditures, and other land use restrictions that spawned sprawl. I once had a brief conversation about sprawl with a brilliant guy from the CATO institute, Dr Tom Palmer. While he expressed a general dissatisfaction with sprawl, he concluded that it was all okay, because the government paid for highway construction exclusively with the gas tax. Therefore, he reasoned, only drivers were forced to subsidize highways, and subsidize it in proportion to use. Of course, this argument is factually false, on its face. Government agencies also pay for road construction with federal discretionary funds, state and local sales taxes, and outright municipal bonds, backed by other tax revenue. Now, it's not that Dr. Palmer's logic is lacking, far from it. He just neither knew nor cared much about landuse policy. Consequently, his premises were inaccurate.

- Others remain extreme ideological purists. These people might actually embrace my argument, and vehemently oppose sprawl. However, they would still view NU as an equivalent infringement on property rights simply because it remains a form of regulation. In other words, even though they might admit that sprawl runs contrary to the free market, the NU still wouldn't be "free market enough" for such ideological purists. It's analogous to the all pretentious Canadian socialists who complain about NU not being "real" or "gritty" enough to be included in their progressive conception of urbanism.

-Still others merely oppose the New Urbanism, precisely because of the types of people who tend to support various "urban" causes. The aforementioned "pretentious Canadian socialists" and other of their ilk, run rampant throughout pro-urban movements. They voice their loud and largely ill-considered preferences for such left-wing nonsense as increased taxation, rent control, living wages, extremely cumbersome design review processes, more public housing, and so forth. Such activists proclaim their causes in the name of urbanism. Consequently, many right-wing people develop a blanket opposition to anything "urban," thanks to the peripheral issues of many extreme progressives.

Okay, that was a bit more than "my two cents." Sorry. Feedback is welcome from anyone foolish enough to read all that ranting.

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Thanks for the response CO!

From a "pure" libertarian perspective your arguments make sense. However one of the problems I have with libertarianism is that in practice it is often more of an ideological window dressing than a driving force for policy. Conservatives are more than happy to push libertarian arguments on business issues but usually drop them the moment they don't like the outcome (gay marriage, etc.) So most people across the spectrum accept the idea that society should support some values other than simply "maximizing freedom".

In the case at hand I don't think that "pure" libertarianism is what drives these critiques. So I'm not convinced your arguments will speak to people outside of a certain range. To take an extreme example, we have plenty of govt imposed zoning that prevents strip clubs and liquor shops from being plopped down all over residential neighborhoods. You'll never (I hope!) get conservatives to oppose this kind of "socialism". The more mundane issues follow the same pattern. I think a lot of people in suburbia would argue that these things (low density, height restrictions, setbacks) are exactly what they want and that the only way to maintain them is by zoning. Owning real estate is more of an investment than other things, people often cannot easily pick up and move if they don't like the development around them so I think that few people would support a purely free market approach.

Ultimately then, New Urbanism is not simply about removing the shackles of suburban zoning restrictions. This content-neutral approach might win over libertarians but probably not the wider public. Instead NU is a set of ideas about what constitutes a good living environment and how it can

be practically achieved. And, not to beat around the bush, it is in conflict with many widespread assumptions about "quality of life" that have given rise to our current suburban sprawl. It is at this

point that the "libertarian" critique enters, because many conservatives see NU as an idealistic notion held by elitists that does not reflect people's actual desires.

To me these are the stakes. I think that NU presents a compelling vision but I think that it needs to

win the battle for public opinion first if it is going to succeed.

>They neither know nor care much about the details of zoning laws, government expenditures, and

>other land use restrictions that spawned sprawl. I once had a brief conversation about sprawl with a

>brilliant guy from the CATO institute, Dr Tom Palmer. While he expressed a general

>dissatisfaction with sprawl, he concluded that it was all okay, because the government paid for

>highway construction exclusively with the gas tax.

If this is true I have a big problem with it. If you'll allow me, I'll assume this guy is opposed to govt

"waste" on mass transit or some other pet peeve. So how is it that he is relatively unaware of sprawl issues? I mean he's at CATO. It just suggests that many people are more interested in opposing govt spending when it involves being agains "leftist" ideas.

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Once again (as always), we run into the problem of Libertarian ideals conflicting with the results of past government intervention. Sure, the Libertarian ideal would have been fantastic had it been implemented 50 years ago, but we have crossed the point where too much damage has been done. This reasoning will still never sway me from believing my Libertarian ideals, but there is always that thought in the back of my mind that it can't work because the government has screwed it up too bad in the past. We need to find that slow pathway towards Libertarianism.

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Once again (as always), we run into the problem of Libertarian ideals conflicting with the results of past government intervention.  Sure, the Libertarian ideal would have been fantastic had it been implemented 50 years ago, but we have crossed the point where too much damage has been done.  This reasoning will still never sway me from believing my Libertarian ideals, but there is always that thought in the back of my mind that it can't work because the government has screwed it up too bad in the past.  We need to find that slow pathway towards Libertarianism.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I'd argue that a lot of the government action of the 20th century was a reaction to the corporate corruption that grew out of the more libertarian, unregulated atmosphere of the late 19th century.

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Haven't posted here before, so I apologise if this message is not in line with the way things are done in this forum...

In reality, this argument crumbles under the weight of even minor scrutiny. First and foremost, sprawl is not a result of the free market. In no way, shape, or form would the free market produce our current sprawl-style building patterns. Low density zoning, maximum lot coverages, minimum parking requirements, on-site parking requirements, draconian height restrictions, roadway easements and setback requirements, countless unnecessary regulations mandated by traffic engineers, and the list goes on and on. All these things are government intrusions (dare I say socialistic intrusions) which directly promote sprawl, and quite obviously force many developers to build designs in a way which they otherwise wouldn't.

True that where there is zoning and regulation development patterns/style are, to lesser or greater extents, not directly the result of "free market" conditions, but I don't think you can conclude that "free market" conditions would not result in "sprawl".

If we take, for example, the construction of a large store, then it is desirable for the business to provide adequate parking--which will still be 100s of spaces--with convenient access (parking in front of store entrance). It is desirable to have the lowest cost construction (at grade parking, low slung "warehouse" building), with the most flexibility (freestanding building; at grade parking and spacious site enables easy reconfiguration--such as extending the store or tearing it down while building a new store elsewhere on the same site).

It is vastly more difficult and expensive to deal with high density city development where buildings buttress the street line and party walls and/or multiple ownership/rent.

Such development results in roads that can't be widened without inordinate expense, either.

If a developer wants to build under urban design guidelines laid out in the overlay, they get the benefit of increased density (and ostensibly increased profit).

Increased profit depends on many factors, surely?

In fact, it is sprawl-style zoning codes which were fashioned by countless municipal bureaucrats, NIMBY's, and traffic engineers with the specific and unabashed intent to limit and constrain others' property rights

As long as they get their wide highways, free parking, and cheap suburban land (a side effect of the money the government pumps into highways) they are happy. "Who cares if it's inefficient? Other taxpayers are picking up the dime."

Greenfield highways are extremely low cost--and urban highways (that is, those requiring land clearance for their construction--a majority of 'urban' highways were built on greenfield land) still far lower cost than large scale urban public transport. Underground rail lines are extremely expensive, and light rail lines inadequate (as a sole mass transit mode) for large urban areas.

(I'm also not sure that Governments pump money into highways--what is built is usually inadequate, especially in more recent years (in the West, at least; construction in, say, China may be another matter.))

Of course, this is all in a sense moot in conditions of limited regulation and zoning--and becomes a non-political issue.

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