Memo to Wendell Cox: Density and vision are not anti-market
Last week I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response to Wendell Cox's Wall Street Journal commentary "California Declares War on Suburbia," in which he predicts dire consequences from smart growth policies that promote density and mixed-use.
Let's give Cox his due. An excellent piece in The New Republic by Jonathan Rothwell titled "Low-Density Suburbs Are Not Free-Market Capitalism" notes that Cox is right to criticize burdensome land-use regulations, but that he is flat-out wrong on density. Says Rothwell:
Cox is right to link land regulations in California to higher housing costs, but he is wrong to defend anti-density zoning and other forms of large-lot suburban protectionism. The proposed changes in the Bay Area take a step in the right direction by allowing higher density in their supply-constrained metropolitan areas. Indeed, more suburban governments should free up housing markets from their long-standing anti-density bias and adopt more market-based approaches to housing.
Rothwell's point can be extended to mixed-use. Zoning laws and local land-use controls mostly restrict density and mixed-use. Planning to include higher density and mixed-use is a needed correction for nine decades of restrictions on such development (since zoning was adopted in the 1920s).
Another idea that is critical to this discussion should not be overlooked: vision. The first President Bush famously derided "That Vision Thing," but it was a key aspect of what made cities and towns great. As Arizona State University professor Emily Talen documents in her recent book City Rules, land-use regulations in the 19th and early 20th centuries were distinguished by their simplicity and their commitment to a vision.
Most US cities and towns were laid out by "town founders" or "town fathers" with a very clear idea of how they should be arranged spatially — and this was done prior to letting the free market take over. George Washington, no less, laid out the City of Alexandria, Virginia — to this day one of America's great walkable, vibrant, dense urban centers. It represents much of what Cox apparently dislikes about planning. Its property values in the last decade have held up far better than those in the exurbs and low-density suburbs that Cox puts on a free-market pedestal.
Throughout the last three-quarters of the 20th Century, land-use regulations were made more and more complex, and they were relentlessly stripped of any sense of “spatial logic” and of an overall vision of how communities should look, Talen explains.
If we are to simplify land-use regulations and make them more fair, we need some of that vision back. That's what many of the smart growth plans attempt to do — especially the ones that look to transform single-use, automobile-oriented strip commercial corridors into mixed-use boulevards and avenues. That's not against the free market — it's more sensible public policy that supports where the market is already heading.
For more in-depth coverage on this topic:
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• See the March 2012 issue of Better! Cities & Towns. Topics: Traffic congestion, Zoning, DOT mainstreams livability, HUD's Sustainable Communities, Transit-oriented development, TOD tips, Form-based codes, Parking minimums, New classical town, Urban retail, James H. Kunstler, Placemaking and job growth, Maryland's smart growth.
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