It’s Policy, Not Preference, that Shapes Cities

Baltimore [Population: 288,530,000]

Baltimore. Photo by Oslo In The Summertime, on Flickr

People keep writing about the effectof our urban policies, but very few outside the urbanist blogosphere write about the policies themselves. The articles that result satisfy our curiosity about change but fail to actually inform. They’re all candy, no vegetable. Two articles published last week exemplify this trend. Both describe the effects of the same policies, but both fail to discuss the policies themselves.

The New York Times profiled the blighted rail corridor between New York City and Washington, DC. If you ever travel that stretch of rail, you’ll see boarded up homes, weedy back yards, abandoned factories, and the detritus of a country that’s moved on from its industrial past. In its place has arisen an incestuous service economy built by a New York-Washington axis of power. Anyone with any money has moved to the ‘burbs, leaving the cities behind to rot. At least, that’s what the Times’ Adam Davidson says.

Meanwhile, Meredith Galante, writing in Business Insider, wrote glowingly of micro-apartments, tiny homes 160 to 300 square feet. These, it’s thought, will help solve the housing crunch in major cities as people flock to city centers and drive rents to the stratosphere. Such homes, according to one entrepreneur, are the future in increasingly overcrowded urban areas.

Wait a second. Anyone with money has moved to the ‘burbs but people with money are so desperate to live in cities that tiny, expensive apartments make sense? Both explanations can’t be right, but both trends are happening anyway. What gives?

Suburbanization, and the policies that encourage it outside and within cities, is to blame. The layers of regulation banning increasing density; the hundreds of billions invested in roads to speed suburbanites into the city in cars; the parking lots to store all those cars that destroyed buildings and the city’s fabric; and the zoning codes that locked uses into place have released bizarre forces on cities. Where suburbanization has been restrained, city living is so valuable but so difficult to accommodate that housing is squeezed into every nook and cranny of developable space, and there’s not a lot of that. Where suburbanization runs rampant, cities collapse under the weight of regulation and outright destruction.

Micro-apartments in the Boom Towns

Zoning, that can be the most destructive by banning reinvention of place. Regulations dictate exactly what kind of building can be built, how many people can live there, what kind of business you can open, how many parking space you must have, how far back the building must be from the property lines, and on and on.

To amend the zoning code requires going through homeowners zealously protective of the status quo. Consideration of legalizing in-law units incites howls of protest that such plans would destroy the neighborhood. Even in New York, the idea of allowing taller buildings in Midtown Manhattan has caused consternation and hand-wringing over whether they would, yes, destroy the neighborhood.

It wasn’t always so. In the 1910s, Manhattan’s West Side was all mansions; by the 1930s, it was apartment blocks. The wealthy had found other places to put mansions, and the city was growing so rapidly that allowing one family to occupy a half-acre of land was unacceptably expensive. Putting a hundred families in its place ensured that new housing satisfied the extremely high demand. Apartments along San Rafael’s D Street are the result of the same process. Sprinkled among single-family homes, the apartment buildings provide valuable housing for those who want to live close to Marin’s urban heart.

Now, the places where development can happen become ever more rare, and stiff design review processes ensure that it will take huge sums of money and sometimes years to pass just one project. It’s no wonder there’s a housing shortage – we have the political brakes on so hard we can’t move anywhere near fast enough. Micro-apartments, which allow the most units to be squeezed into the city’s apartment production line, are the inevitable result of supply constrained on every side.

Cities We Leave Behind (Every Day)

In the blighted cities described by the Times, policies designed to facilitate the suburbs accelerated declines from prominence. Loans and tax deductions favored single-family homes, single-use zoning isolated residences from business from office, and superhighways encouraged anyone with money to leave cities behind. It didn’t help that those superhighways destroyed huge swathes of cities and shut out downtowns from the nearby neighborhoods.

The trigger for the exodus in many of the cities between Washington and New York were race riots in the 1960s. Angry mobs tore through businesses and destroyed the livelihoods of millions. Even DC was not immune; the current population boom mostly involves repopulating the burned-over areas that had rotted for decades. New freeways built over the poorest neighborhoods whisked people between their new homes in the ‘burbs and their old jobs in ossified office districts, zoned and reserved for the needs of car-based office workers. Even today, those workers leave their cities behind to fend for themselves on a daily basis.

Now that we want to reinvest in our center cities, the priorities of the car-driving suburbanite still take precedence. Requiring developers to build a certain amount of parking spaces, for example, is extremely common in American cities. Unfortunately, the practice has little basis in science and does quite a bit of harm. It reduces the viability of projects by forcing the construction of excess spaces, hurts the streetscape by putting more cars on the road and lining sidewalks with parking rather than retail. At the very least it means investments in on-street bicycling are rejected because of reductions in on-street parking or in the number of lanes on a street. Dedicated transit lanes and freeway demolitions are often rejected for the same reason.

Yet this is The Greater Marin, a blog about a suburb, and it may seem out of step to advocate for keeping Marin’s low-rise towns while excoriating cities for bowing to the needs of the people that live in those low-rise towns. I don’t think it is.

Novato has zoning rules that ban banks from facing Grant Avenue, forcing the new Umpqua Bank branch to face a parking lot instead of the sidewalk. San Anselmo’s zoning bans bike shops from San Anselmo Avenue, though clearly the rule is happily ignored. San Rafael forces downtown residences to build parking on-site while city-owned parking garages sit half-empty. These restrictions hurt our towns, businesses, and both current and potential residents. It’s not just the big cities that are hurt by unexamined rules; we are, too.

When articles tout micro-apartments as the Next Big Thing or bemoan the decline of the industrial city without a policy discussion, they do a disservice. They gloss over the causes that created and perpetuate these trends, providing easy answers in place of honest critique. It wasn’t just industrial decline that wrecked the cities of the Northeast; suburbanization did. It’s not that young people want to live in tiny apartments; zoning forces them to trade living space for location. Avoiding discussions like this is bad for San Francisco, bad for the Northeast, and, ultimately, bad for Marin. The Times and Business Insider should know better.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

14 Responses to It’s Policy, Not Preference, that Shapes Cities

  1. Great post! I think people are overwhelmed by all the stories they hear and read. There’s a Top 10 of this or that, a choose this over that, a next biggest thing type story on every website, paper, or channel. Sadly, it just goes to confuse people and what really needs to done and many are contradictory.

    The best example I can think of is the Today show telling you to eat one item at Applebee’s over the higher calorie dish. There are too many problems with this scenario, but it totally avoids the fact that the restaurant isn’t in the business to help you lose weight or reduce your craving of the foods they sell. All the while they avoid not mentioning that no matter what you eat, if you are not moving your body several hours a week it won’t matter. But people only want to hear the easy fix or trend, not the deep seeded root of the problem.

  2. Pingback: Enticing Car-Lite Households to Take the Next Step |

  3. dw shelf says:

    If you’re intending to communicate beyond the choir, the two factors which drove and continue to drive suburbanization need to be discussed.

    1. fear of crime.
    2. preference for convenience

    Only a very small percentage of middle class Americans are willing to live without convenient access to the automobile infrastructure.

    And a vastly smaller number than that are willing to live where they must confront street crime.

    Sure, the urban dogma suggests just ignoring such concerns, with a vague promise that if we build an urban utopia, the middle class will come. However, if you look at successful re-urbanization, you largely find places where those two factors have been addressed.

    And if you look at the failures, most of which involved well intentioned people spending someone else’s money, you find where they failed to address these two issues.

    • John Marshall says:

      Agreed; fear of crime, which sometimes is just plain racism, and “nowhere to park” are key issues to most Americans. Baltimore and Philadelphia have huge areas of very very low cost urban housing, yet no one wants to live there. It’s sad.

    • The Brookings report that guided DC’s path back to prosperity spoke specifically about crime being the principal deterrent of middle-class singles. The assumption on transportation was that people want access to efficient and convenient transportation, whatever the mode. The focus on cars as the primary means of travel around a region into perpetuity keeps cities down; it definitely doesn’t raise them up.

      Again, looking at DC, most new buildings are built on parking lots that are full during the day. Very few are built atop old, actively-used buildings. People get around using Metro, Amtrak, MARC, VRE, bike, ZipCar, and car2go, not to mention their feet.

      A vital city center by definition will not be car-oriented. Cars are just too space-inefficient for it.

    • neil21 says:

      Convenience = corner stores (which requires mid-rise main streets). Congestion is inconvenient. A clean bus on a tree-lined boulevard every 3 minutes is very convenient.

    • Elisabeth Thomas-Matej says:

      DW shelf wrote:
      “Only a very small percentage of middle class Americans are willing to live without convenient access to the automobile infrastructure.”

      By “access to the automobile infrastructure,” I assume you mean streets. All cities have streets–but not all streets need to be dedicated to cars and trucks. People are moved more safely and efficiently when some streets within a planned network are dedicated partly or entirely to other modes, including mass transit, bikes, and pedestrians. San Francisco’s Market Street is an example. The city is intentionally breaking its 20th-century dependence on motor vehicles.

      Long Beach is another example and has boosted businesses by welcoming cyclists:

      Now, 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities:

      And suburbs are increasingly places of poverty and crime, as the middle class continues to shrink:

      Whatever middle class families may prefer, even in Marin many can no longer afford the car costs they must swallow in the absence of good public transit. Businesses cannot afford to keep wasting valuable real estate on required parking lots, or to keep resurfacing those lots. City and county DPWs cannot afford to keep maintaining all the roads. Many roads in Marin are really falling apart. This may be more obvious to cyclists, for whom all that broken asphalt is a bone-rattling experience.

      Cars waste more space, fuel, money, and often more time than any other transportation mode. If you want to get from Marin to San Francisco at peak time, on time, you have to triple your travel time to account for bridge traffic and parking–e.g., 75 minutes to drive 13 miles from Mill Valley to the Embarcadero at 6:00 p.m. on a Saturday. Also allow $5-$6 bridge toll, $10-$20 parking, and an extra few dollars for gasoline wasted while idling. On the other hand, a trip from the El Cerrito BART station–also about 13 miles from the Embarcadero–costs just $3.95 and 30 minutes. I call that convenient. In either case, you will likely have to walk a bit to your final destination.

      Marin rejected BART in the 1970s, and now we’re trapped. Since 80% of the nation’s population lives in or near cities and needs efficient transportation, we would be pretty silly to champion our own example.

  4. dw shelf says:

    ^The focus on cars as the primary means of travel around a region into perpetuity keeps cities down; it definitely doesn’t raise them up.

    The part which cannot be ignored in such a context is the dependence of such areas on the automobile infrastructure. They do not come to exist in a vacuum.

    The creation of small, dense areas is good. It’s good because those vital trips which feed the economy can be done without getting in the car. The same reason why companies prefer to have a lot of employees in one building.

    What goes wrong with the thinking is to start imagining that cars are the enemy, and it is good for cars to be pushed back whenever possible.

    The successful urban core will have good access to the automobile infrastructure, including trucks which supply the core.

  5. Pingback: INSPIRE-SE: planejamento e urbanismo [20] «

  6. neil21 says:

    Great post. I’m keen to read more responses to that NYT piece on Baltimore if you know of any. According (my naive) new urbanist sensibilities, Baltimore has the right form for urban success, so it must be other aspects. Or does it have neighborhood-wrecking freeways, empty lots and boulevards turned to Stroads? Corrupt local government? Restrictive zoning bylaws?

    I ranted about the impact of policy on wealth here:

    • Thanks!

      Baltimore has all of the above, as well as local elected officials that aren’t as up-to-speed on urbanist thought. They tend to choose flashy projects over useful ones, much to the chagrin of the city’s activists. I’ve heard rumblings about tearing down part of the major neighborhood-wrecking freeway, I-83, but as far as I know not much has been done about it.

      I haven’t seen other reactions to the NYT piece aside from the comments on the article itself, though you may want to stop by to find the local urbanist blogs. They aren’t updated too often, but when they do they’re usually worth reading.

    • By the way, I asked around and the best Baltimore urbanist blogs (still no replies to the Adam Davidson’s article) and they gave me these three:

      Baltimore Brew, a general interest blog with a strong urbanist streak
      Baltimore Velo
      and Car Free Baltimore

  7. Elisabeth Thomas-Matej says:

    According to the PBS series “New York,” race riots in the ’60s were more a result than a cause of suburbanization that started in the ’30s under the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. In order to shore up the housing market, sell cars, and justify the construction of highways, the HOLC orchestrated “white flight” to new suburbs by means of ruthless racial redlining in the cities and creation of slums. Later, the feds displaced marginized races once again through aggressive “urban renewal.” Please see episode 6, parts 6 and 7, archived at YouTube:

    For an excellent overview of the many lousy transportation choices the U.S. has made, please also see a recent lecture delivered at U.C. Berkeley by the Honorable James Oberstar, Former Chair, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, 2007-2011, “The Seeds of Our 21st Century Transportation Network: A Retrospective of Sixty Years of Policymaking” (skip to counter 15:40):

  8. Pingback: Zoning 101: West Avenue Corridor | West Avenue Corridor Neighborhood Association

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: