Government Planned Sprawl?

There’s a common tendency to think of suburban sprawl as something akin to a state of nature. It’s just the way things are. It’s the way our towns and cities would develop on their own, if it weren’t for those meddling kids the meddling of government. So it may seem a bit strange to think about it the other way round:  sprawl as the direct outgrowth of deliberate governmental policy choices. But that’s the thread running through some recent blog entries I’ve been catching up on recently.

Writing at the American Conservative, Austin Bramwell comments on the misconception that suburban sprawl represents some sort of libertarian ideal:

For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.

Writing at the progressive Think Progress, Matt Yglesias picks up the thread in a bit more detail, noting that municipalities with the greatest sprawl are certainly not taking a hands-off libertarian approach:

Take the thrilling Maricopa County Zoning Ordinance in Phoenix and it’s suburbs. Chapter 6 covers single family residential zones. You’ve got your R1-35 areas in which you need 35,000 square feet of land per dwelling unit, your R1-10 areas where you need 10,000 feet, and then separate zones for 8,000 square feet per unit; 7,000 square feet per dwelling; and 6,000 square feet per dwelling.

If you want to build a mult-family structure in those places, you can’t. If you find yourself an R2 zone you can, but it can only be a two family structure. Also your building can’t be taller than 40 feet, “There shall be a front yard having a depth of not less than 20 feet,” the year yard needs to be 25 feet, and the side yard needs to be at least 5 feet. On average, buildings can only occupy at most 50 percent of the lot. And there have to be two parking spaces per dwelling unit. And you can go so on and so forth throughout the whole thing. The point, however, is that walkable urbanism is illegal in most of the county. Not just giant skyscrapers, but anything even remotely non-sprawling.

These are deliberate policy choices that essentially mandate sprawling development. As Duncan Black points out at Eschaton, it doesn’t matter whether these policy choices are expressed as zoning regulations, land-use regulations, or building codes. The effect is the same: it ends up being essentially illegal to create (or recreate) a form of walkable urbanism. Houston is often mentioned as an example of the kind of sprawl that happens if there is a libertarian state of nature–due to the absence of zoning:

Houston doesn’t have zoning, though deed restrictions set up a kind of de facto zoning to some extent, but it still has land use regulations and building codes. Zoning and land use generally get jumbled up, but zoning is more about what kind of function you can have on a property, while land use restrictions are about what kind of building you can build, whether there are setback and parking requirements, etc. So building walkable urbanism in Houston is as difficult (illegal) as anywhere.

My point is not to argue for a certain kind of development or for a particular policy approach. My point is to illustrate that the shape of our towns and cities–even in the case of sprawl–reflect deliberate policy choices. Sprawl isn’t a state of nature or a pure expression of a free market.  It’s one possible policy choice among others–and it depends on quite a bit of governmental intrusion on the kind of buildings, spaces, or neighborhoods people might have. And as one deliberate policy choice, it deserves to be deliberated upon. The point of the project on Shaping our Towns and Cities will be to reflect upon these choices and to explore the range of possibilities we might have.

–Jeff Prudhomme

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