Why did cities freeze in the 1970s?

Home is where the cartel is” says that “divisive hot-button issues like inequality and immigration ultimately derive from housing dysfunction.” Yet Waldman points out that the prescription many commentators, including this one, want—housing market rationalization—is unlikely to be attractive to the mass of existing owners/voters. The piece is not easily excerpted and should really be read in full before you continue, but here is one important point:

The libertarian “deregulatory” rhetoric by which market urbanists sometimes make their case is counterproductive. Telling people to think of their homes as a commodity upon which market forces should be brought to bear in order to ensure production of housing services at competitive prices is obtuse. People purchase property, rather than renting, largely to gain security and control, to escape the vicissitudes of the market.

If Waldman is right, I’ve been framing the issue incorrectly—if I actually want to persuade most people. I’ve been mulling the Waldman article since I read it a couple days ago and finally realized what bothered me: Extreme zoning seems to have really gotten started in the ’70s or early ’80s. NYC is still so dense because people from the seventeenth century up until the ’70s had a fairly easy time replacing existing buildings more or less when they felt like doing so. If markets demanded higher buildings, land owners tended to build higher buildings.

(This is a periodic reminder that the term “market” is just a shorthand word for something like, “mediating what a bunch of disparate people want, and how their varying bids for goods and services get aggregated.” It’s kind of distressing to need to include this disclaimer / definition, but hey, that’s the modern Internet world.)

An observer can literally see physical evidence of the housing freeze in places like Seattle. Both Capitol Hill and the U-District had, for decades, one twenty-something-story building each, which were almost landmarks. They were built just before Seattle comprehensively banned most high-rises—a ban that lasted until the 2000s. Had the market been allowed to function normally, single family neighborhoods would’ve gradually transitioned into duplexes, townhouses, or small apartment buildings, and areas with small buildings would’ve gradually seen midrises and high rises grow.

But, instead of that, Seattle basically froze the market. So did L.A. and many other locales. In 1970, L.A. was zoned for ten million people. In 2010, when our technology was vastly inferior to the 1970s, L.A.’s zoning was down to 4.3 million. That is odd and helps explain why L.A. used to be the  land of opportunity and is now the land of exclusion. Parking requirements, which can increase housing costs in L.A. by as much as a third, also explain why the city is now so expensive. We build more dwellings for our cars than our humans.

[Note to people who keep emailing me: saying technology today is inferior to the ’70s is a joke.]

What changed in urban planning and/or city politics in the ’70s? That to me is a key question and one I can’t really answer. The diffusion of Jane Jacobs’s ideas is one possible answer, but her answer still found fertile political and legal soil. Perhaps the backlash from the Robert Moses of the world was a part of the problem. “S” wonders if it was white flight.

Up until the Petaluma City Plan, growth was (relatively) unconstrained, especially in cities. After Petaluma, it wasn’t. In many parts of what we now think of as high-cost cities, the city feels frozen in time since… the ’70s.

Cities have always had rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, but freezing cities seems to have occurred relatively recently. So has the most vociferous talk of “gentrification.”

I primarily bring this up because if parochial land-use policies were only adopted in the last couple decades, they may be more reversible and less a part of human or political nature than is sometimes assumed. I don’t think human nature or human DNA has changed substantially since the ’70s.  But Waldman’s point about the politics of contemporary land-use controls remains and I don’t know how to overcome the dynamics he points out. Not all problems have solutions.

But we are all paying zoning’s steep price, to use the title of the paper at the link. It’s a PDF.

Jeff Fong has one excellent response and you should read it.

EDIT: Via Twitter, Dan Keshet suggests I read William Fischel’s Zoning Rules, which may answer the questions above. See also “When the Market Built Housing for the Low Income.”  That era was not long ago!

Fischel says that in the 1970s:

the growth-control movement was born and spread almost as rapidly as zoning originally did [in the 1910s and 1920s], though its effects were regionally selective. I argue that a combination of modern forces induced this change, but the most important was the 1970s period of inflation, which helped transform housing from a consumer good to an investment and thus gave rise to a political class I have called “homevoters.” (163)

Homevoters ensure that “zoning can go too far and prevent economically desirable increases in density and hinder what many people regard as the desirable mixing of socioeconomic groups within communities” (164).

If you see anyone arguing about what happened in the 1970s without even engaging in Fischel’s ideas, you know they a) aren’t thinking in terms of comparative history, b) don’t understand the history of the period, and c) likely don’t know what they’re talking about.

Jane Jacobs is everywhere, even when you don’t see her

In a Reddit thread someone recently asked:

Who the hell actually thinks Jane Jacobs has any influence on Seattle’s urban planning?

Through The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs has influenced urban planning in every American city at the very least and perhaps every city in the world, though I can’t speak to the experience of other countries.

Jacobs correctly observed that city planners, most notably and famously Robert Moses, were bulldozing important areas for highways and other sub-optimal uses, and that communities should have more of a say in what happens regarding development, especially development that uses eminent domain. In addition, she correctly observed that city planners were frequently disconnected from the way people actually live, which is somewhat similar to the way academic literary critics today are disconnected from the way people actually read.

But by now the pendulum between “planners ruler” and “community veto” has swung too far in the opposite direction: today NIMBYs and People United Against Everything (PUAE) have too much power, and we’re seeing the consequences in most places anytime anyone tries to build subways, rail, or housing. In many places, with San Francisco and New York leading the pack, supply restrictions on building have led to enormous housing cost increases, but markets can’t effectively respond because a small number of incumbent property owners can block new, private developments.

I’m optimistic about cities over the medium term, but in the short term the real problem faced by cities is not too little “community” input but too much, usually represented by a relatively small number of NIMBYs and busybodies—the process privileges existing homeowners and the fact that “only socially and psychologically abnormal people want to waste their evening showing up to neighborhood hearings.”

Still, Jacobs’ influence remains, and this essay by Edward Glaeser, comparing Jacobs and Robert Moses, demonstrates how their ideas have come to define a great deal of what people think about cities. This is especially important:

Moses was also right that cities need infrastructure. People cannot just argue forever on an unpaved street corner. They need homes to live in and streets to travel along and parks for relaxation. Jacobs underestimated the value of new construction—of building up.

Jacobs didn’t understand one important part of basic economics, which is that restricting supply in the face of increasing demand raises prices. Someone like Jacobs can’t afford to live in Greenwich Village today because the housing is too expensive. Most of Manhattan and much of New York more generally has priced out the middle class, in part due to the rules and laws that stem from Jacobs’ victories; instead of living in the city, those people are now driving cars in Atlanta, Houston, and Phoenix. Places like Seattle and Portland are somewhere between Atlanta and New York, but even Seattle won’t allow sufficient development to allow for middle-class growth.

The language Jacobs uses in The Death and Life of Great American Cities is sometimes dangerous, as when she says that “streets or districts which do have good primary mixtures and are successful at generating city diversity should be treasured, rather than despised for their mixture and destroyed by attempts to sort out their components from one another.” She’s right about mixed-use areas being valuable, but the word “treasured” is a problem: a mixed-used building that is three stories tall can be equally good at being mixed-use with thirty stories. Treasuring buildings that already exist can lead to the San Francisco problem, and San Francisco itself is only the furthest along example of what happens when supply can’t meet demand.

There is one thing I think Glaeser gets wrong in his article:

Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt. [. . . ] No matter what Jacobs thought, there simply was not a car-less option for New York.

The issue with older cities is less about cars than about older cities doing what they do well: density, public interfaces, and so forth. Instead of trying to capitalize on the strengths of older cities, older cities built the massive highways and parking lots Jacobs and her acolytes eventually learned to fight. Sometimes the response to a technology shift isn’t to attempt to ape the shift but to make sure you focus on doing your core strength better—which many cities have utterly failed to do.

When the car began spreading in earnest in the 1920s, the total U.S. population was 106,021,537. In 1930 it was 122,775,046. Today it’s approximately 316,000,000. Moving to a highly car-dependent lifestyle made sense for a long time, but now a lot of urban areas are simply choked by them. This famous photo from the City of Muenster Planning Office succinctly demonstrates the problem, as does L.A. during rush hour:

Cities, buses, and bikes

Education is also part of the city puzzle, since it’s provided publicly and, usually, on a per-city basis. For much of the period from approximately 1970 – 2010, it was possible for parents to outrun well-meaning but poorly executed court degrees pertaining to school districting. It’s hard to measure the extent to which school busing and similar schemes drove many parents to the suburbs, even if they would’ve liked to stay in cities. This 2006 WSJ piece describes some of the pernicious consequences that are still reverberating in Seattle, which is a microcosm for the problems elsewhere. Schools and real estate both show the same basic principle: when principles meet self-interest, self-interest usually wins. Everyone favors low- and moderate-income housing in theory but don’t want it in their neighborhood, and everyone favors racial integration in theory unless their kid gets moved to the worse school.

Still, that’s tangential to Jacobs’s main points and how they affect contemporary decisions in cities. That I’m still citing Jacobs’ work more than 50 years later demonstrates its importance. To the extent any normal person has heard of anyone having anything to do with urban planning, they’ve heard of Jacobs and Moses. Pretty much anyone with any formal education in the subject has not only heard of them but read at least excerpts of their writing. It’s like being in English lit and wondering who this Shakespeare guy is.

Hilarity in Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City?

It’s not so often that one finds a writer so hilariously, unambiguously, obviously wrong as Richard Florida in a passage from Who’s Your City?, which was published in 2008:

[Yale economist Robert] Shiller’s analysis suggests that during the housing boom of the early 2000s, overall housing values appreciated to such a degree that by 2007 they had become completely misaligned with incomes. He predicted that housing prices would fall anywhere from 30 to 50 percent by the end of the decade.

Maybe. But, housing is different from other investments, and for a very simple reason. The primary purpose of investing in a home is not to make money but to have a roof over one’s head. […]

Housing markets seldom adjust through an instantaneous pop.

Oops! Granted, I’m sure Florida’s reasoning sounded better in 2007, when this was probably being written. With a gaff of this magnitude, however, the rest of the book becomes harder to believe, even if I think many of its arguments about the continued importance of cities are fundamentally sound.

Neal Stephenson and Anathem

Jacket Copy, the L.A. Times’ book blog, just posted bits of Neal Stephenson interviews old and new.

My favorite questions relate to Snow Crash and geography:

S.T.: What made you set “Snow Crash” in L.A.?
Neal Stephenson: At the time I was living in New Jersey, and I was really in the space between Philly and New York. So I was in this place where there really was no city center: You could drive for hours in either direction and see the same landscape repeating itself, of strip malls, and…. I don’t think I’d ever lived in anything like that before. You read science fiction, and it’s always on a giant urban core, or it’s on a space station — but from where I’m sitting that’s not the future. From where I’m sitting, the future is this landscape of low-rise sprawl. I think I put it in L.A. — it’s been a long time — because it gave me more options. You have the entertainment industry there, you’ve got high-tech, the Pacific Rim factor…. It just gave me more surface area.

S.T.: You’ve been in the Northwest for a long time now — Seattle’s working for you?
Neal Stephenson: It is really working for me. I like this kind of weather. I like the neighborhoods. There are a lot of interesting people around because of the high-tech world here. And there’s a gritty, practical side to the city that’s easy to miss. But it really informs the way the city works. I think of about the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, there was a crab boat that went down in the Bering Sea — the entire crew was lost. It put everything in perspective. Nobody was whining about the high-tech [bust] anymore.

I just moved from Seattle to Tucson, and although I don’t entirely agree with Stephenson’s comment about Seattle’s grittiness, he nailed the point about interesting people and neighborhoods. Tucson, on the other hand, is vastly more akin New Jersey: endless strip malls and roads until the desert begins. Everything manmade looks pathetic, rundown, and designed to interact with other machines rather than the people who presumably operate said machines. In short, it’s like Snow Crash without the technological wonderful. The designers failed to take into account Jane Jacobs‘ lessons about cars—like many Western cities. Seattle and Portland are the two primary exceptions.

If you’re going to read Stephenson, begin with Cryptonomicon, then go back to the science fiction, and skip the Baroque cycle, which is too much idea and too little story, and what story does exist is sublimated to improbably coincidences and thin dramatizations of debate from that time. But he’s another author so marvelous that his best excuses his worst. Expect to hear more about Anathem.

If that’s not enough Neal Stephenson, see Salon’s fluffy but approving piece, the fuller piece from the L.A. Times, Wired’s preparation guide, and Discover Magazine’s discussion of ends that occurs at the beginning of its review.

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