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.

Do millennials have a future in Seattle? Do millennials have a future in any superstar cities?

Over in the Seattle section of Reddit someone asked, “Millennials of Seattle: Do you believe that you have a future in this city?”* My answer started small but grew until it became an essay in and of itself, since “Seattle” is really a stand-in for numerous other cities (like NYC, LA, Denver, and Boston) that combine strong economies with parochial housing policies that cause the high rents that hurt younger and poorer people. Seattle is, like many dense liberal cities, becoming much more of a superstar city of the sort Edward Glaeser defines in The Triumph of the City. It has a densely urbanized core, strong education facilities, and intense research, development, and intellectual industries—along with strict land-use controls that artificially raise the cost of housing.

Innovation, in the sense Peter Thiel describes in Zero to One, plus the ability to sell to global markets leads to extremely high earning potential for some people with highly valuable skills. But, for reasons still somewhat opaque to me and rooted in psychology, politics, and law, (they’re somewhat discussed by Glaeser and by Tyler Cowen in Average is Over), liberal and superficially progressive cities like Seattle also tend to generate the aforementioned intense land-use controls and opposition to development. This strangles housing supply.

The combination of high incomes generated by innovation and selling to global markets, along with viciously limited housing supply, tends to price non-superstars out of the market. Various subsidy schemes generate much more noise than practical assistance for people, and markets are at best exceedingly hard to alter through government fiat. So one gets periodic journalistic accounts of supposed housing price “crises.” By contrast to Seattle, New York, or L.A., Sun Belt cities are growing so fast and so consistently because of real affordable housing. People move to them because housing is cheap. Maybe the quality of life isn’t as high in other ways, but affordability is arguably the biggest component of quality of life. Issues with superstar cities and housing affordability are well-known in the research community but those issues haven’t translated much into voters voting for greater housing supply—probably because existing owners hate anything that they perceive will harm them or their economic self-interests in any way.

Enlightenment_heathSomewhat oddly, too, large parts of the progressive community seem to not believe in or accept supply and demand. Without understanding that basic economic principle it’s difficult to have an intelligent discussion about housing costs. It’s like trying to discuss biology with someone who neither understands nor accepts evolution. In newspaper articles and forum threads, one sees over and over again elementary errors in understanding supply and demand. I used to correct them but now mostly don’t bother because those threads and articles are ruled by feelings rather than knowledge, per Heath’s argument in Enlightenment 2.0, and it’s mentally easier to demonize evil “developers” than it is to understand how supply and demand work.

Ignore the many bogeymen named in the media and focus on market fundamentals. Seattle is increasingly great for economic superstars. Most of them probably aren’t wasting time posting to or reading Reddit. If you are not a superstar Seattle is going to be very difficult to build a future in. This is a generalized problem. As I said earlier, voters don’t understand basic economics, and neither do reporters who should know better. Existing property owners prefer to exclude rivalrous uses. So we get too little supply and increasing demand—across a broad range of cities. Courts have largely permitted economic takings in the form of extreme land-use control.

Seattle is the most salient city for this discussions, but Seattle is also growing because San Francisco’s land-use politics are even worse than Seattle’s. While Seattle has been bad, San Francisco has been (and is) far worse. By some measures San Francisco is now the most expensive place in the country to live. For many Silicon Valley tech workers who drive San Francisco housing prices, moving to Seattle immediately increases real income enormously through the one-two punch of (relatively) lower housing prices and no income tax. Seattle is still a steal relative to San Francisco and still has many of the amenities tech nerds like. So Seattle is catching much of San Francisco’s spillover, for good reason, and in turn places like Houston and Austin are catching much of Seattle’s spillover.

See also this discussion and my discussion of Jane Jacobs and urban land politics. Ignore  comments that don’t cite actual research.

Furthermore, as Matt Yglesias points out in The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think, nominally free-market conservatives also tend to oppose development and support extensive land-use controls. But urban cities like Seattle almost always tilt leftward relative to suburbs and rural areas. Why this happens isn’t well understood.

Overall, it’s telling that Seattlites generate a lot of rhetoric around affordable housing and being progressive while simultaneously attacking policies that would actually provide affordable housing and be actually progressive. Some of you may have heard the hot air around Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century. But it turns out that, if you properly account for housing and land-use controls, a surprisingly large amount of the supposed disparity between top earners and everyone else goes away. The somewhat dubious obsession that progressives have with wealth concentration is tied up with the other progressive policy of preventing normal housing development!

This is a problem that’s more serious than it looks because parochial land-use controls affect the environment (in the sense of global climate change and resource consumption), as well as the innovation environment (close proximity increases innovation). Let’s talk first about the environment. Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta have minimal mass transit, few mid- and high-rise buildings, and lots and lots of far-flung sub-divisions with cars. This isn’t good for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, or for the amount of driving that people have to do, but warped land-use controls have given them to us anyway, and the easiest way to get around those land-use controls is to move to the periphery of an urban area and build there. Instead of super energy efficient mid-rises in Seattle, we get fifty tract houses in Dallas.

Then there’s the innovation issue. The more general term for this is “economic geography,” and the striking thing is how industries seem to cluster more in the Internet age. It is not equally easy to start a startup anywhere; they seem to occur in major cities. It isn’t even equally easy to be, say, a rapper: Atlanta produces a way disproportionate number of rappers (See also here). California’s San Fernando Valley appears to be where anyone who does porn professional wants to go. New York still attracts writers, though now they’re exiled to distant parts of the boroughs. My own novels say, “Jake Seliger grew up near Seattle and lives in New York City” (though admittedly I haven’t found much of a literary community here, which is probably my own fault). And so on, for numerous industries, most of them too small to have made a blip on my radar.

These issues interest me both as an intellectual matter and because they play into my work as a grant writer. Many of the ills grant-funded programs are supposed to solve, like poverty and homelessness, are dramatically worsened by persistent, parochial local land-use policies. Few of the superficial progressives in places like Seattle connect land-use policies to larger progressive issues.

So we get large swaths of people priced out of those lucrative job markets altogether, which (most) progressives dislike in theory. Nominal progressives become extreme reactionaries in their own backyards, which ought to tell us something important about them. Still, grant-funded programs that are supposed to boost income and have other positive effects on people’s lives are fighting against the tide . Fighting the tide is at best exceedingly difficult and at worst impossible. I don’t like to think that I’m fighting futile battles or doing futile work, and I consider this post part of the education process.

Few readers have gotten this far, and if you have, congratulations! The essence of the issue is simple supply and demand, but one sees a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation in discussions of it.

In addition, I don’t expect to have much of an impact. Earlier in this essay I mentioned Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives, and in that book he observes that rationalists tend to get drown out by immediate, emotional responses. In this essay I’m arguing from a position of deliberate reason, while emotional appeals tend to “win” most intuitive arguments.

By the way: In Seattle itself, as of 2015 about two-thirds of Seattle’s land mass is reserved for single-family, detached houses. That’s insane in almost any city, but it’s especially insane in a major global city. Much of Seattle’s affordability problem could be solved or ameliorated by something as simple as legalizing houses with adjoining walls and no setback requirements. The housing that many people would love is literally illegal to build.

Finally, one commonly hears some objections to any sort of change in cities:

* “It’s ugly / out of character for the neighborhood:” As “How Tasteless Suburbs Become Beloved Urban Neighborhoods” explains, it takes about 50 years for design trends to go from “ugly” or “tacky” to “historic.” It’s hard to rebut people saying “that is ugly!” except by saying “no it isn’t!”, but one can see that most new developments are initially seen as undesirable and are eventually seen as normal. “Character” arguments, when made by owners, are usually code for “Protect my property investment.” It’s also not possible to protect the “character” of neighborhoods.

* “Foreigners and their money are buying everything up and making them more expensive:” Actually, real estate is, properly considered, an incredible export:

The key is to let more development happen in the in-demand, centrally located areas where the economic benefits are largest and the ecological costs the smallest, not just “transitional” neighborhoods and the exurban fringe. Take the existing stacks of apartments for rich people and replace them with taller stacks. Then watch the money roll in.

* “Gentrification is unfair:” Oddly, cities began to freeze in earnest, via zoning laws, in the 1970s. One can see this both from the link and from Google’s Ngram viewer, which sees virtually no references to gentrification until the late 70s, and the term really takes off later than that.

If gentrification is unfair—and maybe it is—the only real solution is to build as much housing as people want to consume, which will lower real prices towards the cost of construction. Few contemporary cities pursue this strategy, though. No other strategy will work.

EDIT: See also “How Seattle Killed Micro-Housing: One bad policy at a time, Seattle outlawed a smart, affordable housing option for thousands of its residents.” The city’s devotion to exclusionary housing policies is amazing. It’s not as bad as San Francisco, but compared to Texas it’s quite terrible.


* I’m reading “Millennials” as referring to people under age 30 who have no special status or insider connections. Few will have access to paid-off or rent-controlled housing in superstar cities. They’ll be clawing their way from the bottom without handouts. In cities like New York and San Francisco, a few older people have voted themselves into free stuff in the form of rent control. Most Millennials won’t have that.

The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?

In “Amazon is killing my sex life: The tech boom in Seattle is bringing in droves of successful, straight single guys — all of them insufferable,” Tricia Romano writes about how she “wasn’t going to be able to get it up for a boring tech dude” and says that “as Amazon grows, the number of (boring) men grows too.” In Palo Alto, men “had money, but they were boring.” Meanwhile, “On the dates, they flash money around.” By now you sense a theme. In Romano’s narrative—which I don’t entirely buy, but let’s roll with it—these guys could make an effectively infinite amount of money and that money in her view wouldn’t improve their dating prospects. They are yuppie losers to a refined writerly sensibility.

Romano doesn’t make an interesting connection to national income inequality. By now much of that argument is well-known, and Piketty’s Capital is one surprisingly famous take, though I am a bleacher skeptic. Still, there is a lot of media noise around income inequality, perhaps in part because media people tend to congregate in very expensive cities like New York and L.A., where making six figures can feel genuinely middle class and where the proximity to the stupendously wealthy invites invidious comparisons.

Nonetheless, Romano’s article should be required reading for anyone who writes about or inveighs against inequality in purely financial terms. In the U.S. there are many different status ladders and finance is only one. For many, like Romano, it’s not even the most important one.

Income is not the only thing that one can choose to optimize and indeed of the guys I know the ones who get or seem to get more / better women tend not to be the richest. Artists or the artistically inclined tend to have lower income but higher-seeming satisfaction. The “seeming” qualifications are important because it’s hard to tell from the outside what someone really feels, but in the absence of better measures I tend to accept what appears on the surface.

Elliott Rodger, the guy who murdered half a dozen people at UCSB, apparently “Led A Life Of Luxury” but still felt like he couldn’t get laid. Clearly there were many things wrong with Rodger, but money did not alleviate those things. He was on the right side of monetary inequality and the wrong side of dating inequality.

I don’t have a major point in this except to note that there is a (media) obsession with income inequality. That obsession tends to gloss other status ladders and other things people value. Some kinds status can also convert into money: certain kinds of fame, for example. Attractive women can earn supernormal wages through stripping or prostitution; I’m not arguing those are desirable life choices but they are viable options for some people and not others. There are still some strength- and endurance-based jobs that guys find within reach—think commercial fishing and fracking.

I’m focusing on sex in this post but that is merely a salient one and there are others, like academia. Romano probably values being a writer more than making a lot of money. In “Taxing a Professor’s Privilege,” Megan McArdle writes about how job guarantees are financially valuable even if that value isn’t traditionally measured in dollars (she also wrote the post that gave this post its title: “The Inequality That Matters“).

If those guys Romano dated imbibed the messages that a) their earnings matter tremendously to women and that b) being at the top of the financial heap matters most, then they’ve presumably misallocated resources. They’d be better off with less time working at Amazon and more time reading Starting Strength and hitting the gym.

Romano’s post doesn’t sit alone. It’s got a similar vibe to “I Got Shipped to California to Date Tech Guys,” which sounds like the beginning of a romantic comedy but is really a jeremiad about what it seems to be about.

To be sure, everyone seems to like to complain about dating, so maybe everyone, everywhere, complains all the time. For most of my life I’ve heard straight women complain about men and straight men complain about women. The specifics of the complaints change but the complaints themselves remain.

Finally, as with so many modern social issues this is tied into building restrictions and real-estate issues, since many guys who are exciting but not rich presumably can’t afford to live in Seattle. Seattle and many other areas (New York, L.A.) could improve both dating prospects and finances through increasing the supply of housing, as Matt Yglesias argues at the link, but they choose not to.

How the politics of envy (or “income inequality”) work in the broadest sense

Tyler Cowen writes in “Paul Krugman on the political salience of inequality” that

I see the inequality issue as having high salience for NYT readers, for Democratic Party donors, and for progressive activists. It has very little salience for the American public, especially with say swing voters in southern Ohio or soccer moms. Unlike in Singapore or South Korea, where the major concentrations of wealth are pretty hard to avoid for most people, American income inequalities are well hidden for the most part.

McLean is one of the wealthiest towns in Virginia, but if you drive through the downtown frankly it still feels a bit like a dump. I’ve never wanted to live there, not even at lower real estate prices. You don’t stumble upon the nicest homes unless you know where to look. Middleburg is wealthier yet, but it has few homes, feels unreal, and most people don’t go there anyway. If they do, they more likely admire well-groomed horses and still read Princess Diana biographies. They are not choking with envy over the privileges of old money rentiers, and there is no Walmart in town to bring in the masses (who probably would not care anyway).

(Emphasis added.)

This describes greater Seattle as well: how many people outside the area have heard of Medina, city of mansions? Even within the area, most people who mention it only do so as “the place where Bill Gates lives,” despite the many other freakish palaces there. Those who live in Issaquah (further east, away from Seattle proper) don’t appear to care what happens in Medina and even if they did their political ability to affect Medina is limited. Seattle is not exactly like Cowen’s Virginia—Bellevue now has a real downtown where people want to live and go, for example—but the similarities are real.

The only place I’ve lived which seems to generate envy of major concentrations of wealth is New York, perhaps because a) of the demographics, or at least the people I tend to hang out with and b) many average people see / walk by very expensive buildings. I regularly walk by the new skyscraper on 23rd and Park or Lex where Rupert Murdoch is reputed to have bought a $80 million penthouse. Though he seems unlikely to invite me up for a martini and canapés, his dwelling is much more in your face than Medina or other wealthy places in Seattle; when I live in and near Seattle I never walked by or even got near Bill Gates’s house.

Among those I know who have been to Bill Gates’s house, all were Microsoft interns who are more likely to want to be the next Gates than they are to resent him. Gates and other tech zillionaires also appear to generate very little ill will locally. That may be another difference from New York, since tech zillionaires are widely seen as having earned their money by providing value, while finance riches may not be seen in the same way.*

Later in the post Cowen also links to Seattle’s $15 minimum wage debate, despite the many well-known problems of the minimum wage. If Seattle were serious about making poor and lower-middle class people better off, the city would be focused on providing more housing and not in effect putting gates in front of current and potential residents. But the same people who want higher minimum wages are the ones who hate and protest housing supply increases. There are many ways to make people materially better off and some ways, like building, are much closer to being Pareto efficient. The same political dysfunctions that afflict Seattle are common elsewhere too, in places like Santa Monica.


* I don’t have a strong opinion on those because I don’t know enough to judge, though I have heard plausible views about why finance increases liquidity and enables capital to find useful purposes and plausible views about how finance is an increasingly zero-sum game focused on enriching insiders and corrupting the political process.

Humanities, writers, money, and sex, which could all be seen as the same subject

* Stop defending the humanities.

* What is Dark Matter?

* “How much my novel cost me: Writing my first book got me into debt. To finish the next one, I had to become solvent,” in which the author learns many things that seem like they ought to be obvious and also mis-prioritizes things in a way that most people grow out of by 30.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Q&A: The Duke Freshman Porn Star,” which is interesting and yet I 1) can’t help by marvel that anyone today thinks they can appear in porn and, given the contemporary appetite for it, not eventually be recognized and 2) think that anyone going to a school costing more than $50,000 a year ought to expect it to be filled with rich kids. In addition, I don’t see the appeal of schools like Duke or USC; yes, they have big sports teams, but the basic experience and structure is similar to that of most public schools costing half to a quarter as much.

* “Goodbye Academia,” which is part of a growing genre and I agree with this comment: “I feel liberated and happy, and this is a very bad sign for the future of life sciences in the United States.”

* “What good are children?

* “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics,” probably overwrought but interesting nonetheless.

* Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle; this is both important and depressing.

* “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life? The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation.” Except I’m not sure I’d call it “harder;” I’d call it “different.” Weirdly, neither “self-publishing” nor “Amazon” are explicitly mentioned.

The number and percentage of writers who have ever been able to make a full-time, middle-class living at writing novels is small and has always been small. That’s one reason so many get gigs at MFA programs: for all but the most popular writers, there’s more money in teaching writing than writing.

Links: Ads, antibiotics, Paul de Man, Pages, and more!

* The unbelievably brilliant ad campaign by Eat24, a food delivery service: “How to Advertise on a Porn Website.” Note that this is safe for work, provided you don’t work in a religious organization or elementary school.

* The most important piece and yet likely to be the least read: “We’ve Reached ‘The End of Antibiotics, Period.’

* “The Many Betrayals of Paul de Man,” or, why it is sometimes impossible to separate the work from the life.

* Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.

* “Why women lose the [late] dating game: Bettina Arndt listens to the other voices in this debate: the men.”

* “How Texas lost the world’s largest super collider,” a story that is really about the dysfunction and misplaced priorities of American politics.

* Seattle wants gigabit broadband, Mayor McGinn wants to deliver it.

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.

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