Zoning and Sprawl

I wish I had more time to address the ongoing conversation on zoning and sprawl, but I’m at a conference and I’m trying to keep up with normal Economist responsibilities. But I have to say a few things. I obviously want to associate myself strongly with Matt’s take on this. But here’s the main point. Kevin Drum says:

To get an idea of how strongly people feel about this, you really need to come live in a suburb for a while. But failing that, consider the balance of power here. Corporations would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. Wealthy land developers would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. And local governments hate single-family neighborhoods because they’re a net tax loss: they cost more in services than they return in property tax remittances. And yet, even with corporations, wealthy developers, and local governments all on one side, suburban zoning is ubiquitous. This is a triumvirate that, under normal circumstances, could get practically anything they wanted, but in this case it’s not even a close fight. Suburban residents have them completely overwhelmed.

That’s how strong the desire is for suburban sprawl. Again: I’m not taking a position on whether this is good or bad. And I’m not saying the fight is hopeless. I’m just saying that everyone needs to understand what they’re up against here. It’s not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it’s the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay. These kinds of land use regulations aren’t going away without the mother of all knock-down-drag-out fights first.

See, I think this gets the dynamics of zoning and sprawl entirely wrong. Zoning is about exclusion, more than anything else. Does anyone imagine that if you plunked down a copy of DC — its infrastructure and building stock — in the middle of Fairfax County, that it wouldn’t immediately become some of the most desirable real estate in the country? Everyone I know would love to live in that kind of community in close proximity to Washington, but no one can afford the District anymore, and not because of the physical cost of building the buildings.

But there is a problem in building a DC in Fairfax County, which is that it’s already developed. And because it is already developed, it is full of people willing to use any means necessary to prevent new entrants into their community. This isn’t about the popularity of sprawl — residents of dense neighborhoods in Washington, and indeed in Manhattan, fight new development just as vigorously. In-fill is difficult to accomplish anywhere and everywhere. And this is extremely costly to society, as people overwhelmingly want to live where other people are, which is why this issue is so important.

So people build where it’s easiest and cheapest to build, which is on the urban fringe. And walkability is difficult to build on the urban fringe because transportation will be overwhelmingly auto-oriented (the fringe being distant from employment and retail centers and unserved by transit). So you get acres of tract housing, which subsequently become filled with people, who then do what homeowners everywhere in the country do, which is try to exclude new people from moving in to their neighborhood. And development then moves further outward.

Why are people so anxious to exclude newcomers? Well, homeowners are extremely risk averse, since they have a great deal of money tied up in one, undiversified, immobile asset. Rates of homeownership are highly (and negatively) correlated with density levels. Unsurprisingly.

But the notion that suburban sprawl wins out simply because it is so popular is belied by housing cost data. People live where they can afford to live, and if they can’t afford to live in a walkable area, then they’ll opt to live in sprawl rather than go homeless. And once there they’ll act to defend their investment by fighting development projects that may have unpredictable impacts on the value of nearby single-family homes.

Meanwhile, Kevin asks if there are walkable areas built outside of urban centers. Yes, there are. In suburban Washington, municipalities have been extraordinarily successful building walkable neighborhoods around Metro stations. This is an increasingly popular model around the country. If commuter rail were built into the suburbs anywhere near as aggressively as roadways are, we’d see much more construction of walkable suburban development.


  1. Dan Staley says:

    Daddy, Kevin is saying the same thing you are. It is obvious and apparent that residents agitate their electeds to downzone to large-lot single fam. And you didn’t provide a link to Kevin’s post. But the other dads and moms understand why.

  2. hnc says:

    I think I agree with you, but I’d like to see you develop your argument about why people want to exclude newcomers. Those same insecurities don’t prevent people from wanting to live in dense areas, so why do they prevent adding density?

  3. Steve says:

    I think Kevin also simplifies things when he equates the fact that “Corporations would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. Wealthy land developers would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want.” with the an idea that the majority of them WANT to build anything remotely close to walkability, density, city-sized infill, or anything related all over the place.

    Corporations would like to be able to build anywhere they want, but they certainly are ok with building in a cheap giant office park with tons of parking. Making it sound like corporations and wealthy land developers and local governments are united in a powerful superhero triumvirate against sprawl but are somehow losing anyway is utter fantasy.

    They know the system, are able to produce the products that fit perfectly within the code and between the lines, and make a lot of money doing it. It’s the status quo.

    (Though you are right about the power of exclusion.)

  4. Tom says:

    So what is it? People choose sprawl because walkable neighborhoods are too expensive, or they prevent density because the because it will erode their property values.

    If density(walk-ability)is seen as positive in the city, then why is it seen as negative in the suburbs?

    Maybe people have more than one opinion on how they would like to live their life. They move to a place that suits them and fight to keep it from changing.

    The suburban attitude might be if you like density, move to the city and leave me alone. City dwellers may have the same feelings about changes to their environment.

  5. Dave Parker says:

    Part of the bad reputation New Urbanist developments have is that they are built on the outskirts just like traditional subdivisions, and are therefore no better than traditional subdivisions. Perhaps this is because of the reasons you give, that it’s the only place they can be built.

    Walkability is another issue here as well. New Urbanist developments are often immensely walkable, but because of their outlying location there is nothing to walk to.

  6. hnc says: “Those same insecurities don’t prevent people from wanting to live in dense areas, so why do they prevent adding density?”

    The deal is, the already-dense areas are (mostly) already desirable as they are. People would love to live in those places because they’re already working; the problem is that relatively scarce housing makes those places unaffordable for many people.

    But if someone were to try to build an apartment building in my single-family exurban neighborhood, there’d be a big risk that it might NOT ‘work’: that our neighborhood might become less desirable, and our houses less valuable, as a result.

    And of course, if your house becomes worth less than your mortgage, all of a sudden you’re trapped: can’t relocate to a better job in another city without paying a bunch of cash to get out of your mortgage. So suburbanites are quite naturally hostile to such changes happening in their backyards.

  7. Ben Ross says:

    While it’s obviously true that people worry about their property values, it is not at all true that property values are the main motivation of opposition to building things near oneself. An intense development battle in Montgomery County (Maryland suburbs of DC) a few years ago was over a new retail-office development in Friendship Heights that features Tiffany’s, Gucci, Jimmy Choo, and similar retailers. Certainly no one thought Tiffany’s was going to lower property values or run down the neighborhood.

    I’d add that opposition by neighbors to large new sprawl-style developments in outer suburbs is often much more intense than opposition to new urbanist developments near Metro. In current MoCo politics, compare the near-unanimous opposition of neighbors to the Gaithersburg West master plan proposal to the substantial support the White Flint plan has gained among its neighbors. Outer suburbs get zoned for sprawl development when there are no neighboring homeowners, or the neighbors are too disorganized to make serious objection, not because of support from neighbors.

  8. BeyondDC says:

    It’s fear of traffic, not property values, that drives most suburban opposition to new building… at least in the DC area.

    The ironic thing is that as the Arlington model has shown, infill development is probably the best way to PREVENT more congestion.

  9. matt w says:

    From Joel Kotkin. For my part I agree with Ed Koch.


    “Have you ever lived in the suburbs? It’s sterile. It’s numb. It’s wasting your life,” then New York City mayor Ed Koch once said. He was wrong. People keep moving from the city to the suburbs, and apparently they like it.

    The trend is fairly universal. Greater Portland, considered an earthly paradise by many new urbanists, may be a magnet for educated workers, but that doesn’t mean most live in the hip urban core. Since 2000, more than 95% of greater Portland’s population growth, notes demographer Wendell Cox, took place outside city limits.

    The reasons for the push outward vary, but numerous studies reveal that, contrary to some assumptions, residents feel suburbia provides a richer community life. Granted, most people don’t think they live in the land of Leave It to Beaver, but it’s a far cry from the dystopia of American Beauty.

  10. BobN says:

    These arguments always overlook the situation in other parts of the world. Pick a country with very little regulation — there are lots of them to choose from — and look at how people organize themselves. Suburbs are a very, very rare “natural evolution”.

    If we wanted to find out how American cities would evolve “naturally”, we’d cap campaign contributions to local officials.

  11. JesryPo says:

    One thing that has not really been discussed here is the difference of unit size between dense, more urban areas and the suburbs.

    Here in New York City, as the mass migration to the suburbs of the middle of the last century heated up, building owners carved up larger “family” apartments into smaller units (sizes appropriate for the young singles, the immigrants, the gays, etc. who stayed in the city).

    Fast forward to the early 21st century, when a dense, walkable urban life has become very desirable (at least in cities like New York that are themselves desirable places to be for families who want their children to be raised in a rich and diverse environment) and there is a dearth of housing stock that is large enough to accommodate a growing family.

    My architectural practice has become almost exclusively the combination of smaller apartments into larger ones, with 3-4 bedroom units the holy grail. Many friends of mine never dreamed of leaving Manhattan or Brooklyn until that second baby came along… Suddenly, the suburbs became not desirable per se, but necessary. Happily, New York has some denser, walkable suburbs (Pleasantville, NY, Maplewood, NJ, etc.) from which to choose…

  12. DBX says:

    If people truly prefer sprawl, how do you explain Arlington County? Here is a large, already-developed suburban area that has been reverse-fitted as a traditional city, and density, population and property values have soared. What was formerly kind of a bog-standard suburb is now the most desirable place in the DC metro.

    With the country living incentive of suburbia well and truly trashed by that nice wood behind your garden shed being plowed up for more McMansions, what still drives people to sprawl is the schools. Fairfax is a planning, zoning and traffic nightmare, but at least it has good schools. It was a good escape for residents of the District. But what if you have good schools in an urban area and you reverse the equation? Arlington! Property values in the stratosphere. The place to live.

    Look at Chicago. It has managed to stay stable despite deplorable schools. Basically, anyone who doesn’t have kids or a job well out in the burbs lives in the city. The schools are the suburbs’ principal connection to economic viability, although some of the smarter suburbs are creating their own densified town centers with high concentrations of jobs and apartments and at least some transit — Schaumburg and Evanston come to mind. But just think what Chicago would be like with truly good schools. Full of a million extra suburbanites, that’s for sure.

  13. Be Nice, It's Better says:

    By what measure do people “want, want, want” sprawling suburbs? In the US, over 80% of the population lives in urban areas. They simply contain more people.

    Second, countries with less than 50% population is rural are, with few exceptions, overall underdeveloped or 3rd world nations.

    See: http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_per_liv_in_urb_are-people-percentage-living-urban-areas

    I also note that the photo in this “article” is not classical sprawl, this is city limits (around sunset, no less).

  14. Mixner says:

    So what is it? People choose sprawl because walkable neighborhoods are too expensive, or they prevent density because the because it will erode their property values.

    The same question occurred to me. If higher density generally means higher property values, people who live in low-density developments generally have an economic incentive to support densification and infill. It would increase their property values. So why do they generally impose it instead? The “new urbanist” narrative is self-contradictory.

  15. BeyondDC says:

    BobN brings up an excellent point. You don’t have to go very far, either. Canadian cities as a rule have healthier cores and less sprawl than their otherwise comparable American cousins.

  16. Arlington says:

    > hey prevent density because the because it will erode their property values.

    No, that’s the wrong inference. Homeowners don’t like increasing the density around them because it creates uncertainty. As the OP says: “In-fill is difficult to accomplish anywhere and everywhere.”

  17. higher density is higher value in a place like DC or NYC because of the value of the location, not because of the density. The density accrues as a result of the value of the location. In turn, it supports a broader array of amenities (a la Jacobs’ discussion of the value of density, or the concept of agglomeration economies).

    The same kind of density is not higher value in Baltimore, compared to the suburbs, but it is compared to other parts of the city. In Pittsburgh, again, it is not valued, compared to the suburbs. Because density supports a broader array of amenities, it becomes a method for maintaining the value of urban locations vis-a-vis other attractive neighborhoods in a region. But you have to be able to maintain, at least somewhat, the quality of municipal services, and the strength of the employment center of the CBD, otherwise the balance of high income/low income residents shifts too unfavorably, and the center city becomes less competitive. This is further affected by mergers of industry to key centers, which has extranormal negative effects over time (e.g., in Baltimore, the acquisition of companies like Alex. Brown, which eventually left the city, USFG–the same, as Aegon left the city, McCormick, etc.)

    Part of the reason that people don’t want “walkable urban” in the suburbs is that they associate the building/urban form with poverty. They are not able to separate out the concept of spatial form from economic class.

    E.g., I live in a bungalow worth maybe $400K in upper NW DC. This is the same building stock that is present in Essex in Baltimore County. There, the housing stock is associated with poorer people, comparatively speaking, in the county. So people in Perry Hall don’t want that kind of building stock (the same that is in places like Arbutus or Catonsville) because they associate it with the seething poor and social problems that led them to leave Essex in the first place. (The bungalows in Essex are 1/2 the price of ours.)

  18. j. cortright says:

    What we have in suburban land use is Smoot-Hawley with zoning. Localities use zoning laws like nations engaging in tarriff battles. Suburbs zone out higher density single family and multi-family, in effect playing beggar thy neighbor with the rest of the metropolitan area. In a fiscal sense, its better for you if everyone in your suburb is as rich as possible, and that as few a poor families live their as possible. So every suburban jurisdiction pursues the same game, lowering allowable densities to try to maximize revenues per household and lower public sector costs, especially for schools, per dollar of taxable house value. With every suburb flooding the market with lots of low density land, it does drive down its price, encourage sprawl, and produce the perception that this is what consumers are “demanding.”

    Why can’t people see that this kind of zoning is inefficient for exactly the same reasons that competitively raising tarriffs was inefficient?

  19. worn says:

    As someone who lives in Portland, I’m not sure folks should take seriously the claims of Wendell Cox as relayed by Joe Kotkin. Simple empirical observation gives lie to this claim, along with the existence of our urban growth boundary. I am originally from Atlanta, being born there and having left in large part because of its simply awful pattern of development. I’ve now resided in the northwest for 17 years and the edges of the city are pretty much where they were when I moved here. Contrast this with Atlanta, where in mid-90’s my mother moved to the outer edge of Alpharetta (itself ~25 miles from the city center) for a job, thinking she was out of the craziness. The sprawl that was miles distant when she settled had quickly engulfed her area within the year.

    It should also be noted that Wendell Cox, who’s writings seem to single out Portland for derision, has also claimed our traffic will be worse than LA by 2015. Oh, puleeeze….

  20. The one thing no one has mentioned here is that the automobile (abetted by cheap gasoline) has made all of this suburban sprawl possible and that racism is what drove it, and probably drives it still.

    When we talk about dense, walkable environments — at least the ones in the United States — they are all in cities with 19th Century, pre-petroleum skeletons. Those were the best layouts American cities could implement with the existing energy and transportation technologies upon a largely undeveloped landscape. Yet, no 20th Century American cities (except, arguably, Los Angeles) rank among the world’s great ones for this precise reason, that a dense, walkable core gives a city its dynamism. The components needed for the kind of alchemy that gives a city that spark of life simply can’t be assembled at 60 mph.

    I currently live in New York City, but many of my colleagues live on Long Island, or in Connecticut or New Jersey. When this discussion comes up between us, and it always comes up, they always come back to “well, I just like it and so do all my neighbors.” I always counter by saying we”d all like a forty foot yacht, too, but that doesn’t make it feasible or OK to implement public policy that institutionalizes that lifestyle preference. Yet that is exactly what we have in this country, from the allocation of transportation dollars to the deployment of our military. Almost everything is to protect and reinforce a petroleum infrastructure precisely because we have already sunk so much time and energy into it.

    Having grown up in the northern suburbs of Dallas in the 1980’s & early 90’s, I watched as arable farmland was chewed up for endless miles of tract housing, all serviced and fed by cars and trucks. In fact, my specific subdivision backed onto farms on three sides and the two-lane blacktop country highway running north/south that once formed the eastern boundary is now a six-lane concrete boulevard leading north into the next three towns, all of which have gotten the same treatment over the last two decades. These towns were once the butt of “one-horse” jokes when I was a teenager, but are now the same kind of traffic-clogged, shopping-mall dystopia in which I grew up.

    j. cortright sez at #18 is exactly right that neighborhoods and towns play the game of trying to feed off the density of surrounding areas, while walling themselves off from the supposed downsides, mostly deriving from racist attitudes about poverty and crime. The best example I can think of is the area of Highland Park in Dallas, where our 43rd president now lives. It is a wealthy enclave in the heart of the city, near the SMU campus, which feeds off the density a college and the infrastructure that grows up around it, while being able to maintain a white suburban lifestyle.

  21. I live in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia Fairfax County Area myself. It is along the Route One Area. I work at the Pentagon for the Federal Government with the Department of the Army. In fact, my husband will turn 82 on Saturday, July 24, 2010, because it is his birthday. The county won’t even help us get out of financial debt and they won’t even give us a caregiver for my husband and they won’t even get me assigned to a case manager through there Community Services Board with the Mental Retardation/Intellectual disabilities. Fairfax County have made tremendendous and huge budget cuts on all kinds of special programs for the disabled and senior citizens. This whole area we live in sucks. It’s a high-crime area, and we live in an old mobile home in a very old run-down mobile home park. We have a very cruel and greedy landlord of Hell, who runs the park we live in. I don’t like him. Nobody will help my husband and me out, because nobody cares and the people are not very friendly. I don’t like the area. The whole thing is a “DAR PICKLE” to me. What that means when I say “DAR PICKLE”. It means, it is a concrete jungle out here and a lot of the quack people out here are not caring and friendly. In fact, I go to church, and I belong to the Pathfinders Club. They are very good to me. I would like to do these activities when I move to a rural area while I work and live there. Thank you very much.

    Valerie Klaassen