I have several goals in publishing The Gated City. I hope to bring an awareness of the economic importance of cities to a wider audience. I hope to teach economists something about cities. And I hope to teach urbanists something about economics.
It’s disappointing to see that, to at least some extent, the evidence continues to bounce off of urbanist writers. Lloyd Alter strangely cites underdevelopment of many New York neighborhoods as evidence against my thesis — that tight development rules are preventing rich cities from adding enough new housing. He doesn’t appear to be aware that in places like New York, there is quite a large housing premium over and above construction costs; the difference in housing costs is not primarily about the difference in construction costs.
Alter falls into arguing that because a place builds a lot it must somehow have built enough — an argument I anticipate and respond to in my book. He confuses cause and effect, arguing that cities with new, tall buildings are less culturally interesting because of those new buildings. That’s not correct; developers build expensive high rises in response to high levels of demand, and it’s the failure to respond adequately to that demand that drives real estate costs up, forcing out marginal businesses — including independent stores and other charming firms. He defends tight limits on housing on the grounds that they prevented a big collapse in housing markets during the housing bust. This is simply wrong — prices in San Francisco have fallen 40% from their bubble peak — and it also ignores the critical role tight housing markets played in turning rising incomes in places like San Francisco and New York into a nation-wide housing bubble.
Alter winds up essentially endorsing the dynamic I find so troubling:
I am sorry, That’s backwards, they are the richest and most productive cities because of those limits, because they are attractive and exciting and nice places to live, with history and culture and old buildings and leafy streets. They attract the best and the brightest and the most ambitious, every Liza Minelli singing “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere”, and are Darwinian in their effectiveness at picking the successes and turfing the failures. Take that away and you have nothing. Or maybe Houston, same thing.
Houston is boring, he seems to argue, because its residents weren’t smart or ambitious enough to make the piles of money necessary to afford a life in New York. Sorry chumps, you just lost the Darwinian struggle!
I like Alter, and I enjoy reading his work on urban design. It’s very important, however, that urbanists heed the evidence and understand the damage that development restrictions do to middle-class mobility and the national economy. If you love the look of the place so much that you’re willing to ignore its impact on people, you’re going to wind up with bad places and poorer people.