I read articles out on the net with the general theme of claiming that a cabal of planners is conspiring to force us all to move back into overcrowded tenements in order to recognize their dream of reurbanizing America. There’s no doubt that plenty of progressives write about how people ought to more or less be forced back into the city and would gladly do it if they had the power. And I’m sure in some places there are planning rules designed to achieve this effect, like urban growth boundaries. But if you ask me, the practical reality in most of the United States is exactly the opposite situation. Virtually every piece of planning regulation I see acts to discourage urbanization and especially to reduce densities below market demand.
If you want people to live more densely, no nefarious planning rules are necessary. In fact, simply remove a lot of the ones we have and American cities would get much more dense in a hurry. The free market wants more density.
If you look at zoning laws across America, almost all of them specify maximum densities, such as residential units per dwelling acre, that put a cap on buildout. Additionally, there are a host of other planning regulations such as minimum parking requirements, setback requirements, etc. that have the same effect. And don’t get me started on historic districts.
The truth of this proposition can easily be verified by simply showing up at your nearest neighborhood meeting or planning hearing when ever a new development is proposed. Almost inevitably, the developer wants to put in a certain number of units, and the neighbors think it is too many. Frequently, developers are forced to scale back their projects in the face of objections.
And this isn’t just in the suburbs. Nor just in smaller cities. This affects even larger and nominally very progressive cities too. Chicago, for example, has down zoned extensively in the city. Neighbors complained about densification, such as by replacing two story, two unit buildings with four story, three unit buildings, and got large tracts of popular neighborhoods down zoned. In a previous era tony Lincoln Park saw the development of many high rise apartment buildings, including ones on neighborhood commercial thoroughfares like Clark St. It seems unlikely these will be permitted again. Minimum parking requirements have turned much of the city into strip mall nation.
Consider even ultra-progressive Toronto. A recent proposal for a 42 story high rise condo building with no parking was recommended for a “No” vote by planning staff. The staff was actually overruled on this one – so far. But again, it seems the planners are on the pro-car, not anti-car side here.
Bigger cities can survive this perhaps. But smaller cities are often devastated by it. For example, an anti-density mindset in Indianapolis has rendered most of the central city, even those areas nominally revitalized, sterile. Many neighborhoods have tidy rows of well kept and attractive single family homes, just like you would find in any Indiana small town, but few pedestrians and few businesses that survive without relying on suburban patrons or commuters. The reduction in density forced on developers has also led to much of the downtown housing stock being unaffordable by local standards since each unit has to carry a lot more land value.
Developers are in business to make money. They obviously have some reason to believe that the market will absorb more density and less parking. They certainly aren’t proposing things out of any purely altruistic motives. Now, certainly some of the initial proposals might be something the development company itself never had an intention to build, all the better to give away in the form of concessions as the planning gauntlet ballet plays itself out. But there is no doubt in my mind we would frequently see greater density if we only allowed the market to operate. No heavy handed planning required.
This post originally appeared on September 29, 2009.