Pissing Against the Wind

Fight Sprawl

Everyone hates urban sprawl; this consensus has lead to many earnest efforts to stop it. These efforts include “smart growth” initiatives, greenbelts around cities, and proposals for intensification.In spite of  (or because of?) these efforts, sprawl continues unabated. Huh?

The answer to this conundrum was pithily put by a local politician (I wish I could remember who! Please help if you know): “There’s only one thing people hate more than sprawl – intensification in their own neighbourhoods.” I think people tend to move to an area because they like it – even sprawl. And so most of us live in sprawl of one vintage or another. So we have zoning laws to try to stop any changes to our neighbourhoods, and hire planners to help us with this. When a developer proposes any sort of intensification, we fight it ‘tooth and nail’, as we like things just the way they are. That’s why we moved here in the first place.

So why do we hate new sprawl? First of all, it tends to insult our aesthetic sensibilities, being raw and monotonous. Secondly, it means change to the way things are (“I used to be able to walk out into the countryside from my suburban house, now it’s just more houses”). And finally, being new, we see the brutality and soullessness of car-based urban development in its blinking nakedness.

So why do we keep building it? Like most of us, the people moving into new subdivisions desire their own house, with greenspace around it for a garden or lawn. Many people do not own their own houses yet, so we have build them somewhere. And quite a lot of people enjoy living in sprawl (i.e. most of us). We don’t mind driving to get a bag of milk, or anything else, if it means that we don’t have to live near people poorer than us. We don’t mind living where all our neighbours are similar to us and we feel safe letting our kids run about on the street. We like being able to buy a bigger house. And finally, we don’t like the intensity and busyness of the city centre. Peace and quiet for us – no commercial or retail development nearby means fewer strangers and less traffic.

Successfully fighting sprawl means two things to me:

1. Don’t fight it everywhere. A whole lot of us really love living in sprawl, so let us live how we want. Smart-growth and greenbelts only drive up the cost of new housing.

2. Let intensification happen naturally. Building successful, intensive urban areas from scratch is hard. The easy way to do it is to let it happen in already built areas. New areas (even long ago) always are monotonous and of relatively low density. What we see in older areas today happened gradually over many generations. Zoning stops this process, and has stopped it since WW2. We can see that areas built since then essentially look the same as they did when built. Planners think that they can substitute for natural urban intensification by designating high-density areas and mixed use areas.

As mentioned earlier, people fight intensification now. But there is money pressure to intensify from people who want apartments or condos and businesses that want cheaper space with good exposure to passers-by. So developers have learned that it is worth fighting against residents, as long as they can then build something tall enough to spread out the cost of fighting planners and residents over many units (and charge ridiculous prices for the units, as demand and supply are so out of whack). And so residents fight even harder, as intensification now means huge towers in their neighbourhood of houses. And so supply is restricted further, meaning prices are even higher, meaning developers fight even harder. And so on.

* To credit that picture, and if you want to buy the book, click here.

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Published in: on September 4, 2006 at 11:02 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Maybe they aren’t necessarily looking for their own acreage, but simply for a place they can afford. And since land value is so high in the centrally located neighborhoods, which are also the neighborhoods with established infrastructure and plenty of services, the land they can afford is on the fringe.

    How do we fix it so that only those who truly do want acreage need to go to the fringe? Find a way to bring down the PRICE of land. (Notice, I didn’t say value of land, just price. If land was lower priced, more of us could afford housing in the places we’d prefer to live.

    How do we do that? Well, remember that when interest rates rise, the same monthly mortgage payment (principal and interest) gives the buyer less buying power in terms of what he can pay a seller, which brings down the prices of property (unless there are a lot of buyers who don’t need to borrow in order to buy). A, say, $500 monthly payment on a 30 year mortgage at 6% lets you borrow $166,700; if rates rise to 7%, the same buyer can only borrow $150,300, which will cause offering prices to drop by some amount (assuming that lending rules prevail and the buyer isn’t forced into using higher and higher percentages of his income to service debt in order to buy a house).

    Similarly, if the tax on land value increased from, say, 1% of land value to, say, 2% of land value, the value of the land would not be reduced at all, but the selling price would come down. The sellers would leave town with a smaller nest egg. (They didn’t contribute any more or any less to the increase in the value of that land than did the tenant next door!) The buyers would borrow less from the mortgage lender (aw, poor FIRE sector — finance, insurance and real estate), and their monthly or quarterly or annual payment of land value tax, while higher than the 1% they’d have paid before, would now replace taxes currently leveled on their purchases, their wages, their interest, even their houses. The guy who had improved his property wouldn’t pay any more than the one who kept a similar lot next door vacant. So the fabulously located properties, close to the center of activity, would get developed and redeveloped, and in the process, single-family neighborhoods downtown might give way to multi-family neighborhoods, housing many more people close to their work, close to established schools, on sites already served by sanitary and storm sewers, streets, police, fire and ambulances, near hospitals, served by public transportation.

    Not everyone wants that. But many who prefer it can’t afford it under our current system.

    And the result would be shorter commutes, more use of public transportation, denser cities, smaller metropolitan areas, wilderness that remains wild, agricultural land that remains agricultural land.

    Another result, for more complicated reasons, would be higher wages and more jobs.

    The bad news? Only that real estate owners and REIT investors, who are generally quite wealthy and (some) known for their philanthropy, might not have pockets that are quite as deep. But since we’d have less need for charity to offset the poverty the current system is creating, we might be able to do just fine without their largesse.


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