Zoning and Sprawl

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Matt Yglesias has been making the case recently that zoning and land use laws encourage suburban sprawl, and if we did away with them we’d have a greater number of dense, walkable neighborhoods. Cato’s Randall O’Toole took exception, so Matt condensed his argument into PowerPoint form:

  • Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
  • Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
  • Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.

There’s a lot I could say about this, but that’s a mistake in a blog post. So I’ll stick to one main point: these regulations aren’t something that’s been imposed by “government.” They exist because people really, really, really want them.

I need to be clear here: I’m neither praising nor condemning this, just describing how things are. 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.

And now for a second point, even though I said I wouldn’t make one: walkability is very difficult to create. It’s not enough to build a bunch of houses with shopping nearby. It’s not enough to have a few big apartment buildings. And there’s no practical way to convert an existing suburb into a high-density area. The thing is, you can’t be 90% walkable. You have to be 100% walkable, and for a development of any size you have to jam people together to get enough density to truly make that happen. You will never get this outside a central business core where the price of land is so high that you have no choice.

So….I dunno. Maybe eventually we’ll run out of oil and everyone will have to move into urban cores whether they like it or not. Short of that, though, I just don’t see how it’s going to happen. Working to keep existing city centers walkable seems eminently doable and eminently worth doing. Outside of that, though, building a truly walkable neighborhood strikes me as the next best thing to impossible.

So here’s a serious question: outside of a big city core, has anyone ever successfully built a walkable, high-density suburb? Not a village or a small town. I mean something really dense and walkable: a place where sidewalks are busy, mass transit is good, and there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings. I know the New Urbanist folks talk about this a lot, but do any actually exist? Educate me, peeps.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate