In which I correct Kevin Drum

Drum responds to a discussion of land use in the era of expensive oil by commenting:

A focus on increased density is going to mean a funny political switcheroo for a lot of liberals. We’re mostly accustomed to fighting evil corporations on behalf of the little guy, but it turns out that most suburban (and many urban) zoning regulations have been put in place by exactly the little guys we’re used to teaming up with. Developers, on the other hand, would happily build out every last acre to the maximum possible density and maximum possible profit if only they were allowed to. So if we’re in favor of higher density, we’re frequently going to find ourselves siding with big developers and very much against local public opinion ? and believe me, you haven’t really taken on the task of changing public opinion until you’ve sat through a planning commission meeting trying to out-talk an angry mob of homeowners who are dead set against a proposed zoning change that might affect their property values by 1%. Strange bedfellows indeed, but those are the bedfellows we’re going to have to get used to.

Sadly, no.

The flaw here is the assumption that “maximum possible density” is the same as “maximum possible profit.” What we’ve seen lately is that a lot of people want to live in giant houses on lots so large that they can’t see their neighbors, and they want to drive to work every day, have a bus take their kids to school, have ready access to supermarkets, movie theaters, clothing stores, cultural events and all the other amenities of living in an urban or suburban environment. This was only economically sustainable because gasoline was so cheap that people essentially didn’t think about it’s cost except to bitch at the pump (before roaring out of the station in a fuel-wasting squeal of tires).

Developers want to maximize profits, and selling ranchettes to wealthy people was better business than building high-density skyscrapers. So they built ranchettes. There was more money in strip malls than in mixed use facilities with commercial space on the sidewalk and residential areas above. It was more profitable to create giant seas of cul-de-sacs, all emptying onto taxpayer funded highways, which would lead people to giant commercial districts miles away.

Now that people care about the cost of driving those miles, they all want to live near the malls, and don’t mind seeing their neighbors so much. But if one releases zoning laws, you’ll wind up with luxury condominiums, townhouses, etc., and not with a sensible mix of apartments at different price points and with comparable access to the shopping. So you’ll wind up with a profoundly regressive system in which developers maximize profits by making the apartment equivalents of ranchettes, and nothing for the vast majority of people.

Zoning isn’t the problem here. The problem is that zoning laws were never sensible in most suburbs, and making them sensible is hard. They need to encourage mixed-uses, so that neighborhoods are walkable. They need to ensure that the buildings in an area are not all aimed at a single income-level, but that affordable housing exists all over, and that it is of good enough quality that people don’t have a problem living in that socioeconomic mix. It has to provide room for (and encourage) expansion upward as well as outward. It needs to include a plan for public transit that will get people quickly from any residential core to major commercial areas.

It has to ensure that essentials, like groceries, restaurants, clothing, and entertainment, are available within a 15 minute walk of most housing, even if every local store isn’t enormous, has imperfect selection, or is otherwise flawed. Some people will choose to drive or take the bus to the better store wherever, but others will take convenience, and stores that want to make more money will learn to improve their quality.

The communities I’m describing aren’t mythical. I live in one. I’m 10 minutes from the local commuter rail/subway, 2 blocks from work, a block from a bus line and 5-10 minutes from several others. I’m a 15-20 minute walk to 2 lovely and diverse shopping/dining areas. By bus, I can be at either of two weekend farmers’ markets within a 15 minute ride, not to mention a supermarket and a Trader Joe’s. And that’s in Oakland, not a place often held up as a model of urban planning.

There’s city housing across from me, there are larger apartment complexes all over, as well as single-family houses and a range of duplexes (and 3- or 4-plexes). That keeps the neighborhood diverse enough to sustain a range of businesses, and leaves room for changing demographics. Partly, that’s a result of the sort of random replacement of structures and businesses that Jane Jacobs praised so often, but it’s also a result of people keeping an eye out for the nature of the community, and how zoning and permitting laws could be used to keep a healthy mix. Unfettered, the developers wouldn’t care about the underpaid staffers for nonprofits, because they’d all want to build condos for overpaid software engineers.

Zoning evens the playing field.


  1. #1 Oldfart
    August 13, 2008

    I live in Roeland Park within walking distance of Price Chopper, Lowes, Walmart and a bunch of other stuff. Not everything but not bad. However, there is little or no mass transportation in this area. That I know of. And there is NO mass transportation that can take me from here to my VA doctors in Missouri even tho both areas are roughly within the same metro area.
    And getting from here to, say, Overland Park where there are large malls and more diverse shopping is drive only. In fact, getting to the local farmer’s market is drive only since there are (IMHO) NO bike safe pathways.

  2. #2 Carl
    August 13, 2008

    I’m not sure if I’m a good guy or a bad guy in this scenario. Yes, I live on a “ranchette” (love that word, BTW) and can barely see my neighbors. Offsetting that, neither my wife nor I commute — we both work from home in the spare rooms of our selfishly oversized mansion. And I replaced the propane heating system with a geothermal heat pump. So overall, I think I’m slightly on the side of the angels but still with a healthy dose of liberal guilt. In other words, the best of both worlds :-)

    BTW, I do want to say two things in favor of the Ranchette Set:
    — We are on well water, so if we use our aquifer irresponsibly we pay the consequences ourselves.
    — We plant a heck of a lot of trees. In my part of Virginia, what used to be grazing grassland or monoculture crops is rapidly being re-wooded. Does that count for anything?

  3. #3 MartinDH
    August 13, 2008

    Unless the community is willing to pay for a sewage system and water supply system then one family per 1-2 acres *is* high density.

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