Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Planning and Free Market Density

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 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.

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.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Sustainability

26 Responses to “Planning and Free Market Density”

  1. GMeckstroth says:

    I certainly agree that the ultimate goal of planners should be to de-plan, as planning can lead to sterile environments. The best urban places we have are organic and chaotic. But in today's society, where places like Boston and Lower Manhattan (both organic layouts) are no longer created it seems crazy to de-plan everything. In fact, it seems to me that streets in Indianapolis like Keystone suffer because of their lack of planning and hodgepodge development. Is this not correct or is Keystone the way it is because of too much planning?

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    I'm not opposed to land use planning. There's certainly room for plenty of regulations. I'm just saying that planning as implemented in America has generally tended to be anti, not pro density.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Some places have regulations that promote higher density; those regulations just don't look anything like zoning or even Houston-style zoning-lite. Portland has an urban growth boundary. The DC suburbs have rules limiting the conversion of farmland into urban land use, which encourage developers to use their urban development quotas for infill and TOD rather than for suburban sprawl.

  4. EdwardM says:

    "There's no doubt that plenty of progressives write about how people ought to more or less be forced back into the city."

    Uh, wait a minute, fact check. What "plenty" of progressives say people should be forced into the city? There are some saying that higher urban density is good for a number of reasons. But forcing? No one in America is forced to live in a city. Even the places with the strictest growth boundaries have plenty of low density suburbs inside the boundaries.

  5. BeyondDC says:

    I agree with Ed on that nitpick, but overall this is a great post.

  6. Graeme says:

    I think it is important for a city to offer options for density, so that people can choose for themselves. Current planning methods, which in the US is strictly zoning regulations, only allow for one type of development.

    My own opinion is that forcing people back into the city should occur to some extent. Many people in the US appreciate the community and jobs that cities provide but refuse to pay the taxes and civic participation that cities require. The taxes borne by suburban populations rarely even pays for the infrastructure required to move them in and out of the city.

  7. Kevin says:

    Very well said.

  8. jlm says:

    I agree that planners need look more toward form base codes and to the overall system. They need to be focusing on the public environment, tree preservation, open spaces, walkability, and parking/transportation on a systemwide level. For example the building proposed with no parking. Is there ready access to public transportation? Is there enough parking available for guests, loading/unloading, etc so that the project can remain viable once the developer has marketed his sparkling project, sold the units and left? If so, then why provide parking? If not, then it is in the public interest that parking be provided to keep the project viable and sustainable. Address the liveability issues; that should be the planners function. Then get out of the way.

  9. fpteditors says:

    "Planning" with a $trillion autosprawl subsidy in place is non-euclidean geometry. First we have to stop the energy wars, charge for carbon dumping, and make public transit fare-free.

  10. JG says:

    Writers as the likes of those at New Geography including Joel Kotkin perpetuate the idea of a "cabal" by using inuendos such as "cram czars" to suggest those in government (specifically the Obama administration) will force people into high density living. These writings are more about politics and wealth, just thinly veiled as concern for urban/suburban planning. Much of it is by "academics" starting with an opinion and picking facts thereafter – a red herring for BS.

    JIM (above) touches on a good point, livability. Until the medium sized midwest cities have comprehensive reform and expansion of public transit, development will always be burdened near the CBD with providing onsite parking. Too many people want to keep a car nearby, and unfortunately many of these cities after 60 years of pro-car development demand it. I think there are alternatives to allow people to live as such, have and use public transit, and keep a car conveniently nearby. Aaron, it would be a good topic to research and write on (if you agree) in the future.

  11. Anonymous says:


    I have a question which sorry is ot post related. Being in Atlanta, it made headlines last week when we got the College Football Hall of Fame. I looked to see who also bid on it and could see Dallas. Did any Midwest cities even try? Why not? Wouldn't Indy be a competitive city to get it? Certainly Chicago of course…
    Again sorry to post here, but didn't no where else to ask.


  12. Mark Arsenal says:

    Two major reasons even denser cities often clamour for lower densities on new developments is a) because even most dense cities contain large populations of drivers, and most new developments will also have lots of drivers, so there's a perception that new development is going to cause additional parking competition and b) because most new/infill development in cities is concentrated in areas that have historically been car-friendly or lower-income, which means that the existing population has an interest in de-urbanizing it away from traditional urban form.

  13. Anonymous says:

    There is a collective action problem here. When higher density projects are approved in a neighborhood, it can raise property values and property taxes to such an extent that existing residents are priced out of the neighborhood. So they have incentive to try to kill the project, by raising objections like traffic or environmental concerns.

    Politicians are elected by existing residents. The potentially new residents to the neighborhood (who stand to benefit from the new development) have no vote.

    Sprawl is a second best option for developers. They build on the urban fringe, because its much easier to get projects approved on the urban fringe.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Planning is not the real problem. The american dream concept is very powerful. It's going to take decades of de-programming the mind set of the country that city life, (dense living) means lesser quality, unless you are wealthy.

    Those of us who are working in the planning and city building field have to continue to work to help create more attractive, denser, affordable neighborhoods. I live in Chicago and have visited many cities around the country, Canada and, abroad. I have not been in an dense urban neighborhood that has all of the amenities one would desire in a neighborhood (safety, good schools, great mass transit access, attractive housing stock, retail/commercial and, quality open space)and, is affordale for the average working person.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Not to nitpick, but the Toronto example you offered doesn't quite make your point about density. Toronto is actually very progressive in allowing creative parking solutions to facilitate redevelopment in and around the downtown core, while at the same time being cognizant of the severely limited parking supply available in downtown today. Parking is so limited in downtown Toronto that parking leases are passed on in people's wills when they die.

    Other than that, good post. I enjoy your blog very much.

  16. Alon Levy says:

    When higher density projects are approved in a neighborhood, it can raise property values and property taxes to such an extent that existing residents are priced out of the neighborhood.

    But some of the people who object to density do so on the opposite grounds. In the suburbs, zoning restrictions aren't meant to depress property values, but to keep them out, ensuring that poorer people can't afford living nearby. This is especially common in California, where property taxes are limited by Prop 13, but even in the Northeast the suburbs have similar zoning restrictions.

  17. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Edward, of course no one comes out and claims they want to force everyone back into overcrowded tiny apartments directly. That's the caricature you often read of what is said.

    But you don't have to look far to find all sorts of people who have an idea of radically remaking cities, using planning as a tool to do so.

    Sec. Ray LaHood has said we need to "coerce" people out of their cars (a statement I'm sure he'd like to take back).

    A famous Sierra Report called the "Dark Side of the American Dream" encouraged mandating urban growth boundaries.

    Here's a piece on Ellen Dunham-Jones, who is on the board of the Congress for New Urbanism:


    "Ellen Dunham-Jones has jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire – on purpose. As a proponent of urbanizing the suburbs through regional planning and denser, traditional neighborhood patterns (no cul-de-sacs,plenty of
    sidewalks),Dunham-Jones left New England two years ago for Atlanta. Here,as the director of the architecture program at the Georgia Institute of Technology,she hopes to challenge accepted suburban architectural design and development patterns to counter the effects of urban sprawl."

    I think it is pretty clear that lots of people would very much like to impose a "smart growth" agenda of urbanization throughout America. They just haven't been very effective. The reality has been that except in places like the West Coast and selected other locales, they have not really set the agenda in America. Urban sprawl continues to reign supreme here.

    I'm an advocate for cities, of course. I just happen to think that we need to take a more incrementalist approach and let market demand, demographics, and changing lifestyle patters change the development pattern over time. Yes, this would involve some sensible planning to permit and encourage urbanization and also to stop pouring subsidies into greenfield development.

  18. Kevin Burns McCoy says:

    I think Aaron is right-on that the reality of sprawl and low-density development is largely a function of the most profitable form that developers have been ALLOWED to build. Local units of government are in control of the zoning process and the nature of local politics supports low-density as default practice. There is a lot of pressure on local officials to preclude even mid-density development. Why? Because those officials were elected by the current residents and the current residents don't want anyone moving into their townships, demanding services but paying less taxes than they do (tax burden per household is typically lower in denser developments because they consume less land).

    Strangely enough, our real estate crisis may serve to push us in the right direction on this issue. It seems the banks deluded themselves into thinking that low-density, fringe development was the least-risky investment out there. This has been proven to be FALSE. The sprawling developments on the fringe are suffering the most in this crisis. Presumably, they will not be eager to repeat this crippling mistake in judgement. Will this bring development back to city centers? In vibrant areas it probably will. In less-vibrant areas the development will move to the inner-ring suburbs. Those local governments that allow densification will reap huge rewards. I look around the Detroit area (which will probably be the last city in the midwest to see this happen) and the most successful areas are the ones that are walkable, bikable and have denser residential and commercial districts. I have to believe that other areas are looking at their success and wondering how they can replicate it.

  19. AmericanDirt says:

    Great insights. I've always thought the word "progressive" reeks of self-congratulation, but I think you wisely use it tongue-in-cheek here. What percentage of these smart growth advocates are currently raising kids? No doubt at least a few are, but how many are sending them to public schools? The number gets smaller. And, of the few remaining in public schools, how many are defying traditional district boundaries through a magnet, charter, or university-assist program? My guess is there would be few or none left. (How many posters on this blog are currently raising children?)

    The fact remains that, as much as even historically low-density cities such as Indianapolis or Nashville have been able reactivate their downtowns with a reasonably large residential population, urban advocates have by and large failed to sell urban living to families with school-aged children. This includes both academics and developers with a genuine passion for urban living. I'm not certain how that will ever change. Even cities such as San Francisco or Manhattan (not NYC as a whole), in which have commodified urban living with overwhelming success, are famously shy of children. Kevin McCoy raises a good point: the real estate crisis has proven that even seemingly foolproof exurban development is not immune to collapse. But demand for trendy condos in most downtowns has plunged just as precipitously.

    While it behooves developers' wallets to build densely, I don't think there's as much of an ideological gap between the general public and land use laws as some of the respondents here suggest. You've pointed out before how historic districts and neighborhood associations are often apply a back-door approach to upholding "architectural character" which nearly always translates to a lower density than the market would support. Even suburbs in which civic leaders have successfully pitched the premise of a more urbanized development patterns, such as Carmel IN, neighbors threw a conniption fit when three decaying homes were demolished to make way for five on the same patch of land, as I believe you or someone else once pointed out.

    Perhaps the biggest cultural barrier lies in housing tenure. High density apartment complexes encounter far fewer free-market and regulatory barriers to entry than condos, and they are tending to find an adaptable, more transient demographic in places like downtown Indy, even during the recession. The densest cities always skew heavily toward rental units. So the free market simultaneously wants density and auto-oriented, low density development, and land use laws often reflect a compromise between the two. If this compromise seems to favor low density disproportionately, maybe it's because homeowners–frequently dual income with kids–have far greater bargaining power.

  20. cdc guy says:

    It isn't just income and housing tenure.

    Homeowners tend to band together and speak with what appears to be a unified voice. Renters typically don't join neighborhood or residents' associations.

    Bargaining power accrues to the organized, even in poorer neighborhoods. In challenged areas, neighborhood organizations sometimes object to Habitat for Humanity infill homes because they are purchased by very-low-income householders.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    AmericanDirt, Manhattan has been undergoing an upper-class baby boom over the last 10 years. The main attraction is that property taxes in the high-income suburbs have risen so much that average per student spending in the most exclusive school district is now the same as private school tuition. If you're upper class rather than upper middle class, it can be cheaper for you to send your children to a private school than to pay property taxes in a high-income school district.

    The truth is that if you define a public school to be a school that everyone can go to regardless of ability to pay or competitive exam screening, then almost no couples from the middle class up send their children to public schools. They send them to private schools, magnet schools, or schools in district where the tuition is called property taxes and the barriers to entry are called zoning.

  22. Jeffrey C says:

    You can be pro-density, but anti-overmassing (if there is such a word) can't you? I'm all for bumping things up a floor or two, but some of what developers often propose is out-of-scale and will simply tower over the single-family homes you describe. 3 Mass Ave is a good example of a building that nice as it is, seems out-of-proportion with the historic building that anchors the street below it.

  23. thundermutt says:

    3Mass is less than a block from the Regions Bank tower!

    The Wheeler Mission and the other short buildings in that neighborhood are the anomalies, not 3Mass.

  24. Alon Levy says:

    You can be pro-density, but anti-overmassing (if there is such a word) can't you?

    Yes, you can. A lot of new urbanists include human scale as one of their design principles, and would oppose megaprojects. A lot of community opposition to megaprojects in New York comes from people who have no problem with density at human scale.

    At the same time, there's also widespread NIMBY opposition to any increase in density, including upzoning by a floor or two. In Austin, neighborhood NIMBYs are livid at proposals to allow duplexes in addition to single-family homes; they charge that allowing renters to move in would destroy the neighborhood, and invoke specters of high-rise projects as the natural consequence of duplexes.

  25. cdc guy says:

    Caveat: different degrees of massing and density are appropriate depending on distance from a CBD or major employment cluster.

    Single-family neighborhoods on the edges of downtowns in growing metros probably should lose their arguments against greater density and mass.

    The alternative, from a 35,000 foot view, is more edge-cities sprouting up at freeway interchanges.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I would agree if half of the dense development proposed wasn't intended to be subsidized by taxpayers. When developers stop throwing up tax credit projects and other subsidized crap that depends upon Section 8 vouchers, I'll be happy to throw out the planning rules. Planning should only go when all the HUD nonsense goes away.

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