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Urban density and the social dilemma

2013 June 3

For some time now I have been thinking about writing something on the arguments over urban development restrictions. On its face, I guess this is an argument simple enough to describe:

  1. There are cities that are very popular owing to a combination of economic vitality, and natural and/or man-made amenities; London, New York, San Francisco and Washington are frequent examples…
  2. Many people who want to live in those cities are prevented from doing so by high prices…
  3. Which would logically fall if the supply of dwellings in those cities expanded…
  4. But instead, local restrictions on vertical expansion, horizontal expansion, or both, tightly limit that supply…
  5. So prices remain high, and complaint and argument goes on.

I think that’s a fairly effective surface summary, and really the only kind of summary I can manage. One of the reasons this argument fascinates me is that every time I think “well, this is what it really gets down to,” I promptly come up with some significant exception. Even the title of this post, I realize, excludes a major element: while putting more dwellings within a city’s existing horizontal limits (mostly through building up) and thereby increasing density is a frequent theme, I see plenty of argument for expanding those horizontal limits to permit further building outward, as well.

The issue(s) seem to flummox otherwise safe political guidelines, as one can argue for or against with either leftish, communitarian reasoning or with libertarian market ideals. The closest I can come to imagining any kind of solid, simple position is a hard libertarian attitude which values property rights above all: you buy the land, you can build what you want on it, no one else gets a say. And even this hypothetical seems to require a certain measure of selectivity to construct, because of the core issue (if there is any core issue at all) of connection as inherent to society, no matter how much one prefers to emphasize the individual. It doesn’t take much effort to come up with examples of how one person’s right to do whatever he wants with his property can be in fundamental conflict with another person’s right to have her property left alone from any intrusion. I guess one could maybe say that physical building within an upward projection of the property boundaries that does not ever directly physically intrude into another’s property should have no restriction, and sunlight that it blocks, noise that follows, traffic it promotes, etc., are just the neighbors’ tough luck. But again, it seems to require some careful navigation to reach even that.

For one who normally tends toward some measure of concern for community rights and welfare, it’s at least as much a maze and perhaps much more…

On the surface, if there’s broad community support for restricting development, then this would seem to leave little room for leftish protest; one can always try to persuade people otherwise but at the end of the day if most of San Francisco wants a low-rise cityscape is there any scope for overruling the choice? Well, yes, arguably there’s plenty. First of all, one can always nitpick at “broad community support.” Are all voices being heard and equally considered, or is an influential minority of incumbent property owners just trying to preserve their rent extraction (literal or figurative) at the expense of a majority?

More significantly, I think, whom should we consider when we’re evaluating majority vs minority interests? Even if you have a legitimate local majority support for development restrictions, why should incumbent residents (owners or not) count for more than aspirant residents? Matthew Yglesias, who beats this drum on a regular basis, has argued multiple times that if it’s possible to improve overall welfare by making more room in a city like San Francisco* (which combines a mild climate with a vibrant job market) then more room should be made; if you count the people who don’t live there but would like to and would support a more roomy San Francisco in order to accommodate them, you can make a case for majority interest.

But Yglesias faces plenty of criticism from people who at least believe they are also defending progressive arguments, e.g. the environmental cost of sprawl, or the evils of big developers and gentrification; Yglesias has his own counter-counter-arguments and around we go.

At least, around I go, because I just have difficulty getting comfortable with either side of this argument; I think I may be getting more torn on the issue, in fact.

Which is part of why I’ve decided to post this, and perhaps the only conceivable point to doing so as I don’t exactly have a conclusion of my own to advocate. I do feel like expressing a couple of thoughts that have not come up so far, at any rate not that I’ve seen from The Economist or Slate or The Atlantic Cities.

First, the more I’ve thought about it, the more reluctant I become to wholesale condemn NIMBYism as selfish and reactionary, for the reason that it’s often underpinned by some form at least of interest in the wider community. One might say that it’s often a selfish form, but all the same a genuine “no such thing as society” fortress mentality seems frankly incompatible with concern for the world beyond one’s property line. By contrast, concerns about space and views and character and yes, even traffic are really based upon a fundamental sense of investment in the larger community beyond one’s own little parcel of it. Again, one can criticize these as nonetheless in some sense petty or selfish, and I am by no means insensitive to the “incumbency” argument, but all that said… I can’t help thinking, first of all, all of us ultimately draw boundaries somewhere, and second, should we decide that their affinity boundaries are too small and, well, tough luck, “needs of the many” etc., roll bulldozers… it just feels a bit like this attitude at least points toward a road that has been tried, before, and ended up leading away from progressive society and toward oppression of both individual and general welfare.

Meanwhile, second, I can’t help feeling that the most otherwise persuasive arguments for “make more room” also usually involve a staggering failure of imagination. I suspect that as much as anything it may be a matter of perspective, really; Yglesias and Avent are currently Washingtonians and, I have the impression, have spent most of their adult lives in high-demand cities. Maybe living in them therefore seems considerably less of a luxury than it does to me and more of an essential opportunity that it’s simply wrong to hoard rather than share.

By contrast, I’ve spent my life in Iowa and Ohio, places where (with limited exceptions, in which I’ve never lived) dwelling space is relatively plentiful and people to occupy it are generally the scarce resource, instead. And while this isn’t exactly an argument, itself, perhaps from this perspective the flaws in “make more room in the popular cities” just appear that much bigger than when happiness and success outside of them is an entirely hypothetical concept.

Could be. At any rate, it just seems very obvious to me that “move more people into the limited spaces with jobs, cultural amenities, etc.,” naturally suggests an alternative of “create more jobs, cultural amenities, etc., in the spaces ready and happy to accommodate more people.” And, furthermore, that there seems little inherently more difficult or complicated about the latter than the former. I mean, the “make more San Francisco” argument seems to presume that people want to live there, the market would provide space for them if it were allowed, we just have to decide to let this work out and it will work out. Except, y’know, I guess it’s a funny thing about so many issues within modern human society; our potential ability to control matter and energy is such that no matter how you look at it the biggest obstacle is usually in some sense our willingness to approve/oppose whatever is at issue. In this context, I would point out that

  1. people probably don’t so much want to live in San Francisco or New York or London so much as they want economic opportunity and quality-of-life amenities…
  2. the greater part of which are man-made, and thus in reality as entirely hostage to the collective will of some greater or lesser subset of humanity as density restrictions…
  3. while the theoretically interesting argument that “these handful of desirable clusters of such goods are already in place and up and running,” and so it’s simpler to move people to them, bumps up against a series of practicalities, such as
    1. if it were really simpler, we wouldn’t be having this debate, plus
    2. adding more people, however you do it, eventually ends up requiring more than just “letting it happen;” most obviously, you need more infrastructure…

and, basically, it just ends up looking like the conclusion that “make more room to move more people to the popular cities” is the “natural” and “easy” resolution is a very very debatable conclusion; it might be valid but the evidence seems far too mixed when you really look at it all to come down so firmly for any conclusion.

Having acknowledged which, I guess I’ll just close with my feeling that, again, whatever else one can say I feel like the imaginative, hopeful and yeah probably the progressive point of view is to look at this situation and say “let’s try to make more awesome cities,” rather than to say “we’ve only got a limited number of awesome cities so we’d better stretch them to fit as many people as we can.”

* Also, truly no more than a footnote to the fundamental arguments, but is there really a good argument for advancing the general welfare to be found in building an even bigger population center on land that is known to be dangerously unstable…?

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