Zoning and Sprawl

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. Read more


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I guess it has to do with

I guess it has to do with what your idea of "sprawl" is. At one time or another NYC used to be a tiny hamlet. Over time more people moved in and the city spread. All cities develop this way over time and at some point become "sprawly". The kinds of cute walkable neighborhoods urbanists tend to praise and hold up as models are almost always very expensive. Hence why people who can't afford them move to suburbia... which is where I'm probably heading too since there's no way I could afford to buy a house in my cute, walkable neighborhood in the Bay Area.