Special Report: Maximizing Opportunity Urbanism with Robin Hood Planning


This is the first section of a new report authored by Tory Gattis for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism titled Maximizing Opportunity Urbanism with Robin Hood Planning. Download the full report (pdf) here.

Across America and the developed world, we face a well-reported crisis of income stagnation, rising inequality, a declining middle class, and a general lack of broad prosperity. Yet contemporary urban planning seems disconnected from this crisis, focusing instead on pedestrian aesthetics, environmentalism, and appealing to the supposed preferences of the wealthy and the “creative class.” This approach increasingly dominates urban thinking, expressed often as New Urbanism or Smart Growth. In this perspective, dense and usually older cities like New York, Portland, and San Francisco have been held up as models. For the most part, planners see their world through the perspective of an architect – an architect of the physical form of cities. But what if they tried the perspective of an economist – an architect of opportunities for people to have a better life?

Cities matter far more than they used to as engines of opportunity and upward social mobility – the very essence of the American Dream. As the basis of the economy has shifted from industry to services, proximity to others now matters more than ever before. A factory can be anywhere and ship its products anywhere, but, generally speaking, most services need to be in-person. This is pushing more and more of the population to agglomerate around not so much cities, as defined by their political boundaries, but major metros, including numerous suburban rings, where the vast majority of the population resides. In many metros, limited housing supply has driven up home prices and rents to levels where much of the middle and working classes are either unable to buy or must pay a heavy portion of their incomes in mortgages or rents.

This is occurring as economic and technological factors have directed ever more wealth to a relatively small population of elites, whose demand for specialized services - whether personal spending or that of the corporations they control - has become a major part of the economy. Economic opportunity is driven not just by proximity to others in general, but by proximity to the very small but critically influential super-affluent class – what Citigroup research calls the “Plutonomy”. iv In some markets, such as Miami, New York and San Francisco, the locational preferences of this class - who often have several residences and many are foreign buyers - has been yet another driver of major metro agglomeration and higher housing prices, particularly where there are strong land use regulations.

Family sizes have shrunk and reduced fertility rates are leading towards destabilizing demographic implosions in Europe, Japan, and China – and the U.S. trend is moving in the same direction.vi As nations seek to improve fertility rates, one of the greatest challenges is a shortage of family-friendly housing with sufficient space. If that space is not affordable, then people do the next best alternative: shrink their family size. Whereas families used to be comfortable with multiple children per bedroom, the modern standard is one bedroom for every child – not to mention the “home office” for virtual work by the dual-income parents. With the large suburban house both regulatory out-of-favor and unaffordable in some metropolitan areas, families are forced to shrink to live in expensive density, or pay very high prices and rents for what used to be considered standard middle class homes.

The planning community generally has few answers to these dilemmas, but in practice the steps they often advocate may actually be making it worse. A dominant tenet of Smart Growth actually seeks to restrict suburban development and encourage density to contain urban expansion. Draconian regulations – and ever higher costs - are piled on any new developments. On the other side, pressure from NIMBY homeowners often limits development of any kind – including high-density. In some areas, exclusionary zoning – such as tight restrictions on multi-family housing – is used to prevent minority, disadvantaged, or lower-income populations from moving in nearby.

All in all, the net effect is a suffocating restriction on new housing supply even as demand increases, leading to skyrocketing home prices. This has the effect of making affluent NIMBY homeowners, who are disproportionately white and older, quite happy since their homes prices, sans new competition, are almost certain to increase. But the system works like a “Robin Hood in reverse” for younger, middle and working class families that lose out. This is a major driver of inequality - in fact, recent analysis indicates that homeownership completely accounts for the rise in inequality in recent decades. xii Planners have to take a hard look in the mirror and face an uncomfortable truth: whether they have been conscious of it or not, they have been direct accomplices in the rise of inequality and the decline of the middle and working class.

Download the full report (pdf) from the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, and co-authored the original Opportunity Urbanism studies. Tory writes the popular Houston Strategies blog and its twin blog at the Houston Chronicle, Opportunity Urbanist, where he discusses strategies for making Houston a better city. He is the founder of Coached Schooling, a startup to create a high-tech network of affordable private schools ($10/day) combining the best elements of eLearning, home and traditional schooling to reinvent the one-room schoolhouse for the 21st century. Tory is a McKinsey consulting alum, TEDx speaker, and holds both an MBA and BSEE from Rice University.