Friday, April 27, 2007
Free market theory assumes that there is, in effect, an unlimited supply of choices. But one asset that clearly is not in infinite supply is land. The fact that there may be little space for low-cost housing in a region supports the idea of "inclusionary zoning."
Meanwhile, local governments are rapidly realizing that one of the best ways to keep expenditures -- and thus taxes -- low is discourage developments that appeal to families with children. What could be a better "public welfare" initiative than to keep taxes low?
An unholy alliance is spurring the boom in "age-restricted" communities, usually referring to 55-years-old-and-up developments. These communities are popular with older people (a group whose numbers are mushrooming with the coming of age of baby-boomers). They are also popular with local governments, who encourage them as a way to keep out families with school kids.
Sure, it's unlawful for either government or the private sector to discriminate, even through a "disparate impact," on the basis of race, sex, or religion. But fairly blatant discrimination against younger people and families with children still passes muster in most states. One story about a town that may wish to swim upstream is Trumbull, Conn., which is considering a moratorium on age-restricted communities. Watch this space …
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Will depopulated cities such as Detroit experience a rebirth in population and economic activity? In a sense, the answer has to be "yes;" after all, for depressed central cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland there is really no place to go but up. Each of these cities holds block after block of emptiness, abandoned buildings, and land use failures. Eventually, market pressures are going to build something useful in these spaces.
But I'm skeptical of the predictions of University Michigan professor Robert Fishman, whose new book foresees "A Fifth Migration" on a large scale of people moving out of the suburbs and back to the cities. (His "fourth migration" was the 20th century movement out from the cities.) With a rapidly growing American population, empty city spaces, more single adult households, and the limits of commuter tolerance, certainly more people will inhabit our cities, even Detroit, in the 21st century. This will probably be true even though some of Detroit's biggest land use plans of the past few decades didn't work out as planned. The huge "Renaissance Center" built downtown on the river in the '70s was a fortress that said only, "Hurry up inside here; you'll be safe!" -- which isn't exactly the best way to rebuild a downtown. (And today, the large company whose headquarters is in the Ren Center is mourning the passing of the mantle of the world's largest automaker to Toyota). And the infamous downtown monorail has been the disappointment that one might have predicted in a low-density, depressed city that is the home of the American carmakers.
As Fishman points out, much of the revival of American cities will come from new immigrants from other countries -- which doesn't really fit the model of a migration from suburb to city. Despite decades of predictions from Kenneth Jackson to Prof. Fishman, the great bulk of Americans simply have not rejected the suburbs for high-density life in the big city. With alterative fuels on the rise, the survival of the auto-based suburban culture seems assured for the foreseeable future. Here's my own prediction: Cities such as Detroit will revive, but they'll look not like the Detroit of 1950 or even Portland, Ore., of 2007. They'll look like downtown Los Angeles or the city of Miami today -- modest-scale neighborhoods, largely of recent immigrants and stores that cater to them, alongside large "loft" apartment blocks of mostly childless families who enjoy the cultural amenities of downtown, but who are still vastly outnumbered by the soccer moms and dads in homeowners associations in the suburbs. And this isn't so bad a future, for Detroit or America …
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
It's a "smart" idea to foster development near existing transportation routes, right? And although smart-growth advocates always favor rail and other public transit first, it has long been considered good land use policy to encourage growth near freeways, as well. Through this "infill," natural areas may be preserved, while auto commutes may be limited.
But in a new study of air pollution in Oregon, a environmental science professor has concluded that living and working close to freeways exposes one to much greater amounts of air pollution, and at further distances from the freeway, than previously thought.
Does this mean that land use law should discourage new construction near freeways and create wide buffers around them? No, this would seem to be an over-reaction. In fact, such a system might create more pollution, by virtue of requiring more driving and more burning of gasoline. But it's worth remembering that most supposed "quick fixes" in land use law are likely to have their drawbacks. It's through the balancing of advantages and drawbacks, in place-specific decisions, that good land use policy is created.