Tuesday, October 24, 2017
John Landis, a planning professor at UPenn Design (and a former professor of mine when I was a student at Berkeley and he was teaching there) has a really important new paper that is worth a read. For those that don't know Landis, he is one of the leading spatial planners in the country and has done some of the most sophisticated work on measuring sprawl over the last several decades. His new paper is:
John D. Landis (2017) The End of Sprawl? Not so Fast, Housing Policy Debate, 27:5, 659-697, DOI: 10.1080/10511482.2017.1296014 (behind paywall)
In the paper, Landis reviews most of the major studies of sprawl over the last few decades as well as new data. In so doing, he comes away with several really important take-aways for the legal world. I'll summarize them in my own words, then allow Landis to speak for himself.
First, growth management tools can work at controlling sprawl, but they seldom do. The reason why is that few cities have the administrative expertise and political will to implement them. This is an important finding because it tells us that if growth management is going to work, there needs to be a robust legal culture that implements it. While this exists in places like Portland, it doesn't exist in most other places, which means the growth management tools don't work effectively. This is important to the legal world to contemplate because its the technical side of implementation that appears lacking in many locations trying a regulatory approach.
Second, Landis finds that strong land use controls that lock in existing low density development often cause sprawl. Ironically, areas that have no land use controls, such as Houston, and most Texas cities, have few land use controls, have permitted some very dense developments within Texas cities that wouldn't be permissible under typical land use controls in most American cities. The lesson here is that sometimes the market can actually create more dense development patterns than legacy land use controls that lock in low density development.
Here is an excerpt of Landis' more technical statement of the findings:
These results have four big implications for local land-use planning and policy. The first is that formal land-use policies and regulatory frameworks have far less impact on metropolitan development patterns than is usually thought. What matters is how those policies and regulations are administered at the local level, and how well those administering them send consistent signals to property owners and developers about favored or out-of-favor densities and development forms.
A second implication is that demographics and markets matter more than policy. The U.S. metropolitan areas in which average densities and core-area populations increased most between 2000 and 2010 were those with younger populations and more immigrants. Densities and core-area populations also increased more in metro areas where easy-to-develop land was in scarce supply, leading developers to try to accommodate more people on less land. Planners seeking to promote higher densities and more compact and walkable development forms would be wise to act as intermediaries connecting like-minded consumers and developers.
Third, sometimes less is more. For those who like to bash Texas for its laissez-faire approach to planning and development regulation, the finding that core-area neighborhoods in Texas have grown faster than elsewhere should give pause. Regulations typically function to freeze the status quo, and for most of urban America, the status quo has long meant single-family subdivisions, townhomes and garden apartments, and auto-oriented strip centers. As a newer generation of Americans seeks more diverse development forms, planners, taking a page from Texas, should look for ways to loosen overly prescriptive land-use regulations.
Fourth and finally, perhaps it is time for planners to redirect their efforts away from weakly containing suburban growth and toward incentivizing developers to identify profitable and replicable models of moderate-density development that function in suburban communities as well as core-area neighborhoods. The absence of any metropolitan-level correlation between the presence of anti-sprawl programs and reduced sprawl suggests that urban containment programs have not worked. By contrast, sprawl has been reduced where development regulations make it possible for young and diverse households to satisfy their various housing preferences in walkable and mixed-use neighborhoods and transit corridors.
Id. at 686-87. Well worth a look and many implications for the structuring of effective land use controls. It seems this paper also has much to say about the current debate over the affordability of housing in major urban areas.