Stupid is as stupid zones: Part 3, Other than pestilence or a crime wave

March 20, 2017 | Density, Exclusion, Housing, Land use, Local Government, London, Los Angeles, Speculation, Urbanization, Zoning

By: David A. Smith


 [Continued from Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]


A time there was, ere England’s griefs began,

When every rood of ground maintained its man;

But times are altered; trade’s unfeeling train

Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;

Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose,

Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;

The Deserted Village (1770), Oliver Goldsmith


In Wednesday’s Part 2, after we turning down a textual detour to investigate the bizarre justifications for nonsensical NIMBYite behavior by the local Los Angeles political powerhouse AIDS Healthcare Foundation, I realized it was a journalistic cul-de-sac, out of which I backed by the simple expedient of ending that installment.


Write your way out of this, big guy


Fortunately our detour wasn’t entirely in vain: it demonstrated that all too often, those who oppose growth:


·         Do so for purely selfish reasons.

·         Go to great lengths to camouflage their self-interest.

·         Advance arguments that make no sense whatsoever and are ridiculously stupid.

·         Use political thuggery to get what they want


Sources used in this post


Curbed LA (April 8, 2015; forest-green font)

Economist (February 11, 2017; black font) (February 25, 2017; crimson font)

Economist (March 2, 2017; navy blue font)


And they do so because in the short run, these tactics work: the great partially observant herd notices only the noise and thinks, Yes, less development would be nice, without thinking even ten seconds more to realize the next point, which Britain and the Economist are finally learning, ten years later than they should:


Ignore AHI blog warnings at your peril


Posting update


This Part 3,, scheduled for last Friday, was 90% done by 9:30 that morning, but Work Intervened.  As a makeup, it’ll be four posts this week.

3. Obstructing growth doesn’t stop growth, it subverts it into pricing premiums


In England, lack of development is strangling the economy:


Development is desperately needed. Britain’s broken and cruel housing market may be the country’s most grotesque inequity. In 1997 it took a middle-income household three years to save up a deposit to buy a house; today it takes 20 years.


In other words, for a middle-income household, buying a house is impossible.  Either you inherit one, or you rent your entire adult life and get frustrated with lack of value for your money.


Vent your rent


Ever more Britons are consigned to properties that cramp, impoverish or otherwise limit them.


In What price greenfield? (April 5, 2005), I connected Britain’s greenbelt to:


1.     Shrinking per-capita living space.

2.     Reduced household formation.

3.     A lower birth rate.

4.     Graying of the population and population decline.

5.     Overleverage by young households.

6.     Tolerance of interest-rate gimmicks and risks.

7.     Overstressed transportation infrastructure.


My parents’ generation’s land-use policies are doing this to my housing prospects


I concluded:


How much of this is due to infatuation with greenspace?  When I drive through central Ohio or even Greenfield, Massachusetts, and see forests or vast farmlands, I do wonder: What price greenfield?


A dozen years later, the answer is, All of it:


For the pain it causes is no less acute for being lived out quietly, in private. Think of those left homeless –


Every Londoner has to sleep somewhere


– those who cannot afford an annual holiday, those condemned to horrible commutes; of those couples without the money to move in together (or to separate); of the young adults unable to live near the apprenticeships or jobs they want. 


Perhaps such victims are too diverse to organise, march and make their voices heard.


Actually, they can organize, once they realize the root of the problem: the NIMBY incumbents’ cabal who already have their own private patch of England.


How many of these people are urban renters, do you think?


But their misery is real and visceral. And all for so much golf course, sod and bramble.


But, say the advocates of legally green if physically wasted space, isn’t the alternative that awful sprawl?


AHI blog posts on America’s local land-use dynamics


April 5, 2005: What price greenfield? What’s wrong with England’s land use policies

July 14, 2005: Struldbrug buildings, The folly of preservation laws without incentives

January 16, 2006: Sprawl: Everything you know is wrong, 2 parts

July 21, 2008: Lord Wellington’s lament, 4 parts, exploding the myth mobility is bad

September 21, 2010: First, assume a can opener, 3 parts, Joel Kotkin touting suburbs

May 4, 2011: Scenes from a mauling, shopping malls are doomed to extinction

February 27, 2012: California’s self-tying knots, 5 parts, on Serrano, Prop 13, more

July 26, 2013: Better off vacant, 2 parts, how San Francisco makes vacancy economic

May 5, 2014: Sunset scarcity, 2 parts, San Francisco’s idiotic down-zoning

January 26, 2015: Golf and the romance of pre-urbanized society, 6 parts

August 10, 2016: Zoning by the taste police, 3 parts, when everything’s non-compliant



4. Sprawl is not density, density is not sprawl

Back in 2006, I reviewed Sprawl: A Compact History, by urban architectural historian Robert Bruegmann, from which I extracted (among others) these trenchant quotes:


[Despite what many reformers argue], sprawl is neither a recent phenomenon nor particularly American. It is, indeed, merely the latest chapter in a story as old as cities themselves and just as apparent in imperial Rome, the Paris of Louis XIV, or London between the world wars as it is in today’s Atlanta or Las Vegas or, for that matter, contemporary Paris or Rome. (Page 9)


Look at that intolerable sprawl


To contextualize the Louis XIV sprawl, the map above shows Louis’s capital expanding well beyond the Ile de le Cite and the left-bank’s medieval walls; and the same area today (thanks, Google maps) is shown below:


Even today, my God the sprawl


The distance from south (Port Royal) to north (Faubourg St. Martin) is about 2 ¼ miles, a 45-minute walk, and today’s heart of the tourist city.  Some sprawl.


Virtually every argument leveled against sprawl today can be founded in descriptions of London and other European industrial cities in the nineteenth century. (Page 116)


The early Victorians in particular were furious that the railways could bring their black carriage, with its noise, soot, and plebeians, into their countryside.


In Paris during the 1990s, the City of Paris proper lost 200,000 jobs and the inner ring of suburbs gained only 20,000 while the outer suburban ring added 160,000. (Page 52)


Sprawl, in other words, is the pejorative term slapped on middle-class expansion by those who, like the Duke of Wellington when he was prime minister, lamented the coming of technology or urban expansion as simply “encouraging the common people to move about needlessly,” an argument echoed badly in The Atlantic by housing neophyte but not neoNIMBY Hanna Rosin that giving poor people mobility with Housing Choice Vouchers would lead to the suburbanization of crime.  Instead, twenty-first century mobility has encouraged urbanization, and likewise the broadband and connectivity revolutions have upended the nature of live-work spatial separation, as well as dooming shopping malls to extinction and a post-extinction reuse (in a form yet to be developed).


But over 90% of its citizens (more than in any other big Western country) opt to dwell in towns and cities. They seem to be in denial.



Britons are in denial; like those who love golf courses as a vision of a pre-urbanized America, they cling to the tatty talismans of an era bygone and never to return.


Green visuals, quiet enjoyment, and high density


It might also mean a more unapologetically urban architecture. Modernist developments like Abode in Cambridgeshire and New Islington in Manchester—bold shapes, big windows, buildings at ease with themselves—show the way.


Once you’re inside, the outside is merely optimal and auditory


While better architecture will make the post-development property visually settle in to its neighborhood, for that to happen there must first be the authority to build, and it has been the conscious and consistent policy of many jurisdictions to make such density unthinkable by the effective expedient of down-zoning everything:


[Los Angeles’s unaffordability] is in large part the result of shifts in zoning rules over the past 50 years. In 1960 Los Angeles had a population of 2.5m and a [zoning] capacity for 10m residents.

 In fact, that’s worth its own digression:



[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]