By: David A. Smith
[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.]
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
The Deserted Village (1770), Oliver Goldsmith
As we’ve seen in a post scarcely shorter than a zoning appeals process, voters say they want something, then adopt measures that have never brought them what they say they want, and for the simplest of reasons.
Vote the person, not the color?
Sources used in this post
California Planning and Development Report (April 6, 2015); cobalt blue font
Curbed LA (April 8, 2015; forest-green font)
Economist (February 11, 2017; black font)
MyNewsLa.com (February 25, 2017; crimson font)
Economist (March 2, 2017; navy blue font)
10. Voters lie to themselves
In the modern world, we don’t really want to live in the country, we want to live in the city – and the proof is that we do live in cities, for the work and life opportunities they provide.
Britain has plenty of countryside for those who want to live there, as anyone who has flown over it will attest.
But we want our cities to feel like the country.
You have no idea how much it costs to look simple and authentic
We want our cities to have all the country’s benefits: green space, walkability, nature, safety, clean air and sunshine. That’s why we sample the country at intervals – weekends, vacations – and when we go, we bring the city’s benefits to the country, and when they’re done, we pack them up and return to our workaday world.
So we imagine the countryside will be there for us, just a short ride away, and because our imagination is, well, imaginative, we airbrush all the country’s imperfections, all the hassles of travel, all the tedium involved. In this the media encourage us:
You can’t escape your fete
Much of the country’s aesthetic and entertainment culture offers them seductive morsels of rural life. Hit television programmes like “The Great British Bake Off” and “Springwatch” constitute one example.
Here we are, completely alone in nature – except for the camera crew, wardrobe, catering …
Of course we daydream about what we do not have:
New housing estates are pastiches of village architecture, all small windows, frilly gables and pitched roofs. The National Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving old houses and attractive landscapes, has more members than all the political parties put together.
I note for the record that the Boss and I are life members in the Royal Oak Foundation, which the National Trust set up as a US 501c3 to enable folks like us to make our donations tax-deductible. Fortunately, the NT’s campaigning relates mainly to encouraging rich old duffers to gift it property, preferably with an upkeep endowment.
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
A better comparison, though perhaps not as familiar to the Economist, is to AARP (the political behemoth formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), which throws about its gray weight whenever and wherever it can.
We control the tea trade, you hear?
NIMBYs and frustratingly archaic zoning codes have made it unnecessarily difficult to build densely in Los Angeles, and single family houses have meanwhile eaten up nearly all of the land there is to eat.
What we’re left with today is a city in which “single-family homes control 80% of L.A.’s residential land while representing a far smaller proportion of the population,” as noted by Josh Stephens in his well-reasoned breakdown of the situation.
Mr. Stephens formerly edited the California Planning and Development Report, which appears to be a thoroughly researched and well-focused niche publication that is, unfortunately if understandably, not free.
Stevens’s publication thinks people value what they pay for
11. Just how much is a back yard worth to you?
CP&DR’s pay wall demonstrates the resonant questions:
1. If it’s a public good, must it be free?
2. And if it’s free to the user, how is it paid for?
Those who vote against development pay nothing for doing so – in fact, they are rewarded for keeping out others, because:
1. The urban benefits they seek are deflected into adjacent communities.
2. Their own property rises in value.
Just as the Economist long ago endorsed road pricing, it is now tiptoeing up introducing (gasp) market-reform dynamics in public land:
Don’t mind me, I’m a free resource
The political deadlock behind the housing crisis will only be broken when Britain comes to terms with its urban character. That might mean better valuing city gardens and parks, which support more biodiversity than heavily agricultural land.
‘Better valuing’ is an interesting phrase – are we all to be taxed as a surcharge (akin to a Community Preservation Act), are the abutters to be surcharged, so might park maintenance be the responsibility of a neighborhood-level analog of a Business Improvement District?
At least the Economist recognizes that Britain has a genuine crisis:
Merely loosening the corsets would mean millions [of pounds’ new development value], the order of magnitude at which any solution lies.
Release your building inhibitions
Barney Stringer, a [British] regeneration expert, reckons liberalising 60% of the green belt within 2km (1.2 miles) of a railway station would create room for 2m homes.
The solution, in other words, is structural – markets can solve a shortage only when it’s legal to build, and where it b4ecomes legal, there will be building:
Alan Mace of the London School of Economics suggests such numbers could be reached by opening up corridors along big transport routes, such as the London-Cambridge road on which Harlow lies. New “garden cities” on these arteries, like Ebbsfleet in Kent, are part of the answer.
Building in the path of growth: what an idea!
With a shiny station
And here comes the housing
Increasing density is the only way out (other than pestilence, or a crime wave, perhaps) –
Paging the urban planning firm of Swift and Scrooge!
– but weaning Angelenos away from single-family housing will be tough. “A good place to start is for politicians never again to utter the words ‘preserve neighborhood character’,” says Jan Breidenbach of the University of Southern California. “In reality what they’re saying is, ‘Keep out’.”
Jan’s able to infer Keep out
Slowly, people are realizing this – and maybe things are changing.
12. Growth is green, and some people get it
Sooner or later, there needs to be a change in how Los Angeles deals with development and the single-family mafia.
Too many years’ working in affordable housing have taught me that any committee of wise heads will always come up with a well-reasoned, thoughtful solution that they will then fiercely defend – even when it fails miserably, as evidence by these recent stories:
How Much Does Los Angeles Have to Build to Get Out of Its Housing Crisis? [Curbed LA]
Los Angeles Housing Now More Screwed Up Than San Francisco [Curbed LA]
Los Angeles’s Big Plan For Pulling Out of Its Housing Crisis [Curbed LA]
Not just the Economist, many others of my and the succeeding generation who spent their professional lives planning the future and then making their plans into legal and programmatic realities are coming around to the view that we all planned ourselves into a mess:
Vote Yes on the man, No on the measure?
Mayor Garcetti has a plan to build a lot more housing; now the city and region need to actually make it happen. Otherwise this guy might just build a single house from Santa Monica to Alhambra.
As I noted way back in the beginning of this post, the Mayor was campaigning not onily for his own re-election but also to defeat Measure S:
A proposal will appear on ballots in Los Angeles on March 7th along with choices for the city’s mayor.
It was a stalking horse petition that under the guise of ‘good government’ sought to downzone the virtually entire city of Los Angeles, using the same specious sophistry that prevailed in 1986’s Proposition U:
Those on the other side of the argument, who include the mayor, Eric Garcetti, say the measure would affect most new development in the city.
Fortunately, even as Mayor Garcetti was handily re-elected, and then carried through on a campaign promise to bar private meetings between developers and the city planning commissions,iMeasure S lost all across Los Angeles, which “paves the way for Mayor Eric Garcetti to continue pursuing his vision of a denser, more transit-oriented Los Angeles.”
[Paves the way for transit-oriented? Block that metaphor! — Ed.]
Zoning in America is 101 years old, and it’s beyond obsolete: two-dimensional in thinking, adopted as a defense first against industrialization and then against emigration of ‘those people’ into our neighborhoods. It’s not a force for shaped change; it’s a force for unshaped stasis and urban strangulation. What if zoning were gone? Land would be public or private:
· If public, land would be preserved and publicly maintained.
· If private, land could be developed up to any height consistent with public safety.
I’m not ready to embrace such a radical deconstruction, but I’m ready to think about it – because one way or another, more housing for greater London isn’t a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
The Deserted Village (1770), Oliver Goldsmith