Libertarians And The Sprawl

Heather Horn has the round-up.

James Howard Kunstler:

On Mar 3, 2010, at 4:52 PM, Lott, Maxim wrote:

Hi Howard,

John Stossel of the FOX Business Network is doing a show this Friday at 6pm on zoning. We’re going to be comparing zoning rules in Cleveland and Houston, and will also have Randal O’Toole on the show. He will say that we need to get rid of zoning because it gives the government planners too much control.

Max–
I was on a John Stoessel ABC show a few years ago and I consider him a completely unethical person, since he used me as a straw man and distorted everything I had to say — in the editing process.
Randall O’Toole is a shill for the sprawl-builders. You deserve him.
Please tell Stoessel he can kiss my ass.

Jim
James Howard Kunstler
“It’s All Good”

John Stossel at ABC:

Suburban sprawl is evil. The unplanned growth, cookie cutter developments is gobbling up all the space and ruining America. Right?

Wrong.

But in town after town, civic leaders talk about going to war! They want “smart growth.” They say sprawl has wrecked lives.

So-called experts on TV say all sorts of nasty things about the changing suburban landscape.

James Kunstler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” said, “Most of the country really is living in these mutilated and defective environments.”

Kunstler and others say suburbs are despicable places. He calls them, “uniformly, low-grade miserably designed environments that make people feel bad.” Even ABC News’ “Nightline” ran a program called “America the Ugly.”

What upsets many critics most is the loss of open space.

But is open space disappearing in America? No, that’s a total myth. More than 95 percent of the country is still undeveloped.

You see it if you cross this country. Only a small percentage is developed. Yes, in some places, like some suburbs, there are often huge traffic jams.

But lots of people, while they don’t like the traffic or the long commute to work, like where they live.

“I like that I have a nice piece of property, and I have privacy,” one woman said.

Another said, “Even with all the congestion, it’s a wonderful lifestyle.”

The anti-sprawl activists say more Americans should live the way I do. I live in an apartment, and most days I walk or ride my bike to work. But should everyone have to live the way I do?

I like my lifestyle, but I chose it, voluntarily. Other people want to make different choices the critics don’t call “ideal.”

Austin Bramwell at The American Conservative:

For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.  If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development.  First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle.  Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.

Second, the few places in America that have a distinctive character are also exceedingly expensive. John Stossel himself admits to living in an apartment and walking to work most days. Now, I don’t know where exactly Mr. Stossel lives, but it sounds as if he lives in Manhattan, where residential space costs over $1000 a square foot (that means a two-bedroom apartment where a family of four could fit costs at least $1.5 million).  If Mr. Stossel’s lifestyle, as he puts it, is less popular than the suburban lifestyle, then why does his cost so much more? He apparently never asks himself the question.

Jim Henley:

I don’t disagree with Bramwell’s thesis, but I think anti-anti-sprawl libertarianism will exist so long as there are libertarians who hate hippies more than they hate central planning – which is to say, it will exist for a long time.

Jamelle:

John Stossel, like a lot of self-descrbed libertarians*, isn’t so much “libertarian” as he is an anti-liberal. He is reflexively opposed to anything that liberals favor, even when there is significant overlap in goals and implementation. Which is how he finds himself in the strange place of defending a status quo that is just as statist, if not more so, than the imagined alternatives. If liberals like it, then it must be bad, regardless of the merits.

Matthew Yglesias:

Not being a libertarian or a conservative of any sort, I’m happy to just take it for granted that you’re never going to have a genuinely “small government” approach to the built environment. But I would sort of be interested to see, as an exercise, someone try to put together a serious, genuinely libertarian view of how cities and towns should be built—what’s the absolute minimum we could get away with.

But whatever that would be, it’s certainly not what we have in America’s sprawlier places. Take the thrilling Maricopa County Zoning Ordinance in Phoenix and it’s suburbs. Chapter 6 covers single family residential zones. You’ve got your R1-35 areas in which you need 35,000 square feet of land per dwelling unit, your R1-10 areas where you need 10,000 feet, and then separate zones for 8,000 square feet per unit; 7,000 square feet per dwelling; and 6,000 square feet per dwelling.

If you want to build a mult-family structure in those places, you can’t. If you find yourself an R2 zone you can, but it can only be a two family structure. Also your building can’t be taller than 40 feet, “There shall be a front yard having a depth of not less than 20 feet,” the year yard needs to be 25 feet, and the side yard needs to be at least 5 feet. On average, buildings can only occupy at most 50 percent of the lot. And there have to be two parking spaces per dwelling unit. And you can go so on and so forth throughout the whole thing. The point, however, is that walkable urbanism is illegal in most of the county. Not just giant skyscrapers, but anything even remotely non-sprawling.

Atrios:

Despite my efforts on this humble blog, I still think many people don’t quite get that, as Yglesias says, walkable urbanism is illegal to build in most places, often including existing walkable urban areas (meaning, new development faces restrictions that make it impossible to build new or redo existing areas in walkable fashion).

But the point of the post is to respond to a commenter over there who brings up Houston. Houston doesn’t have zoning, though deed restrictions set up a kind of de facto zoning to some exist, but it still has land use regulations and building codes. Zoning and land use generally get jumbled up, but zoning is more about what kind of function you can have on a property, while land use restrictions are about what kind of building you can build, whether there are setback and parking requirements, etc. So building walkable urbanism in Houston is as difficult (illegal) as anywhere.

E.D. Kain:

Sprawl is a result of massive statist interventions into our culture and society, and its symptoms are equally enormous.  Everything that conservatism has historically stood for is undermined by sprawl.  It is not only the physical manifestation of our decline, it is a poison which continues to contribute to that decline.  Its repercussions can be felt in our discourse, in our speech, in our way of thinking.  This is not merely a matter of aesthetically pleasing communities, but of communities which allow individuals to be a part of the whole.  I doubt this is sustainable, this suburban maze – in any way: fiscally, socially, spiritually.  It is, as James Howard Kunstler called it, “a peculiar blip in human experience.”

Rod Dreher:

But isn’t sprawl just another manifestation of the hypermobility that contemporary Americans see as a fundamental right? I might well dislike urban sprawl, but given that I haven’t shown any sense of being loyal to a place, I’m as implicated in the general rootlessness that Erik decries as any denizen of sprawlsville. Still, I am increasingly convinced that Erik is right about the need to pioneer a kind of anti-political politics to change the culture.

UPDATE: Randal O’Toole at Cato

Yglesias responds to O’Toole

UPDATE #2: Kevin Drum

Ryan Avent

UPDATE #3: Yglesias responds to Drum

Drum responds to Yglesias

Avent responds to Drum

UPDATE #4: Samuel Goldman at PomoCon

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2 responses to “Libertarians And The Sprawl

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