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November 02, 2002

How Berkeley Hates the Environment

Not to diss my old home, but this article on a new initiative to ban building tall buildings in the city scratches an old beef I have against much of the supposedly pro-environment urban left.

They hate the environment.

Oh, they don't think they do, but for all they disdain suburban sprawl, there are too many restrictions on growth in places like Berkeley, so of course folks flee to sprawling suburbs in search of affordable housing. With the median price of a Bay Area home topping $417,000, families go farther and farther afield, feeding accelerating sprawl, environmentally costly commutes, and loss of undeveloped land.

The raw fact is that many urban activists in places like Berkeley end up prizing the quaintness of their neighborhoods over promoting socially responsible growth of high-density apartments. They are de facto blocking the expansion of mass transit urban commuters in favor of SUV-driving suburbanites.

One of my most libertarian positions is almost blanket opposition to zoning controls. In cities, they block needed high-density growth and in richer suburbs, they are tools of elitists and racists keeping out low-income folks.

Posted by Nathan at November 2, 2002 10:01 AM

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The problem is that even in the absence of zoning controls developers in residential areas establish restrict resale agreements which act as defacto zoning regulations which can be even *more* inflexible than a zoning board.

Posted by: Atrios at November 2, 2002 10:28 AM

I live in Portland, where one of the strongest anti-expansion regional laws in the country has us getting ever-denser; density is the goal, in fact.

Given how much quaintness and charm Brooklyn and Manhattan have (far more than most cities ever manage), I don't see any contradiction between wanting "quaitness" - which we could use many kinder words for, such as "livability" - and density.

Posted by: Ampersand at November 2, 2002 12:50 PM

I should have cited Portland as an honorable exception to the Berkeley example. And their approach has not led to faster growth in housing prices than other regions, at least according to the Fannie May Foundation.

I agree with Atrios that local covenants can be as bad or worse than zoning laws, so banning many such covenants might be where I'd differ from the libertarian types. "Dead hand" restrictions against incoming growth is bad policy in my mind.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at November 2, 2002 01:08 PM

I also live in Portland, but Ampersand got there first. But the dynamic is the same here -- the pro-density planners are under tremendous pressure from developers and also neighborhood nimbies.

In order to make a city work, you really need to have a critical mass of people who strongly prefer to live in a city (as I do). Rather than to duplicate a suburb or small town by building walls around their neighborhood.

Posted by: zizka at November 2, 2002 02:59 PM

I mostly agree with Nathan, but my anti-zoning views HAVE been somewhat moderated by my Mom, who does zoning law work for my home town. The line between environmental/nuisance and zoning regulation is NOT that clear, and recent Takings decisions do suggest the need for pro-regulation folks to support zoning, at least against some attacks.

Anyway, I think one can oppose anti-density zoning without ignoring the fact that some zoning deals with legit problems of externalities.

Posted by: Jeff at November 3, 2002 08:42 PM

I agree. I've been preaching on this same subject for many moons, and I think that such practices give an unfortunate credibility to David Brooks bo-bo thesis (though Brooks attacks the Berkeley sensibility only to defend sprawl).

That said, I think there's a balance. I lived in Chicago for six years, and I can say that the city remained extremely liveable during the 1990s boom because the political establishment favored development. That said, the city was not like Houston, where anything goes. Chicago has zoning boards that place reasonable limits on gentrification without stifling construction (unlike say Boston, SF).

Posted by: AWC at November 4, 2002 10:36 AM

Right to Atrios and Ampersand. A number of Texas cities -- includiong Houston, IIRC -- have no significant zoning restrictions. Sprawl has not abated.

Posted by: JW Mason at November 4, 2002 01:32 PM

Also, here in NYC, zoning laws are essential in preserving what manufacturing we have left.

That said, I agree with your larger point.

Posted by: JW Mason at November 4, 2002 01:34 PM

Of course, Houston housing prices are significantly less than the national average. See here.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at November 4, 2002 01:44 PM

Housing prices in Houston may be below the national average now, but that seems destined not to last. Houston's median home prices grew at the eighth fastest rate in the country in the mid-to-late-nineties.

That said, I am 90%, at least, in agreement with your post. We need more affordable housing in this country. That means more density. Supposedly green liberals and libertarian conservatives have long joined in an unholy and cynical alliance against density to artifically prop up their property values.

Posted by: aretino at November 8, 2002 11:45 PM

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