In the National Review, a conservative American magazine, Reihan Salam takes a look at the confused state of the American debate over intensification. His article, entitled “The Great Suburbia Debate” criticises the position taken by Joel Kotkin, a long-time campaigner for low-density suburban development. He writes:
Though I’m an admirer of Kotkin, and though I can’t speak for every conservative who has made the case for denser development, he gets a number of important things wrong…
For example, Kotkin claims that “some conservatives” (again, no names) have been “lured by their own class prejudice” into turning against market forces. “In reality,” Kotkin writes, “imposing Draconian planning is not even necessary for the growth of density.” Of course, this is exactly the argument that Edward Glaeser makes in The Triumph of the City, a manifesto for the pro-market, pro-density right. “In places that have both liberal planning regimes and economic growth, such as Houston and Dallas,” he observes, “there has been a more rapid increase in multifamily housing than in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.” Indeed, this is why many conservatives, myself included, have explicitly argued that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles should look to the liberal planning regimes of Houston and Dallas as a model. (To be clear, by “liberal” planning regimes, Kotkin means less-restrictive, more market-oriented planning regimes, and so do I.)
The global cities that manage to be both highly productive and affordable, like Tokyo and Toronto, tend to have liberal planning regimes, which allow for rapid growth of housing stock, and in particular of the multifamily housing stock. These regions are characterized by rapid housing development in the suburbs and in the urban core, and their “suburbs” tend to be more urban than low-density suburbs in the U.S. governed by stringent planning regimes that tightly restrict multifamily development. When Glaeser makes the case for density, he does so not by calling for “imposing draconian planning” on cities and towns. Rather, he explicitly calls for the relaxation of land-use regulation.
Kotkin relies heavily on the work of Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant who seems to believe that denser development is necessarily a product of central planning. In desirable regions, however, less restrictive planning regimes will naturally lead to higher densities, as property owners will naturally seek to maximize the value of their investments. Restrictive land-use regulations tend to limit density, not impose it on unwilling landowners.
Salam’s article is excellent and I recommend reading it in full. I pulled out these excerpts as they highlight a few essential facts that often go missing from the debate over urban policy:
- Denser development cannot be imposed by fiat – it will happen if and only if there is market demand for it (as there often is in places that are accessible to jobs and amenities). If nobody wants to buy apartments, then no apartments will get built!
- Urban planners can’t simply require people to build at higher densities – but they can limit density to below what the market wants.
- The rising demand for higher density development isn’t a market distortion, but evidence that the market is working.
In short, we must interpret rising population densities as the result of many individual decisions rather than the whim of an urban planner. My research shows that population densities are rising rapidly in Auckland and several other large NZ cities, which suggests that we’re voting heavily for density with our feet and our wallets. This is, as Salam suggests, a natural outcome of market forces and should be accepted with equanimity. We should recognise this demand where it exists and make complementary public investments in walking and cycling facilities and public transport.
Lastly, I’d note that people from all across the political spectrum should be able to appreciate cities. As Jane Jacobs observed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a good urban neighbourhood demonstrates many of the virtues that conservatives celebrate, such as small business ownership, a close-knit community that watches out for itself, and independent-minded civil society (often battling against big government bureaucracy in the form of overreaching traffic engineers).
As a result, we often see centre-right mayors implementing good urban policies. Big-city mayors such as New York’s Michael Bloomberg, London’s Boris Johnson, and Buenos Aires’ Mauricio Macri have been right at the forefront of the movement for better cities. They’ve realised that better cities are more prosperous, and that it’s possible to improve a city by improving the choices available to people.