Far be it from me to try to moderate a debate between two of my favorite big-time bloggers, but there’s something importantly right about what both Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum have to say about sprawl—even though they disagree with each other!

Matt points out that sprawl is enforced by all sorts of zoning codes and development restrictions that keep lots large, streets wide and winding, parking abundant, and homes well-separated from anything that someone would actually want to walk to.  In most parts of the country, you simply can’t build compact, walkable, mixed-use communities—it’s literally illegal. 

But as Kevin points out, a lot of the country is perfectly happy with that sort of zoning!!  Plenty of folks who live in a low-density suburb will fight hard to keep out apartments and commercial developments, and to keep parking abundant and free.  I’m sure that the asymmetry of losses and gains plays a role here:  humans are wired to fear losses more than they seek gains, so the possibility that a zoning change might hurt property values looms larger than the possibility of property value gains from having amenities nearby.

I’m not suggesting here that the preference for car-dependent suburbs is universal.  Far from it.  Market surveys show that somewhere around a third of Americans would like to live in a place where they could walk to most amenities— but there’s only enough of that kind of housing for a tenth of us, at most.

  • This mismatch between demand and supply is a big reason that housing in pedestrian-friendly places is often deemed “unaffordable”:  some people are excited enough about living in a walkable neighborhood that they’re willing to pay a premium to live there, even for a small home.

    The problem, then, is that the 20-25 percent of Americans who’d like to live in a compact neighborhood, but can’t, face an uphill battle if they want to change local zoning codes.  In their current neighborhoods they’re typically outnumbered by people who are more-or-less content  with zoning codes as they stand. 

    Some of that “contentment” is, of course, the result of various subsidies for sprawl—road, infrastructure, and service costs that people who live in low-density neighborhoods can pass off, at least in part, to others.  And I imagine that many folks who are just fine with living in a low-density suburb would be at least as happy under a different set of zoning laws; people are remarkably adaptable, and are actually pretty bad at predicting what they’ll enjoy.  Still, try suggesting putting a commercial development in a single-family neighborhood, and you’ll often be met with a mixture of apathy and outright hostility.

    In a way, this is all a massive governance problem.  Zoning codes enforce a sustained mismatch between supply and demand, but in any given jurisdiction it’s very hard to cobble together a majority (or, given the typically strident opposition to zoning changes, a supermajority) that’s necessary to change the status quo.

    I’ve got no comprehensive solutions here, but I do have a couple of suggestions.  First, policymakers who want to encourage compact development—if only to fix the market imbalance—can focus on boosting housing in places that are already walkable.  That’s the upshot of the downtown strategy in Seattle, and Eco-Density in Vancouver, and similar strategies in Portland:  they’re focusing new walkable development in places that are already pedestrian friendly, and that don’t require zoning changes.  More generally, there are still plenty of places in and around walkable town centers that are able to support more housing, even without any changes to current zoning.  For boosting walkability, that’s the low-hanging fruit.

    Second, existing low-density commercial districts offer good opportunities for residential redevelopment.  The new housing development next to Northgate Mall in Seattle was apparently caught in the downdraft of the economic crash in 2008.  But it’s still a pretty good model for the kind of development that can create walkable housing close to transit and services.  And really, any place where there’s acres of mostly-empty parking lots on a commercial strip offers  opportunities to create new, pedestrian oriented development.  (For more ideas in this vein, check out Retrofitting Suburbia.)

    And lastly, people ought to put a lot of thought about how to talk about the upsides of walkable neighborhoods.  “Density” and “upzoning” strike fear into lots of hearts.  But “offering choices” is usually seen as a good thing.  Perhaps simply describing changes to zoning laws as opening up new choices—people more options for people to shop, more options for getting from place to place, and more options to build smaller homes in suburban neighborhoods that can give economical living space for residents’ adult kids and aging parents—might help break some logjams.