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You may already have read economist Ed Glaeser’s long Atlantic cover story about why skyscrapers are great. It’s pretty much a reprint of a chapter in his just-published book, Triumph of the City, which has already been regurgitated in high places. The book itself is a good, quick read that supports things I’ve said about the need to eliminate building height restrictions and the value of density. It also makes arguments on behalf of the city I hadn’t seen before, like the fact that large numbers of poor people are in some ways a sign of vitality and opportunity rather than decay.
But like all polemics, it sometimes goes a little far in its advocacy for building as much and as tall as possible. In particular, Glaeser blames historic preservation bodies and stringent zoning regulations for impeding growth, and thinks that their authority should be curtailed:
My own preference is that in a city like New York, the landmarks commission should have a fixed number of buildings, perhaps five thousand, that it may protect. The commission can change its chosen architectural gems, but it needs to do that slowly. It shouldn’t be able to change its rules overnight to stop construction in some previously unprotected area. If the commission wants to preserve a whole district, then let it spread its five-thousand building mandate across the area. Perhaps five thousand buildings are too few, but without some sort of limit, the scope of any regulatory agency will try to constantly increase, either because of bureaucratic empire building or in response to community pressure.
In D.C., it’s true that neighborhood groups will sometimes try to use historic preservation rules to prevent development, and I’m sure various historic preservation review boards have protected buildings that really aren’t all that special. But ultimately, there shouldn’t be some arbitrary cap on the number of buildings that may be preserved—if something’s worth preserving, it’s worth preserving, no matter how many buildings have been previously designated. Moreover, Glaeser never mentions the tremendous value of historic buildings in stimulating reinvestment in lower income communities. Take the Anacostia historic district: Paired with grants to help rehabilitate beautiful but decaying old Victorian houses, the resulting image of care and prosperity makes for a much more attractive neighborhood, which in turn makes it economically feasible to build large residential projects nearby.
On the zoning issue, Glaeser decries onerous regulations that cost developers time and money. Instead of telling people what they can and can’t build, he suggests, companies should just pay off neighbors to compensate for the imposition.
Cities should replace the current lengthy and uncertain permitting process with a simple system of fees. If tall heights create costs by blocking light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. If certain activities are noxious to neighbors, then we should estimate the social costs and charge builders for them, just as we should charge drivers for the costs of their congestion. Those taxes could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as the neighbors who lose light from a new construction project.
Most zoning regulations are put in place for a reason: Setbacks are there to create wide sidewalks, floor area ratio requirements are there to prevent buildings from becoming too overbearing. If we think they should be relaxed—and many should—let’s do it. But should developers be able to build whatever they want by giving a one-time payout to the neighbors? That sacrifices comprehensive, intentional planning for a one-time infusion of cash, and later generations may not thank us. Furthermore, there are times when a huge building project could fundamentally changed the assets of neighboring business, as with the now-dead N Street Follies hotel, which would have overshadowed the Tabard Inn’s back patio. Businesses should have rights in these situations, and not just the right to get paid.
As a paragon of free market housing construction, Glaeser holds up Houston, where unfettered development has allowed about a million people to move there since 2000 on the cheap. But while I’m sure there are supply and demand dynamics at work here, could it be possible that housing in scorching Houston will just never be that expensive because it’s just not that nice a place to live? Or because essentially nonexistent zoning has allowed for the development of a haphazard, un-pedestrian-friendly cityscape? A growing body of research now supports the thesis that more people want walkable, mixed use communities with great public transit (and housing in those neighborhoods commands a premium). Cities can regulate in such a way that allows building on a large scale while shaping neighborhoods to keep them attractive in the longer term.
But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Glaeser disdains city planners, saying they should have less control over land use decisions. And, in a strangely contradictory paragraph (which also weirded out Stephen Smith) he says local communities should have more control, but not too much control:
Individual neighborhoods should have some clearly delineated power to protect their special character. People in some blocks might really want to exclude bars; people in others might want to encourage them. Rather than regulate neighborhoods entirely from the top down, it would make more sense to allow individual neighborhoods to craft their own, limited set of rules about building styles and uses that are adopted only with the approval of a very large set of residents. But communities should not have the power to completely prevent construction, by restricting heights or imposing excessive regulations, lest local communities become NIMBYist enclaves. Ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, should have more say over what happens next to them, but community control must unfortunately be limited, because local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences for banning building.
So neighborhoods should be able to keep out local businesses, and control other peoples’ remodels, as long as they can’t prevent density? I don’t understand how this is even a necessary tradeoff. Plus, it would seem like the bodies best equipped to understand the citywide consequences of various building projects would be city planners. Washington D.C.’s city planners, for one, deeply understand the need for the city to attract more residents, for buildings to have less parking, for public transit to be excellent. Others are not so enlightened. It’s not the centrality of planning that’s the problem, though—bad planning is just bad planning.
Glaeser tends toward the assumption that complicated regulations are necessarily anti-urban. But just like good schools, low crime, and affordable housing, designing with the public realm in mind—which developers are warming to, but don’t necessarily always do on their own—makes cities a viable alternative to the suburbs for all those folks who’d otherwise be carbon bigfoots. And that, as I understand it, is the whole point of Glaeser’s book.